Human Rights Watch says the World Bank critics were attacked by local governments, with almost complete impunity.

A report, by Human Rights Watch, entitled “At Your Own Risk: Reprisals against Critics of World Bank Group Projects” says that though the World Bank and many of the companies it invests in have “policies that require them to consult communities and safeguard against causing harm to them and the environment through their investments… in reality this often adds up to very little when communities come under attack.”

The organization says “people in Cambodia, India, Uganda, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere have faced reprisals from governments and powerful companies for criticizing projects financed by the World Bank and the IFC [which] failed to respond meaningfully to abuses that make a mockery out of their own stated commitments to participation and accountability…the World Bank Group has failed even to take appropriate action when people have suffered reprisals specifically because they were involved in bringing human rights concerns to the attention of Group officials.”

Though the World Bank says it spoke out against some of these abuses and attempted to seek remuneration for the victims, their claims are contradicted by their subsequent choice to enable the perpetrators.

Take, for example, the case of a human rights group that attempted to take an abuse case to the bank group’s Inspection Panel, only to find that one week later, the panel’s interpreter was thrown in prison and was possibly tortured.

The report says “In one case, weeks after the World Bank’s Inspection Panel concluded its process, government security forces threw the Panel’s interpreter into prison…Bank officials have told Human Rights Watch that they have questioned government officials about the arrest and highlighted their concerns behind closed doors. But weeks after the arrest, the Bank provided a new loan to the government… the interpreter remains behind bars at a notorious detention facility, known for its use of torture. [the group] has not, however, taken any steps to check on the well-being of those they interviewed in the course of their investigation beyond discussing security concerns with the complainants’ representatives.”

What sort of projects are these reprisals protecting?

The two case studies listed in the report are:

  1. A Hydro electric plant on the Alaknanda and Ganga rivers in India,  financed by a loan from the World Bank and developed by the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation India Ltd. Community members worried that the project would undermine religious practices, create water shortages, and impede livelihood opportunities linked to the river. Floods in June 2013 which caused massive loss of life and extensive damage to the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project, just 35 miles upstream of VPHEP, intensified concerns among these community members as protests grew. The New York Times reports that “one case in northern India highlighted by the rights group, a 30-year-old critic of a hydroelectric power project funded by the World Bank said employees of the company in charge of constructing the dam publicly ridiculed protesters as prostitutes, insulted their caste and warned of ‘severe’ consequences if protests continued.”The report says there are credible “allegations that [THCD] staff and contractors were involved in threats and intimidation of community members.” These members then attempted to take the case to the World Bank’s inspection panel. In response to this attempt, the report says the company “issued thinly-veiled threats to dissuade them from filing their complaint to the Inspection Panel…community members also highlighted that they had received death threats and been pressured by the police for raising their voices in protest against the project. The situation has not improved in the intervening years. Community members who were seen with the Inspection Panel during their visit said that threats and harassment increased after the Panel’s investigation visit…Several community members critical of the project described to Human Rights Watch their fear of facing criminal charges for protesting.”
  2. Shukaku Inc. attempted to develop a high-end residential, commercial, and tourism complex in Cambodia. During development, the company started pumping massive quantities of sand into the nearby lake, causing residents’ homes to flood and the destruction of nearby houses. In response, government and company coerced more than 3,000 of the 4,000 affected families from the land, issuing a final eviction notice in April 2009. After that, the government along with the company began forcibly evicting the remaining residents. Since that forced eviction, Cambodia’s security forces have violently broken up peaceful protests and filed trumped-up charges against opponents. They have often been denied bail, quickly convicted after expedited in monkey trials that did not meet international standards, and given significant prison sentences.

The report explains that critics of a number of World Bank group-financed projects face numerous risks — regardless of how they choose to raise their concerns. “In repressive environments, the World Bank Group has often closed its eyes to the risk of abuse rather than engage in difficult conversations with partner governments.”

However, the report notes, this has not always been the case. HRW points to a case in Chad in 2001, where an opposition leader who had spoken to the Group’s Inspection panel was arrested. In response, former World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, fought to have him freed. The World Bank also spoke out against Cambodia’s violent crackdown on protesters in 2002.

This policy of intervention has changed quite dramatically since then. The report says that though “sporadic, such efforts by the Bank to respond to reprisals appear to have been replaced by, at best, quiet conversations behind closed doors with questionable utility. At worst, the prevailing response seems in some cases to have been one of complete apathy.”

The abuse of government power against critics takes several forms, but all overlap around an attempt to “silence independent voices that are critical of governments’ efforts in the development arena. These abusive measures can prevent people from participating in decisions about development, from publicly opposing development initiatives that may harm their livelihoods or violate their rights, and from complaining about development initiatives that are ineffective, harmful, or have otherwise gone wrong.”

The perpetrators are usually “community members who stand to benefit economically from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government. In some cases, government officials deliberately drive and exploit these community divisions, seeking to isolate critics, and close their eyes to acts of intimidation and abuse between community members.”

The list of abuses includes:

  1. Laws which criminalize expression, be they criminal defamation, or national security laws. These prevent the formation of organized civil society groups by interfering with public gatherings, restricting communication or attacking their funding.
  2. Direct violence against journalists and human rights advocates. This one is fairly clear cut. HRW notes that 61 journalists and at least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014.
  3. The use of trumped-up criminal charges to silence activists or criticism such as in Uzbekistan, which has repeatedly used trumped-up criminal charges against activists.
  4.  Increasing surveillance powers, which “are misused by many governments as a tool to monitor and repress criticism.”
  5. So, just how complicit is the World Bank is all of this?

Human Rights Watch says the World Bank is complicit to a greater degree than other corporations because they are, on paper, a humanitarian organization that is funding the perpetrators. The report says, “While both bilateral donors and the United Nations have an important role to play in preventing and responding to reprisals, when there is a link to World Bank Group activities, the Group cannot palm off its responsibilities by pointing to others as the responsible actors. When determining how to respond to a reprisal, it is reasonable for the Group to consider the links to its activities, the presence of other actors, and its own leverage. In all cases, however, it should develop an explicit strategy to provide a remedy to reprisal victims, with coordinated actions and accountability.”

The report continues, “…The World Bank has not actively worked to support an enabling environment for public participation and social accountability in countries where space is limited or closing. Nor has it proactively raised with governments efforts to undermine these rights—even in cases where people have been targeted for abuse precisely because they attempted to communicate rights-related concerns to World Bank Group accountability mechanisms.”

On top of this, the safe guards that the group was pressured to implement are effectively rubber stamp machines. The report says, “Neither the World Bank’s current safeguard policies nor the proposed environmental and social framework include the kind of due diligence required to avoid serious human rights abuses.”

This means, that though minor safe guards are in place, the lending is uninterrupted and the abuse generally continues.

As a result, the report says “government or company officials have intimidated or harassed critics of World Bank Group-financed projects, threatened them with physical assault, death, and baseless criminal charges and placed them under surveillance… In other cases, government and company officials have threatened critics’ livelihoods, including by threatening to terminate employment, cutting employment benefits, or increasing workload. The Bank’s Inspection Panel has recognized the risk of retaliation and intimidation targeting people who attempt to pursue complaints about Bank-financed projects… These cases, along with the World Bank Group’s inadequate responses to them, are part of a troubling and broad pattern. Furthermore, the Inspection Panel has found cases where World Bank staff and consultants have themselves allegedly been involved in pressuring communities not to file or to withdraw complaints, and have acted in ways that have caused community members to fear reprisals.”

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