World Bank scolded on human rights

By David Bosco

A few days ago, a group of United Nations human rights experts released a quite unusual letter that sharply criticized the World Bank for its treatment of human rights. More than two dozen UN special rapporteurs and other experts (including Points of Order blogger David Kaye) argued that draft Bank guidelines pay inadequate attention to rights:

Human rights are not merely a matter of sound policy, but of legal obligation. As an international organization with international legal personality, and as a UN specialized agency, the Bank is bound by obligations stemming not only from its Articles of Agreement, but also from human rights obligations arising under ‘general rules of international law’ and the UN Charter. Moreover, each of the 188 Member States of the World Bank has ratified at least one (and, in almost all cases, several) of the core international human rights treaties. Those States are also bound by human rights obligations stemming from other sources of international law. It is widely recognized that Member States should take their international human rights obligations into account when acting through an international organization such as the World Bank. States that borrow from the Bank also continue to be bound by their own international human rights obligations in the context of Bank financed development projects and the Bank has a due diligence responsibility not to facilitate the violations of their human rights obligations, or to otherwise become complicit in such violations.

The experts went on to explicitly reject the argument that human rights concerns are “political” considerations of the sort that the Bank’s underlying charter prohibits the institution from considering. Specifically, the Bank and its staff are admonished “not [to] interfere in the political affairs of any member; nor shall they be influenced in their decisions by the political character of the member or members concerned. Only economic considerations shall be relevant to their decisions, and these considerations shall be weighed impartially…” That provision, the experts wrote, “should be interpreted in the context of today’s international legal order, rather than that of the mid-1940s.”

The complaint that the Bank is unacceptably agnostic on questions of democracy and human rights is longstanding and has previously forced the institution into fairly awkward explanations of its policy. The Bank has not responded yet to the UN experts’ letter.

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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