THE World Bank's neglect of human rights of the poor and disadvantaged in general and that of the indigenous people in particular has been as well-known as disturbing. However, it is appalling that instead of making any serious effort to improve, it is reportedly moving further down the road to worsen its own records.
As a part of an exercise to review the Bank's Safeguard Policies and Environment and Social Framework, meant to prevent adverse implications on people and environment in the areas covered by Bank-funded projects, it is moving to options that may open floodgates of potentially devastating impact on indigenous people, the poor and environment. After receiving the draft document nearly a hundred NGOs and civil society networks from Asia, Africa, Latin America as well as Europe and North America sent protest letters to the Bank's president and Board and urged to refrain from adopting it.
In a submission to the Committee on Development Effectiveness of the WB's Board on July 30, 2014, on behalf of 84 indigenous people's organisations/institutions, and 79 support groups and individuals, the Asia Indigenous People's Pact have been “deeply dismayed by the overall weakening of the policy requirements for indigenous peoples with very serious implications, including the outright denial of the existence and rights of indigenous peoples under international human rights laws.” The WB has, however ignored these and many more outcries and cleared the draft for “broad public consultations,” which can only be eyewash before the proposals are adopted.
The draft proposes to move away from the requirement for Bank-funded projects to be in conformity with a specific set of processes and standards to be replaced by some vague and open-ended guidance. The worst implications of this shift, it is feared, will be on indigenous communities.
Presently, governments that receive Bank funds are under obligation to obtain free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from the indigenous people in the project area. Conducting impact assessment of projects is mandatory, so is preparing and disseminating specific plan of work to handle and mitigate those impacts and to ensure effective monitoring from the point of impacts.
The new proposals broadly retain these measures, but under cover of addressing implementation challenges and apparently to take into cognisance views of borrowing governments the Bank practically creates an option of totally disregarding those standards. According to a press statement issued by the Bank on July 30: “In exceptional circumstances when there are risks of exacerbating ethnic tension or civil strife or where the identification of Indigenous Peoples is inconsistent with the constitution of the country, in consultation with people affected by a particular project, we are proposing an alternative approach to the protection of Indigenous Peoples. But we should be clear that any alternative approach will only be adopted with approval from our Board, which represents all of our member countries.”
The Bank has clearly made a sweeping conclusion that all provisions of constitutions of all countries where it operates are fully democratic and respectful to international standards of human and indigenous rights. As if there are no countries in the world that have failed to provide constitutional recognition to their indigenous peoples; as if there are no indigenous communities around the world where systematic violation of whose basic rights by use of force by army, para-military forces and law enforcement agencies is the main reason behind “exacerbating ethnic tension or civil strife;” as if inconsistency of identification of Indigenous Peoples with some arbitrary and controversial provisions of the constitution is a sufficiently valid justification for the Bank to look for alternative approach of opting for other much less stringent standards.
The Bank is proposing not only to absolve itself of obligation to comply with international standards but also to stay away from defining any specific criteria of such alternative approach except for a full discretion given to the Bank's Board. If the proposal is pushed through the Bank will have the discretion to use whatever means it wishes to determine the validity of so-called borrower's concerns. In other words, if a borrowing government wants to undertake a project ignoring rights of the indigenous peoples in the project area, collusion may soon take place between the borrower and the lender as the latter may find it convenient to go ahead without caring about potential adverse implications for the indigenous communities.
According to the new draft, similar exemption is to be granted to Bank funded projects in general in infrastructure involving land administration and development that may cause involuntary resettlement and displacement of people.
As shocking as these proposed changes may be, it should not surprise anyone aware of the basic principle of any lender -- more lending brings more benefits. The more rigorous are standards to comply with, the less is the scope of lending business.
The Bank's track record in terms of human rights violations is well researched and documented. Human Rights Watch for instance, in a report published in 2013, concluded that the World Bank “neither acknowledged nor mitigated human rights risks in its programs.” The case studies that featured in the HRW report included a Bank-funded project for drug detention centres accused of forced labour, arbitrary detention and torture and an Ethiopian “villagisation” programme causing forced and violent relocation though it failed to deliver the avowed objective of improved service quality and infrastructure.
Other examples of World Bank's option of expanding its lending at the expense of human rights are not far to seek. In the Bank-funded Boeung Kak Lake project in Cambodia, residents were deprived of land rights when flooding caused by filling of the lake with sand forced families to leave their homes while others were compelled to accept compensation at much below the market rate.
The Bank was not bothered that the Kaptai Dam project funded by it not only caused gross violation of human rights of the indigenous community of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1960, displacing over 100,000 people and flooding a lion's share of cultivable land in the region, but also sowed the seeds of a conflict that is bleeding Bangladesh till date. The example created by this Bank-funded project has been systematically followed over the years to evict the indigenous people from their ancestral homes, to deprive them of fundamental rights to life and livelihood, to transform the demographic and socio-cultural landscape and to militarise the region.
Credible research has demonstrated how World Bank policies led to deliberate manipulation of market forces that destroyed economic opportunities and created a situation of famine and social despair that accelerated the process that leading to genocide. Hundreds of Mayans were massacred by military in Guatemala in 1982 for resisting eviction of innocent indigenous people designed to implement the Bank-funded Chixoy Dam. In Uganda 30,000 forest dwellers and peasants were evicted to implement the Kibale Forest and Game Corridor programme under the Bank-funded Forestry Rehabilitation Project.
The list is incomplete. The World Bank should face the mirror and opt for standards and practices to respect and uphold human rights as indispensable precondition for designing and implementing projects funded by it. They must ensure that no project is designed and implemented without conducting fully independent impact assessment in terms of human rights in general and rights of poor, marginalised and indigenous population in particular. The WB cannot be disrespectful to international human rights standards just because it needs to expand lending. It cannot, because it's funders -- people of its member countries -- have not given it the right to do so.
The writer is Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh and member of the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission.