On August 4, 2015, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (Special Rapporteur) submitted his report evaluating the World Bank’s human rights policy to the UN General Assembly. The World Bank, whose goals are to eradicate poverty and promote shared prosperity, spent $61 billion supporting developing countries last year. See UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (Philip Alston (Special Rapporteur)), A/70/274* (2015). [The Guardian] However, the Special Rapporteur’s report concludes that the World Bank’s policy regarding human rights is “incoherent, counterproductive, and unsustainable,” and this has generally created a “human rights-free zone.” [Open Democracy] In reaching this conclusion, the report examines the World Bank’s legal framework, policy analysis, and operations. The report emphasizes the need for the World Bank to adopt a comprehensive human rights policy, particularly because such a policy would require the institution to engage in a discussion of States’ obligations under international treaties and the interpretation of specific human rights, consider current development theory, and align itself with other lenders’ policies. The report concludes by making recommendations about the creation of a human rights policy at the World Bank. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, UN Doc. A/70/274*, 4 August 2015.
Human Rights Policy of the World Bank
The Special Rapporteur notes that the World Bank does not have a comprehensive human rights policy, but rather an inconsistent and fractured approach towards the fundamental rights of the individuals and communities its work affects. In reaching this conclusion, the report examines the World Bank’s legal policy, public relations, policy analysis, operations, and safeguards. See Report at para. 5.
The report states that several provisions in the Articles of Agreement of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) dictate that the World Bank shall not interfere with a country’s political issues and only take economic issues into consideration when making decisions. According to the Special Rapporteur, the World Bank’s General Counsels have interpreted these provisions inconsistently. For example, a legal opinion from January 2006 stated that the Bank could consider human rights violations when making decisions and aid countries in meeting their human rights obligations if doing so would have an economic impact, but in 2012 the World Bank distanced itself from that interpretation. A legal opinion from 2012 discussing the Bank’s involvement in criminal justice interventions defines development as referring to a number of issues, including education, governance, inclusion, participation, and accountability, but refrains from explicitly mentioning human rights. Additionally, the Special Rapporteur notes that the World Bank’s public relations statements, safeguard policies, and projects concerning gender-based violence generally avoid referring to a human rights framework. See id. at paras. 6-22, 29-33.
According to the report, even though the World Bank’s publications (e.g., World Development Report (2012), its joint publication with the World Health Organization (WHO) entitled World Report on Disability (2011), and its joint publication with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) entitled Integrating Human Rights into Development: Donor Approaches, Experiences, and Challenges (2013)) explicitly discuss the importance of prioritizing international human rights law with respect to development issues, these publications have not resulted in policy shifts within the World Bank. See id. at paras. 23-28.
The report notes that the World Bank has avoided creating a comprehensive human rights policy for a multiple reasons, including the pressure to approve loans as quickly as possible; inconsistent interpretations of the Articles of Agreement of the IBRD, which have allowed for the World Bank to address corruption, rule of law, and environmental degradation, but not human rights; the perception that the World Bank could impose Western values on non-Western countries; worries that World Bank sanctions may be and have been applied disproportionately to States that violate human rights; the fear that the World Bank could evolve into a “human rights cop;” and the perception that if the World Bank adopted a human rights policy it would be less competitive than other lenders. See id. at paras. 34-51.
The Need for a Human Rights Approach at the World Bank
The Special Rapporteur identifies six reasons why the World Bank should adopt a human rights policy. First, the report notes that an inconsistent, ad hoc approach to human rights does not benefit anyone. Second, the World Bank’s policies should reflect developments in international human rights law and particularly take into account that most countries are parties to multiple international human rights treaties. Third, the World Bank should transition to a human rights approach because many other international organizations and multilateral development banks have done so, which led to the UN Secretary-General’s adoption of the “Human Rights Up Front” initiative in 2013. Fourth, the report argues that the World Bank’s policies should reflect the findings of mainstream development theory. Fifth, the World Bank should develop a due diligence policy enabling it to reject projects that result in human rights violations. Sixth, the Special Rapporteur notes that if the World Bank does not change its policies, it will continue to neglect other sources of information, including the findings and recommendations of human rights treaty bodies, special procedures mandate holders, and the universal periodic review process of the Human Rights Council, which are relevant to understanding development issues. See id. at paras. 52-61.
The report goes on to discuss the impact that human rights policy would make in the World Bank’s operations. The Special Rapporteur emphasizes that a human rights framework includes the discussion of States’ obligations under international and regional instruments, the consideration of how human rights bodies committees and jurisprudence have interpreted specific rights, and the recognition of the individuals’ dignity. Moreover, the report states that a human rights framework includes the discussion of accountability and includes individuals in a debate about the allocation of resources. See id. at paras. 62-67.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The report concludes that the World Bank is generally a “human rights-free zone,” particularly as a result of its inconsistent interpretation of several provisions in the Articles of Agreement of the IBRD which dictate that the World Bank shall not interfere with a country’s political issues.
The Special Rapporteur makes a number of recommendations concerning the creation of a human rights policy at the World Bank, including the following:
- The President of the World Bank and staff should initiate a discussion about the development of a human rights policy.
- States should be consistent with their positions on human rights in forums and with respect to the World Bank.
- A discussion about a human rights policy should include the participation of relevant stakeholders, including civil society and human rights experts and mechanisms (e.g., the Human Rights Council).
- The World Bank should develop a consistent interpretation of provisions in the Articles of Agreement of the IBRD, including “political prohibition” and “economic considerations.”
- Acknowledge that human rights are relevant to the World Bank’s goals.
- The World Bank should develop a due diligence policy that states under what circumstances it will be unable to support particular projects.
- All stakeholders should examine the “sanctions” policy, particularly with respect to States that violate human rights.
- The World Bank should assist States in meeting their international human rights obligations, including by creating a program for States who want to create domestic mechanisms to incorporate human rights in their development policies.
- The World Bank should adopt a policy emphasizing that economic, social, and cultural rights are human rights.
- The World Bank should take into account policies of other multilateral lenders, including the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights is to study the relationship between extreme poverty and human rights, including the impact of discrimination on the situation of vulnerable groups, such as women, children, and persons with disabilities. Additionally, the Special Rapporteur identifies strategies for removing obstacles to the full enjoyment of human rights of those living in extreme poverty, assesses the implementation of the Second UN Decade for the Eradication of Poverty and submits recommendations on the realization of Millennium Development Goals.
To carry out that mandate, the Special Rapporteur performs a range of tasks, including undertaking fact-finding country visits, communicating with governments concerning alleged rights violations, and submitting activity reports to the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council. Philip Alston, a professor of law at New York University School of Law, currently serves as Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
For more information on the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and other special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.