by Rhodri C. Williams
Two very interesting reports linked land, development and the World Bank’s role last week. Released on precisely the same day, the reports reflected a good deal of consensus on what should be done and rather less agreement regarding what is actually being done.
First, on 22 June, Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the World Bank for failing to take human rights issues sufficiently into account in its development calculus – with one of the primary examples being the confiscation of land and villageization of its occupants in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Then, almost as if in response, the Bank released a new study the same day asserting that pro-poor land reform in Africa could provide tremendous benefits at minimal costs by securing the rights of local communities and protecting them against encroachment by large investment projects.
The HRW report is sensitively phrased, giving praise to the Bank for having taken human rights on board, but noting that this commitment is so far discretionary rather than binding. HRW notes the contradiction this presents with the Bank’s insistence on strict compliance with other legal obligations taken on by recipient states, such as those under environmental treaties. The press release takes precautions not to spook what has been traditionally a human rights-wary institution. For instance, strict advocates of ‘rights-based’ approaches may look a little askance at the promotion of ‘rights conscious’ ones, but focusing on synergies to be achieved through due diligence rather than incompatibilities to be decried seems a sound advocacy policy:
Had it taken [human rights due diligence] steps with projects it is implementing in regions where the Ethiopian government was carrying out villagization, for example, the bank would have been aware of the risks of arbitrary arrests and detention, forced evictions, beatings, torture, and killings. It would also have identified the potential for reduced and inadequate access to food, health care, and water in the places where the villagers were being moved. The bank could have built measures to avoid these risks into its project design.
“Human rights due diligence is not about naming and shaming governments in need of development funds,” … “It is the process of looking at the effect of the World Bank’s lending or other support on human rights, and figuring out how to avoid or mitigate human rights risks.”
In a sense, the Bank’s simultaneously released report responds to these charges. After all, the centerpieces of the reforms recommended in the report are registering rural land rights as a means for local communities to avoid becoming victims of land-grabbing, as well as “regularizing tenure rights of squatters on public land in urban slums that are home to 60 percent of urban dwellers in Africa”. Although such measures are certainly liable to abuse in practice, it is hard to imagine more rights-compatible proposals in principle. However, the fact that these measures are presented solely as rational policies without any reference to international or regional standards and obligations serves to reinforce Human Rights Watch’s central point:
The World Bank’s recently adopted goals to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity are inextricably linked to the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, water, and housing, Human Rights Watch said. But the bank cannot meaningfully achieve these goals in complex environments without ensuring that it respects the rights of the people it is working to benefit.
The upshot seems to be that everyone wants the same results, but find it hard to agree on a common mode for effectively achieving them. Human Rights Watch deserves kudos for consistently taking on the nexus between human rights and development. In doing so, it is wading into a complicated and controversial set of issues, but one that undoubtedly is at the core of human rights enjoyment for a huge proportion of the world’s populations.
However, the sad reality is that human rights tend to be seen by states as heavy on sticks and light on carrots, making them at best an awkward tool for advocacy. As HRW points out, the extensive commentary and jurisprudence on human rights also make them a useful tool for analysis in development settings, but this message is frequently lost on organizations that may see such criteria as competing with rather than complementing those they have traditionally employed.
Meanwhile, the World Bank deserves recognition for promoting an approach that is both rights compatible and just plain sensible. Unlike Human Rights Watch, the Bank is required to work with governments as partners. However, despite undoubted progress in many countries, assumptions that governments in developing, post-colonial states are both broadly representative and interested in equitable development may still frequently be misplaced. This leaves the Bank in the position of making arguments based on the common good with officials whose interests may be far more narrow and short-term.
In such circumstances, the Bank may find that it lies not only in the interest of the countries it is meant to serve but also in the interest of its own credibility to begin treating human rights as what they are – a voluntarily adopted set of hard legal parameters on government action that serve to protect the rights of citizens, not least in development settings.