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“The World Bank is a Human Rights-Free Zone” – UN expert on extreme poverty expresses deep concern

GENEVA (29 September 2015) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, has called on the World Bank  and its member States to adopt a new and consistent approach to human rights.

“For most purposes, the World Bank is currently a human rights-free zone. In its operational policies, in particular, it treats human rights more like an infectious disease than universal values and obligations,” Alston says in a new report* published online on the approach to human rights by the World Bank, the most important international actor on poverty alleviation.

The report, which will be officially presented to the UN General Assembly on 23 October, explains that the biggest single obstacle to better integrate human rights into the work of the World Bank is “the anachronistic and inconsistent interpretation of the ‘political prohibition’ contained in the Bank’s Articles of Agreement.”

“They invoke the Articles of Agreement, which were adopted in 1945, and argue that this clause not to interfere in States’ political affairs effectively prohibits the Bank from engaging with issues of human rights,” the expert says.

However, he stresses, “these Articles were written more than 70 years ago, when there was no international catalogue of human rights, no specific treaty obligations upon States, and not a single international institution addressing these issues.”

In his report, Alston notes that –despite their legal arguments– the World Bank’s real reason to avoid dealing with human rights is clearly political.

“Western countries, cheered on by Western civil society, have often pushed the Bank to sanction developing countries with a poor human rights record by delaying or withholding development loans to those countries. Countries that borrow money from the Bank, or member states that are critical of human rights, don’t want the World Bank to turn into a ‘human rights cop’ that meddles in their internal affairs,” he explains.

For the Special Rapporteur, all these approaches are misguided. “World Bank member States from all parts of the world are to blame,” he says.

“The use of the human rights framework makes an enormous difference, which is exactly why the Bank is so resistant to using it,” the expert notes, stressing that human rights invoke the legal obligations that States have agreed upon and brings a degree of normative certainty. “Even more importantly, the language of rights recognizes the dignity and agency of all individuals.”

“It is striking how little thought has been given to what a World Bank human rights policy might look like in practice. It is now time for World Bank President Jim Yong Kim to take the initiative”, Alston says in his report. “But World Bank member states also have a responsibility: they should begin to grapple seriously with what a World Bank human rights policy should look like, and they should start doing that today!”          

The UN Special Rapporteur will spend the next few weeks talking to the World Bank and its member states about his recommendations, before the official presentation of his report to the UN General Assembly in New York.

(*) Read the full report:  http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/70/274

Philip Alston (Australia) took office as UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014, following his appointment by the Human Rights Council. He is John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.  Mr. Alston has previously served the UN in several capacities including as Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Special Adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Millennium Development Goals, as well as chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/SRExtremePovertyIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Junko Tadaki (+ 41 22 917 9298 / jtadaki@ohchr.org) or write to srextremepoverty@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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