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World Bank: A successful case of human rights immunization

According to a recent human rights report, “in its operational policies, in particular, [the World Bank] treats human rights more like an infectious disease than universal values and obligations.”

No, the recent report was not from a health agency, but from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Mr. Philip Alston. In the report, he summarizes the World Bank (“the Bank”)’s practice on the matter in four propositions: “(a) pay lip service to human rights in official settings, as long as there are no consequences; (b) acknowledge the theoretical significance of human rights in studies and analyses of issues in relation to which they are incontestably relevant; (c) ensure that, as a general rule, the Bank does not engage with any aspect of human rights in its actual operations and lending; and (d) be prepared to make exceptions when political imperatives require it, even if that involves a high degree of inconsistency.”

The document begins with a brief history of the World Bank approach’s to human rights. The Bank moved from a strict interpretation of the Articles of Agreement’s prohibition of political involvement as banning any human rights consideration – to one where issues of human rights were largely allowed, as long as they had an economic impact. However, a key problem with the Bank’s position on human rights has been a double standard it creates: “As the legal approach of the World Bank to human rights currently stands, the most problematic aspect is that it is based on double standards. On the one hand, successive General Counsels have found convincing rationales to facilitate the wish of the management to work on issues as diverse as corruption, money laundering, terrorist financing, governance and the rule of law, but on the other hand, human rights remains on a very short blacklist…,” the report says.

Despite copious rhetoric and even policy studies by the Bank that highlight links between human rights and various development objectives, the Special Rapporteur’s analysis leaves no doubt as to the scarce impact on the Bank’s operations: “Bank-financed projects and programmes go to great lengths to avoid any operational references to human rights.”

The Special Rapporteur singles out the regime for environmental and social safeguards, which contains no explicit human rights policy and only one reference to human rights (which can be found in operational policy 4.10 on indigenous peoples). It is worth noting he is referring to the existing regime, which is expected to undergo changes soon. Experts have criticized the reformed version of the safeguards, from a human rights perspective, as falling even shorter from applicable standards.

The document cites six factors that justify the World Bank’s aversion to human rights. First, an institutional culture that seeks to present the Bank as a technical agency “above the political fray” and that incentivizes pushing money out the door.

Second, a misplaced legalism, which leads the Bank to trea “one of the most complex and contentious issues confronting the Bank in the twenty-first century, namely a human rights policy” not on the basis of any detailed legal or empirical analysis, but on the basis of a legal opinion rooted in the politics of the last century.

Third, debate about cultural relativism, according to which human rights discourse “may be perceived as imposing Western values on non-Western countries.” But, the Special Rapporteur notes, particular interpretations of human rights will always be contested, and so are those of many other issues that lie at the heart of the Bank’s work such as poverty and corruption.

Other factors have to do with the fear that sanctions may become the tool of choice to apply human rights in operations, that the Bank may be pressed into some sort of global human rights cop, and that it may be crippled in its competition with other lenders due to human rights-related cumbersome requirements. The entry into scene of new development banks such as the New Development Bank –founded by the BRICS- and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank have bolstered this latter claim.

The report makes a compelling case why a new approach to human rights is desirable. Among the arguments, it cites the changes in international law and in the practice of international organizations occurred since the 1980s. The former no longer support the notion of human rights as merely political considerations. The latter make the Bank, which may have been in good company in the 1980s, an outlier in the overall landscape of international organizations. This is even true in comparison with other Multilateral Development Banks: “A recent Bank study concluded that “[m]ost of the other MDBs refer to ‘human rights’ in supportive aspirational terms while recognizing the responsibility of clients to respect human rights,” the report says.

Citing evidence from World Bank internal reports that shows problems tied to specific projects, the document argues for an integrated policy on human rights as a necessary means for the Bank to achieve even its more modest aim of doing “no harm.”

The report concludes with a number of recommendations that concretely forebode what a process, and guiding parameters, could be for putting in place a human rights policy at the Bank.

One striking impression the report leaves is the remarkable resilience the Bank’s responses over the criticisms on the human rights front have shown, with variations barely noticeable.

But therein lies the greatest source of hope. However resilient the World Bank’s responses on the subject have been, the periodic re-emergence of the issue speaks of a matching resilience on its side, too. Mr Alston is not the first, and probably will not be the last, trying to “infect” the World Bank with human rights. As long as such attempts continue, the idea of human rights becoming endemic at the Bank may yet take hold.


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March 2017
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