Philip Alston is the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
Does it matter that the lead source of funding for, and thinking about, world development won’t go near human rights with a 10-foot pole?
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim spoke eloquently last month about the bank’s new commitment to end extreme poverty by 2030 and improve the plight of the poorest 40 percent in developing countries. In a speech at Howard University, he called for gender equity and access for the poor to food, shelter, clean water, sanitation, health care, education and jobs. But because of the bank’s long-standing aversion to discussing human rights, he never once used that forbidden phrase.
This omission didn’t prevent him, however, from invoking the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he called his childhood hero. In Kim’s words, the bank stands “in lockstep” with King’s agenda. “To paraphrase Dr. King, [the bank] will bend the arc of history toward justice.”
Kim’s analysis suggests that poverty eradication can be severed from the struggle for rights that defined everything King stood for. It is as though King’s “dream” was about the creation of a large and benevolent bureaucracy, perhaps based in Washington, that could, by working through governments and not talking about rights, bring prosperity and dignity to the poorest in our societies.
Why would the World Bank — whose own research on issues such as gender equality, post-conflict recovery, good governance, corruption and the rule of law has acknowledged the centrality of rights — shun them in this way? The official reason is that the bank’s 1944 Articles of Agreement forbid it from considering political matters. Human rights are seen to be in a wholly different category from the supposedly antiseptically apolitical work of the bank. This is nonsense, of course. Bank-focused nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have long since exposed the hypocrisy of this position.
So why does the bank continue to hide behind such legalistic puffery? First, when it adopted its current policy in the 1980s, many other international agencies were also wary of rights language. But human rights law was in its infancy, the Cold War rendered rights debates poisonous and many governments still balked at the very notion of human rights. Today, every country, and thus every bank member state, has ratified human rights treaties imposing binding legal obligations to respect rights. An extensive network of independent expert bodies is in place to help define and interpret rights. As a result, other major international players have formally embraced human rights as central considerations in their work. Even most large corporations have human rights policies that put the bank to shame. The bank is a lonely outlier, apart from its twin, the International Monetary Fund.
Second, too much of the human rights talk around the bank in the last century focused on sanctions. Activists and governments, not to mention the U.S. Congress, were keen for the bank to wield its lending power and gatekeeping function against countries they didn’t like. The bank saw that this approach would leave it with remarkably few customers. Today, however, there is little such talk. It is widely recognized that human rights are most effectively promoted through more subtle and tailored means, building on the positive commitments of the governments concerned.
So the bank’s reticence seems, ironically, to be largely political. It is currently moving to dilute its only nominally human-rights-friendly standards, contained in “safeguard policies” meant to keep the development process from unduly harming individuals or the environment. While reform might well be in order, the bank’s main concern seems to be to minimize its own responsibilities in relation to rights violations.
What, then, are the political objections? Unsurprisingly, some states voice strong opposition to the bank engaging with human rights, but the staunchest resistance comes from within. Officials at the bank ask why it matters whether they use human rights language, as long as they are pushing for gender equality, access to water and so on. The answer is that rights language provides a context and a framework, invokes states’ legal obligations, underscores that certain values are nonnegotiable, brings a degree of normative certainty, and makes use of the agreed interpretations of rights that have emerged from decades of reflection, discussion and adjudication. Most important, rights language recognizes the dignity and agency of all individuals and is intentionally empowering.
The bottom line is that the bank is a crucial actor in the debate over both development and human rights. Its policies matter a great deal, and the policies it lacks matter every bit as much. Having no human rights policy, or remaining neutral, sends a clear message to the world.
It is time for the bank to rethink its self-defeating stance on human rights. Women’s empowerment, children’s access to education, the rule of law and the promotion of human security cannot and will not happen if “human rights” remain unmentionable.