Where will the World Bank Stand on Human Rights?
The World Bank is entering the final stages of reviewing its processes for assessing and managing social and environmental risk at a project level. Originally announced in 2011, consultations on the first draft close on March 1st 2015. The safeguard review process is then expected to come to an end at some point in 2015, after consultations on a second draft, and the new safeguard system to be enforced from January 2016.
The Bank has received significant criticism from academics, international human rights bodies, indigenous peoples and civil society for the proposed draft of its Environmental and Social Framework, released in July 2014. There have been substantive concerns not only with the proposed policy and standards, but also at the process of consultation and engagement with major rights-holders and stakeholders in the review. While powerful statements and critiques are available here, this article focuses on the human rights implications of the current draft.
The Bank’s new safeguard proposal contains two separate sections, the Environmental and Social Policy (ESP) and the Environmental and Social Standards (ESS). These new proposed safeguards will require new and significantly improved processes of implementation to address serious weaknesses identified in prior evaluations of Bank safeguard implementation, renewed attention to staff incentives and a radical move towards linking up all levels of Bank risk assessment and evaluation.
The current World Bank safeguards are out of date and out of sync with the current state of development thinking, human rights law, safeguard practices in private and public finance and face serious shortcomings in implementation. The 2006-2008 Learning Review of OP 4.10, for instance, highlighted some extraordinary lapses in implementation, finding, among other things, that where rights to lands and resources were directly implicated, only a small minority of projects addressed these rights adequately.
Adjusting the content alone is simply not enough. The next phase of creating the framework through which new safeguards will be implemented is absolutely critical to the success of the safeguards, and should be conducted in an open and transparent manner.
Pressure is mounting on the Bank to radically rethink the way in which the current proposals for a new environmental and social safeguard system will work. From the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), an extraordinary 27 special mandate holders collectively wrote to the President of the World Bank to highlight their concerns. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, through its Working Group on Indigenous Populations, has formally communicated to the President of the World Bank highlighting critical issues with the proposals contained in ESS7 on indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples from Tanzania, who stand to suffer greatly from some of the new changes, wrote again to the Bank. These voices stand among many concerns with the framework of implementation, the content of individual standards and the nature of the Bank’s stance on fundamental human rights.
Human rights for all
Within the new draft documents, human rights are mentioned three times. The statement of intent asserts “the Bank’s operations are supportive of human rights and will encourage respect for them in a manner consistent with the Bank’s Articles of Agreement”. In ESS3 on labour standards, it is stated that “workers will be provided with information that … will set out their rights under national labor and employment law”; and finally in ESS7 it is recognised that indigenous peoples’ “economic, social, and legal status frequently limits their capacity to defend their rights to, and interests in, land, territories and natural and cultural resources”.
In only one of these instances does the reference to rights come with an identified responsibility – in the case of worker’s rights where the worker must be adequately informed of those rights by the borrower. In the other two cases the commitments are fuzzy. The Bank argues that human rights are protected in practice without explicit reference, but this argument comes up against serious challenges. One such challenge concerns the inclusion of a so-called ‘alternative approach’ wherein a government can request a waiver of the entirety of ESS7, the standard on indigenous peoples. While recognising the need for specific protections for indigenous peoples, the Bank simultaneously introduces a mechanism to suspend such protections, a suspension likely to be requested by the very governments from which the protection is most needed.
The alternative approach must be removed
It is our view that the inclusion of this alternative approach undermines any claim that the Bank could make to leading in the field of social and environmental protections, and puts paid to any argument that the Bank is protecting rights in practice, if not in explicit reference. The retention of this proposal directly places at risk indigenous peoples across the globe, and cannot be allowed to stand if the rights and interests of indigenous peoples are to be protected in the new safeguard system.