February 9, 2016

How the World Bank is relaxing its human rights standards

How the World Bank is relaxing its human rights standards

New policies could maintain the World Bank’s “human rights free zone,” experts warn


As the World Bank is updating its policies to protect societies and the environment, experts and non-governmental organizations warn that a watering down of the standards could harm the vulnerable in developing countries and undermine human rights.


The World Bank is currently consulting with governments and other stakeholders on the Environmental and Social Framework – a set of rules developed to replace the existing Safeguard Policies, which is intended to protect human rights and minimize the impact of the World Bank’s projects.


“While our current safeguard policies have served the development community well for more than two decades (…), the world has changed and new and varied development demands and challenges have arisen over time,” the World Bank explains on its website. The reform addresses topics such as climate change and human rights.


“The issues our clients face have shifted dramatically, and their ability to manage them – as well as the Bank’s – has significantly increased.”


The World Bank, therefore, developed the new Environmental and Social Framework (ESF) to be more flexible. Moreover, arguing that borrowing countries’ national capabilities have improved, the future policies focus on the responsibility of individual countries.


The Bank initiated the reform in 2012 and presented the first draft proposal in 2014 for which it faced strong criticism. A second draft was released in July 2015.


During the third phase of the consultations, which will close on March 15, the World Bank is consulting in 33 countries.


While some issues in first draft have been addressed in the second version, experts and non-governmental organizations still have expressed their concerns about the new Environmental and Social Framework.


Clear and mandatory requirements are lacking in the proposed new framework, said Korinna Horta of the German NGO “Urgewald” at a consultation meeting in Brussels last January. Actually, the new standards would largely depend on the rules set by the borrowing country.


With regard to workers’ rights, for example, the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining would only be required by the World Bank, if these rights are already fully protected in national law – which is not the case in many countries. The proposed framework would not make them mandatory.


Consequently, the new framework would lead to different standards across countries and projects.


However, “Standards that are discretionary are not standards, except in name,” three experts and former World Bank employees wrote in a recent op-ed. “The World Bank now proposes replacing its safeguard policies with weaker and aspirational ‘standards’,” they argued.


For example, in the future there would be no requirement to allow affected communities to comment on the environmental impact assessment before the World Bank decides on financing a project. According to Horta, this is likely to lead the World Bank to approve an increasing number of projects with a damaging impact on communities and the environment.


The World Bank did not respond to the accusations.


The discussion on the Environmental and Social Framework comes at a time the World Bank’s human rights record is under scrutiny.


In September, the UN has published a report, which condemned the Bank’s approach to human rights. “For most purposes, the World Bank is currently a human rights-free zone,” the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, said. “In its operational policies, in particular, it treats human rights more like an infectious disease than universal values and obligations.”


One of the reasons, the UN argued, could be the institution’s agreement, which contains several provisions known as the “political prohibition.” Article IV, section 10 provides that: “The Bank and its officers shall not interfere in the political affairs of any member.”


Therefore, officials have argued in the past, only economic decisions should be taken into account when decisions on development projects are taken. In the mid-1960s, for example, the UN General Assembly criticized South Africa for Apartheid and Portugal for its colonial policies and requested its agencies, among them the World Bank, to deny assistance to those countries. According to the UN report, however, the World Bank in 1967 refused to comply with this resolution on the basis of its approach of non-interference.


The emergence of the currently existing Safeguard Policies marked a paradigm shift after the Bank’s projects attracted criticism for the damage caused.


The move to reduce the environmental and human rights protection is being seen as a reaction to the recent establishment of other development banks, for example the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The growing competions between institutions and donors makes the World Bank only one of several options for both lenders and borrowers: this makes ways more difficult to keep standards high and strict.

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Benjamin Durr

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