World Bank and rights of indigenous peoples

Date of publication: 
2 September 2014

The World Bank’s neglect of human rights of the poor and disadvantaged in general and that of the indigenous people in particular has been as well-known as disturbing. However, it is appalling that instead of making any serious effort to improve, it is reportedly moving further down the road to worsen its own records.

As a part of an exercise to review the Bank’s Safeguard Policies and Environment and Social Framework, meant to prevent adverse implications on people and environment in the areas covered by Bank-funded projects, it is moving to options that may open floodgates of potentially devastating impact on indigenous people, the poor and environment. After receiving the draft document nearly a hundred NGOs and civil society networks from Asia, Africa, Latin America as well as Europe and North America sent protest letters to the Bank’s president and Board and urged to refrain from adopting it.

In a submission to the Committee on Development Effectiveness of the WB’s Board on July 30, 2014, on behalf of 84 indigenous people’s organisations/institutions, and 79 support groups and individuals, the Asia Indigenous People’s Pact have been “deeply dismayed by the overall weakening of the policy requirements for indigenous peoples with very serious implications, including the outright denial of the existence and rights of indigenous peoples under international human rights laws.” The WB has, however ignored these and many more outcries and cleared the draft for “broad public consultations,” which can only be eyewash before the proposals are adopted.

The draft proposes to move away from the requirement for Bank-funded projects to be in conformity with a specific set of processes and standards to be replaced by some vague and open-ended guidance. The worst implications of this shift, it is feared, will be on indigenous communities.

Presently, governments that receive Bank funds are under obligation to obtain free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from the indigenous people in the project area. Conducting impact assessment of projects is mandatory, so is preparing and disseminating specific plan of work to handle and mitigate those impacts and to ensure effective monitoring from the point of impacts.

The new proposals broadly retain these measures, but under cover of addressing implementation challenges and apparently to take into cognisance views of borrowing governments the Bank practically creates an option of totally disregarding those standards. According to a press statement issued by the Bank on July 30: “In exceptional circumstances when there are risks of exacerbating ethnic tension or civil strife or where the identification of Indigenous Peoples is inconsistent with the constitution of the country, in consultation with people affected by a particular project, we are proposing an alternative approach to the protection of Indigenous Peoples. But we should be clear that any alternative approach will only be adopted with approval from our Board, which represents all of our member countries.”

The Bank has clearly made a sweeping conclusion that all provisions of constitutions of all countries where it operates are fully democratic and respectful to international standards of human and indigenous rights. As if there are no countries in the world that have failed to provide constitutional recognition to their indigenous peoples; as if there are no indigenous communities around the world where systematic violation of whose basic rights by use of force by army, para-military forces and law enforcement agencies is the main reason behind “exacerbating ethnic tension or civil strife;” as if inconsistency of identification of Indigenous Peoples with some arbitrary and controversial provisions of the constitution is a sufficiently valid justification for the Bank to look for alternative approach of opting for other much less stringent standards.


The Bank is proposing not only to absolve itself of obligation to comply with international standards but also to stay away from defining any specific criteria of such alternative approach except for a full discretion given to the Bank’s Board. If the proposal is pushed through the Bank will have the discretion to use whatever means it wishes to determine the validity of so-called borrower’s concerns. In other words, if a borrowing government wants to undertake a project ignoring rights of the indigenous peoples in the project area, collusion may soon take place between the borrower and the lender as the latter may find it convenient to go ahead without caring about potential adverse implications for the indigenous communities.

According to the new draft, similar exemption is to be granted to Bank funded projects in general in infrastructure involving land administration and development that may cause involuntary resettlement and displacement of people.

As shocking as these proposed changes may be, it should not surprise anyone aware of the basic principle of any lender — more lending brings more benefits. The more rigorous are standards to comply with, the less is the scope of lending business.

The Bank’s track record in terms of human rights violations is well researched and documented. Human Rights Watch for instance, in a report published in 2013, concluded that the World Bank “neither acknowledged nor mitigated human rights risks in its programs.” The case studies that featured in the HRW report included a Bank-funded project for drug detention centres accused of forced labour, arbitrary detention and torture and an Ethiopian “villagisation” programme causing forced and violent relocation though it failed to deliver the avowed objective of improved service quality and infrastructure.

Other examples of World Bank’s option of expanding its lending at the expense of human rights are not far to seek. In the Bank-funded Boeung Kak Lake project in Cambodia, residents were deprived of land rights when flooding caused by filling of the lake with sand forced families to leave their homes while others were compelled to accept compensation at much below the market rate.

The Bank was not bothered that the Kaptai Dam project funded by it not only caused gross violation of human rights of the indigenous community of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1960, displacing over 100,000 people and flooding a lion’s share of cultivable land in the region, but also sowed the seeds of a conflict that is bleeding Bangladesh till date. The example created by this Bank-funded project has been systematically followed over the years to evict the indigenous people from their ancestral homes, to deprive them of fundamental rights to life and livelihood, to transform the demographic and socio-cultural landscape and to militarise the region.

Credible research has demonstrated how World Bank policies led to deliberate manipulation of market forces that destroyed economic opportunities and created a situation of famine and social despair that accelerated the process that leading to genocide. Hundreds of Mayans were massacred by military in Guatemala in 1982 for resisting eviction of innocent indigenous people designed to implement the Bank-funded Chixoy Dam. In Uganda 30,000 forest dwellers and peasants were evicted to implement the Kibale Forest and Game Corridor programme under the Bank-funded Forestry Rehabilitation Project.

The list is incomplete. The World Bank should face the mirror and opt for standards and practices to respect and uphold human rights as indispensable precondition for designing and implementing projects funded by it. They must ensure that no project is designed and implemented without conducting fully independent impact assessment in terms of human rights in general and rights of poor, marginalised and indigenous population in particular. The WB cannot be disrespectful to international human rights standards just because it needs to expand lending. It cannot, because it’s funders — people of its member countries — have not given it the right to do so.

The writer is Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh and member of the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission.


Concern over World Bank proposals to roll back safeguards for indigenous people

IRIN News –

3 September 2014

BANGKOK (IRIN) – Activists warn of a harmful regression in the World Bank’s safeguard policies, claiming that proposed changes being considered this autumn could weaken the rights of indigenous people, and others in danger of displacement and abuse as a result of Bank-funded development projects.

“This [version of the safeguards] will be dangerous backsliding into their bad legacy of treatment against indigenous people if it is approved,” said Joan Carling, secretary-general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), a network that operates in 14 Asian countries.

According to the World Bank, “the proposed Environmental and Social Framework builds on the decades-old safeguard policies and aims to consolidate them into a more modern, unified framework that is more efficient and effective to apply and implement.”

However, campaigners say the current draft dilutes the protective promise of the safeguards and fails to include indigenous rights considerations in projects funded by the World Bank by obtaining “free, prior, and informed consent” for development interventions. The proposed changes, including an “opt out” policy, could leave development decisions solely at the discretion of governments.

“In order for grievance mechanisms to work, environmental and social standards need to be clear and prescriptive,” said Kristen Genovese, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a Washington-based watchdog.

Other adjustments suggest a broader attempt to roll-back responsbilities: “The elimination of clear, predictable rules also appears to be a clear attempt by the Bank to avoid accountability for the negative impacts of projects that it funds,” BIC said.

With more than US$50 billion in development aid at risk of being funnelled into projects that could forcibly evict, displace, or fail to adequately compensate communities for resource losses, pressure is mounting on the Bank as board meetings begin on 3 September.


The pending amendments retain the requirement for project-affected peoples’ “free, prior and informed consent” to relocate; proper compensation; labour rights of workers; and non-discriminatory development. However, the draft includes options for the Bank’s non-compliance, which leaves it for governments to decide how to proceed with projects – including by ignoring indigenous people.

“Allowing [governments] not to recognize groups [as indigenous] is incredibly problematic particularly when we know the history of government violating indigenous peoples’ rights,” said Jessica Evans, senior researcher on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch’s (HRW).

According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons (UNDRIP), indigenous people are those who maintain historical continuity with pre-colonial groups, have strong relationships with natural resources and land as the basis of their cultural and physical survival, and self-identify themselves as indigenous as part of their belief systems which differ from the dominant society.

While UNDRIP has been adopted by 143 countries, domestic implementation has been limited. The draft safeguards give governments a loophole to escape recognition of indigenous persons when it comes to Bank-funded development interventions status if it causes conflict or goes against the constitution of the country.

According to a 30 July statement from the Bank about the proposed safeguards draft, indigenous status can be opted out of “in exceptional circumstances when there are risks of exacerbating ethnic tension or civil strife or where the identification of Indigenous Peoples is inconsistent with the constitution of the country…”

“Setting the standard is something an institution as powerful and influential as the World Bank should be considering as mandatory, rather than optional.”
As the draft safeguards go under review by the Bank’s board, activists warn that without major reform to the draft, consultations with indigenous groups when designing and implementing development projects have little meaning.

“If they provide the opt out option for recognizing indigenous groups, indigenous people will suffer adverse impacts,” warned AIPP’s Carling, adding that government refusal to acknowledge the indigenous status of many ethnic minorities can be a contributing factor to statelessness, poverty and forced relocation.

A history of abuses

A root concern about the proposed safeguards is that they shift the onus for environmental and social responsibility away from the Bank and onto borrowing governments, which means funds could go to states already notorious for land grabs, corruption and human rights violations.

In recent years researchers have documented cases of forced evictions in poor communities as a part of World Bank-funded projects.

For example, in East Badia, a community in Lagos, Nigeria, Amnesty International reported that 9,000 people had their homes razed to make way for luxury apartments. In Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, up to 135,000 families will be relocated in the next three years to make way for urban development, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a Sri Lankan NGO, argues.

In East Badia, community protests against the razing of homes met all of the requirements to trigger the safeguards for a full World Bank investigation. However, the Bank’s eight-member board instead decided to institute a pilot project for resettlement which compensated communities one-third below the market rate for informal housing in Lagos.

“The compensation was so low it did not enable them to live anywhere else except another slum or precarious accommodation which will put them in danger of being forcibly evicted again,” said Alessandra Masci, Amnesty International’s senior analyst for business and human rights, and lead advocate for the report on Lagos.

The Bank’s pilot, implemented in November 2013, was in line with the new direction of the bank (and the draft safeguards currently under consideration), in which vague language creates flexibility in decision-making for the Bank and the borrower government – leaving the poor to fend for themselves, analysts say.

“Banks and panels are standing back and leaving communities completely alone to deal with entities much more powerful than them,” explained Masci.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the government, armed with US$213 million of World Bank loans, will forcibly relocate an estimated 300,000 people under the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project (MCUDP), according to CPA.

A commitment to ending poverty?

Critics warn that without airtight safeguards for vulnerable people, the rights of indigenous groups will continue to be violated by development projects, and undermine the very target the Bank has set for itself: to end poverty.

While indigenous people comprise 5 percent of the global population, they make up 15 percent of all people living beneath national poverty lines globally, according to the UN.

“In order for grievance mechanisms to work, environmental and social standards need to be clear and prescriptive,” said Kristen Genovese, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a Washington-based watchdog.

Some fear that growing competition in international lending – with the emergence of Chinese and Japanese development banks, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the BRICS bank – may stoke a fear of losing clients and trigger a race-to-the-bottom panic. Experts argue that the World Bank should see its safeguards as an opportunity to assert its position as a global leader.

“Competition is good. It means more finance for development,” said HRW’s Evans. “The Bank could show other lenders best practices and be a model development bank.”

Sophie Chao, a project officer with the Forest People’s Programme (FPP), a Netherlands-based indigenous and environmental rights organization, said: “Setting the standard is something an institution as powerful and influential as the World Bank should be considering as mandatory, rather than optional.”

Carling asked: “If their main target is to address poverty – if not for the poor, who is development really for then?”