Header image for news printout

Human rights trampled in push to build infrastructure

Op-Ed by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

One year ago, we awoke to the shocking news of the murder in Honduras of Berta Cáceres, recipient of the 2015 Goldman environmental prize, in response to her campaign to stop the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam being built on indigenous Lenca territory.

Cáceres had received more than 30 death threats during her campaign. Foreign backers of the Agua Zarca dam have pulled out. But threats to those opposing development projects have never been higher.

Over the past year, at least six more campaigners have been killed in Honduras including, just over two weeks ago, José de los Santos Sevilla, the leader of the indigenous Tolupán people. Seven were killed in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico during a single week in January, in connection with hydroelectric dams, mining and agribusiness projects. The victims included Mexican indigenous leader Isidro Baldenegro López, another Goldman environmental prize winner.

In addition to murder, the tools of repression include curbs on peaceful assembly, clampdowns on non-governmental organizations, attacks on independent media, state censorship, draconian anti-terror laws, state-sponsored vilification, surveillance, arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances. In some countries, punitive laws and special law-enforcement agencies have been created specifically to protect investors’ interests.

Far away from the killings, intimidation and evictions, finance ministers of the G20 member countries have been working to increase global investment in mega-infrastructure projects, including large dams, oil and gas pipelines, ports, highways and railways.

In Baden Baden, Germany, G20 finance ministers soon will prepare the ground for the July G20 summit in Hamburg. Infrastructure again will be on the agenda.

Infrastructure, if well-conceived and implemented, is vital for the realisation of many human rights, including health, water and sanitation, and for economic growth. Growth, in turn, generates resources which can be harnessed for investments in people and the environment.

But these ambitious plans are laden with un-assessed human rights risk. Highway projects, like large dams and pipelines, have been lightning rods for human rights abuses in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Regional infrastructure master plans, which have largely eluded public debate, include up to 100,000 kilometers of new roads in Africa and 579 new projects in Latin America including highways, hydroelectric dams and pipelines. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, backed by the $40 billion Silk Road Fund, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China Development Bank, spans 65 countries and includes transport links through conflict-ridden areas of Pakistan, Myanmar and Central Asia’s Fergana Valley. The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the world’s largest infrastructure project, may affect up to 180 million people. Land conflict around agribusiness and extractive projects in Indonesia was recently described as a “brutal class war.” The Dakota Access oil pipeline is turning into another flashpoint.

Regrettably, human rights are rarely given more than lip service in this context. In the macho world of mega-infrastructure, success is measured by size and speed, breeding the denial of human rights rather than due diligence. The unspoken, or, sometimes, spoken narrative seems to be that you need to break a few eggs to make an omelette.

With disarming candor, the president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has reportedly described people resisting forced resettlement as “irrational” and said that families should be willing to “sacrifice” in the public interest. The possibility of human-rights-compliant resettlement seems irrelevant to this world view.

The G20 and development financing institutions must urgently correct the course.

It is time to lift the veil on regional and national infrastructure plans, and to break down the walls between investment, infrastructure financing, and human rights. It is time for a safe, as well as sustainable, infrastructure investment agenda.

First, no major infrastructure project should be financed without thorough public deliberation and consultation with the communities directly affected, free of intimidation or coercion.

Second, all development financing institutions should have policies explicitly committing themselves to respect international human rights law, including the freedoms of opinion, expression, association and peaceful assembly. Where national and international laws set different standards, the higher standard should be respected.

Third, all new projects should be subject to human-rights due diligence from the outset, including a baseline analysis of civil society space and reprisal risks, with clear human-rights indicators and triggers for action in response to the evolving human rights situation.

Fourth, all development financing institutions, as well as their independent accountability mechanisms, should have clear, transparent and enforceable policies and procedures to govern their assessments of and responses to risks of intimidation and reprisals.

Fifth, all development financing institutions, and their independent accountability mechanisms, should systematically collect and publish data on intimidation, coercion and reprisals in connection with their activities, and what actions are being taken in response.

Finally, every single development financing institutions should put in place independent, accessible and effective grievance mechanisms, to ensure that those whose rights are violated receive prompt and fair redress. Accountability and remedy must be core components of investment contracts as well as development policy dialogues and technical assistance.

These measures won’t solve all problems, particularly where impunity is endemic. But nothing will change if incentives and consequences remain static. Development financing institutions and investors, implementing these measures in concert, can help to disturb the status quo and open up space for change, while avoiding complicity in human rights violations.

It is time to re-imagine infrastructure as if people and the environment mattered.