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Statement by Professor Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights at the 70th session of the General Assembly

Third Committee, Item 72 (b&c)

23 October 2015
New York

Mr President, distinguished delegates,

It is a privilege to address this body again in my capacity as Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Today I am presenting my report on the World Bank and human rights.  The report has been available for many weeks and has already attracted considerable attention.  For that reason, I do not propose to recount its content in any detail in these introductory remarks, but rather to elaborate on what I see as some of the key issues that now need to be addressed.

The thrust of the report is straightforward.  Based on a careful review of the many contexts in which the World Bank has addressed human rights issues, I conclude that the existing approach taken by the Bank to human rights is incoherent, counterproductive and unsustainable and I argue that, for most purposes and certainly those that really matter, the World Bank is a human rights-free zone.  This applies above all in its operational policies

In my view, the main obstacle to moving towards an appropriate approach is the anachronistic and inconsistent interpretation of the “political prohibition” contained in its Articles of Agreement.  The bizarre, but oft-repeated, position that human rights are quintessentially matters of politics, and have no significant economic dimensions which the Bank could legitimately address, leaves the organization unable to engage meaningfully with the international human rights framework, or to assist its member countries in complying with their own human rights obligations. That in turn inhibits its ability to take adequate account of the social and political economy aspects of its work within countries and contradicts and undermines the consistent recognition by the international community of the integral relationship between human rights and development. It also prevents the Bank from putting into practice much of its own policy research and analysis, which points to the indispensability of the human rights dimensions of many core development issues.

I have to concede that my assessment is not couched in the usual language of diplomacy.  That is because the Bank has, for some years now, simply sought to close down this discussion.  I believe that it needs to engage with those who argue – and they represent a very broad spectrum of the Bank’s stakeholders – that it should have a human rights policy worthy of the name.  Identifying individuals with whom it will not work, labelling prominent civil society groups as extremists, abruptly cancelling meetings after critical reports are published, are not approaches designed to engage and to hone more sophisticated policy approaches.

If the Bank was just one of many actors in the development field, its anachronistic views would not matter.  But as it proudly proclaims, it is a thought leader in this domain.  It argues that it has provided the ‘key intellectual underpinnings to development thinking’ in the past and it plans to continue to do so in the future, including through its role in implementing and promoting the Sustainable Development Goals for the 2030 Agenda.  But if human rights are, as a matter of legal obligation, not able to be part of this work, where does that leave the frequently asserted proposition that human rights and development are integrally related?

At the Annual Meetings of the Bank and Fund in Lima, the Bank’s President sought to underscore a newfound commitment to ensuring that in conflict and post-conflict situations there will be a more integrated approach.  We now know, he said, “that the political negotiations that the U.N. often is responsible for, the humanitarian response that is often left to the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations, and the development response that we have been involved with, … have been seen as three separate things…’. In explaining why this has to change and why the different dimensions must be brought together, he noted that ‘we’ve been humbled by what’s happening in the Middle East and North Africa.  … [W]hat we’ve been doing hasn’t worked very well.’  ‘So this is why … we are really sitting down and rethinking fundamentally what we do. … [T]he idea is that you cannot separate political agreements from humanitarian response from development.  Those all have to come together.  … [T]he U.N. and the World Bank should always work very closely together.’

But it is an unavoidable fact, as the Secretary-General has frequently pointed out, that human rights considerations are central to shaping viable political solutions, and that security and development solutions must also be human rights-sensitive.  How can the Bank aspire to be a central actor in these contexts, how can it think that it will not repeat the mistakes it concedes it has made in the Middle East and North Africa, if it disables itself from engaging in any meaningful way with human rights considerations?

A recurring theme in the Bank’s own internal evaluations is the need to take adequate account of the ‘political economy’ of the contexts in which it works, to mitigate risks, and to identify systemic obstacles.  There are thus strong arguments, based largely on effectiveness and sustainability, for the Bank to be able to take more systematic account of human rights factors in designing and implementing its projects and its overall assistance programs.

I should emphasize at this point that I am not talking about conditionality, and particularly the crude and counter-productive way in which some actors have sought to prevent the Bank from engaging at all with some governments regardless of the merits of particular projects.  I have stated clearly in the report my view that we need to move beyond these approaches and to seek to craft a more constructive, nuanced, and pro-active approach to human rights in the work of the Bank.

Let me conclude with one example that illustrates one of the problems that I have identified. The Bank has been an admirable thought leader in arguing in favour of gender equality.  Take its most recent report entitled Women, Business and the Law 2016: Getting to Equal.  The report highlights the fact that ‘[l]egal gender differences are widespread: 155 of the 173 economies covered have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities. In these countries it identified 943 legal gender differences which constitute obstacles. In 100 economies, women face gender-based job restrictions. In 46 of the economies there are no laws specifically protecting women from domestic violence.  And so on. 

But this is the theory.  It is not part of the blueprint for the Bank’s response.  Sadly, the systemic denials of womens’ rights which lie at the heart of these discriminatory laws cannot be addressed in those terms by the Bank because it refuses to engage meaningfully with the relevant rights framework.

The result is an artificially constrained and hobbled approach in practice.  This is clearly reflected in a recent evaluation undertaken by the Bank of the gender dimensions of one of its major programs, the promotion of social safety nets.  The evaluation concluded that the relevant ‘projects supported by the World Bank would benefit from incorporating the impact of gender differences into their design, but they rarely do. Most project documents include limited discussion of intrahousehold dynamics and the gender-relevant context of the supported intervention. Women are generally targeted as a vulnerable group or in an instrumental way, without discussing the costs that the intervention may impose on them. Gender is often missing from monitoring and evaluation (M&E) frameworks, except for tracking female beneficiaries.’

The way forward is hinted at in a remark made by Kaushik Basu, Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the Bank, in his Foreword to the report.  He wrote:

As societies become more equal and every individual’s productive capacity is valued and engaged, economies become more resilient. To build such a society, the key is inclusiveness—to make sure that no group is kept at the margins and subjected to exploitation. One particular group that deserves special attention, if for no other reason than its constituting half the world’s population, is women. It has often been pointed out that an economy cannot grow to its full potential if its women are not treated on par with men. This is likely true. But even if it were not, there is a case for treating men and women equally. We cannot forever remain victims of the idea that the agenda of inclusion and equality (pertaining not just to women but to any group) has to be justified as a means towards the end of higher economic growth. Indeed, what we need to argue is that, even if we had to sacrifice some economic growth in order to achieve inclusion and greater equality, the trade-off would be well worth it.

My report contains many recommendations to move the debate forward.  I would only draw attention in this context to the conclusions of the meeting earlier this month between President Kim and Secretary-General Ban:

The Secretary-General highly commended Dr. Kim's commitment to closer working relations between the United Nations and the World Bank. They agreed to further discussions on this topic during the next Chief Executives Board meeting in New York in November.

The need for the Bank to adopt a policy on human rights which is compatible with that of the United Nations should be very high on the agenda of that meeting.

President Jim Yong Kim, Press Conference, Lima, October 8, 2015, at http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2015/10/08/transcript-press-conference-world-bank-group-president-jim-yong-kim-annual-meetings

Social Safety Nets and Gender Learning: From Impact Evaluations and World Bank Projects (2014) at http://ieg.worldbankgroup.org/Data/reports/ssn-gender-ie-full-report.pdf

Readout of the Secretary-General’s meeting with Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, Lima, Peru, 10 October 2015, at http://www.un.org/sg/offthecuff/index.asp?nid=4221