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Human Rights

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In recent years, the Bank has placed new emphasis on understanding the relationship between human rights and development: there has been growing recognition of the need for the Bank to address human rights in a more explicit fashion. There have been significant advances in the Bank's thinking on this issue and an increasing understanding of the connection between human rights and development on several levels.

  • Why are human rights important for the World Bank?
  • There is a growing body of research from development experts that shows the linkage between human rights and development and many development partners are increasingly integrating human rights into their programs.

    Human rights embody value commitments which are not uniformly interpreted. Furthermore, the concept of universality underpinning the international human rights framework is a complex one, which must be assessed in progressive terms, and interpreted according to its current legal, political and historical context.

    The World Bank needs to undertake analytic work to examine how human rights fit within the constitutional framework and what positive contribution they could make to the development process.

    While the World Bank is not an enforcer of human rights, it may play a facilitative role in helping its members realize their human rights obligations.

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  • What recent developments are relevant to the Bank position on human rights?
  • Several developments outside the Bank have underscored the mutual relevance of human rights and development (see e.g., the 2003 UN Common Understanding on a Human Rights Based Approach to Development and the Secretary General's 2005 Report In Larger Freedom).

    As early as 1998, the Bank had pronounced itself on human rights, issuing statements about how the Bank supported the realization of human rights, and how it believed that "creating the conditions for the attainment of human rights is a central and irreducible goal of development." (Human Rights and Development: The Role of the World Bank (1998)).

    Relevant to the Bank's current approach to human rights are the findings of the 2006 World Development Report, Equity and Development. The WDR 2006 explores the ways in which structural and distributional inequalities can hinder development. The Report grounds equity in two basic principles: equality of opportunity and the avoidance of absolute deprivation, both of which have human rights dimensions.

    In addition, research exists linking economic outcomes to respect for human rights. Some research has shown that substantial violations of political and civil rights are related to lower economic growth. 1 Other research has shown respect for civil liberties to be connected with better performance of government projects. 2 There is also research ongoing on the link between governance and human rights, including an exploration of empirical linkages. 3

    As background to the internal developments relevant to human rights, mention should also be made to the document issued by the former Senior Vice-President and General Counsel, Roberto Dañino, entitled "Legal Opinion on Human Rights and the Work of the World Bank", dated January 27, 2006. It indicates that human rights may constitute legitimate considerations for the Bank where they have economic ramifications or impacts, and it confirms the facilitative role the Bank may play in supporting its members fulfill their human rights obligations.

    1. R. Barro, Determinants of Economic Growth: A Cross-Country Empirical Study, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, (1997); R. Barro, “Economic Growth in a Cross Section of Countries. 106 (2) The Quarterly Journal of Economics 407.

    2. J. Isham, D. Kaufmann. and L.H. Pritchett, “Civil Liberties, Democracy and the Performance of Government Projects.” (1997) 11 (2) World Bank Law Review 219.

    3. D. Kaufmann, ‘Human Rights and Governance: The Empirical Challenge’ in P. Alston and M. Robinson, Human Rights and Development: Towards Mutual Reinforcement • (2005) Oxford, OUP.

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  • How does the Bank's work contribute to the realization of human rights?
  • Although its policies, programs and projects have never been explicitly or deliberately aimed towards the realization of human rights, the Bank contributes to the promotion of human rights in different areas, e.g., improving poor people's access to health, education, food and water; promoting the participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making and the accountability of governments to their citizens; supporting justice reforms, fighting corruption and increasing transparency of governments.

    The Bank's Community Driven Development (CDD) program gives voice to communities, promoting empowerment of the poor and informed civic engagement with increased social accountability which is essential to poverty reduction. One of the objectives of CDD was to give communities voice and influence, and to empower them to plan and manage their own economic and social development.

    Since 2000, the CDD portfolio has grown from approximately $1 billion to an average of $2 billion of annual investment in 2008. During this time period, lending for CDD totaled approximately $16 billion, or 9% of IBRD/IDA lending, covering more than 630 activities. While the number of projects with CDD components has stabilized over the years, the Bank is continuing to dedicate resources and policy dialogue toward operating at a larger scale and across sectors.

    In practical terms therefore, many of the World Bank's activities have a human rights dimension. Also, there are wide areas of overlap between substantive areas covered by core human rights treaties and those areas in which the Bank operates.

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  • What is the way forward for the Bank in the area of human rights?
  • The way forward in this area is premised on the relevance of human rights to the World Bank at three distinct levels:

    • First, in acknowledging and systematizing the fact that many areas of Bank activity have human rights dimensions. The Bank's initiatives on governance and anti-corruption are examples of activities with important human rights dimensions.
    • Second, in recognizing the role of human rights as legal principles, which may inform a broad range of policies and activities, and
    • Third, in understanding human rights as actionable legal obligations, in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, such as those arising from international treaties, or as they are enshrined in national laws, where the Bank's role is to support its members to fulfill those obligations where they relate to World Bank projects and policies.

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  • What is the nature of the Bank's cooperation on human rights?
  • We recognize that our partners in the broader UN family have a comparative advantage in this area. Unlike the World Bank, many of them have mandates that contain an explicit commitment to human rights, including, in some cases, monitoring and enforcement capabilities.

    We have been working closely with the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights on several initiatives, for example supporting countries to take human rights considerations into account in the preparation of their Poverty Reduction Strategies. The Bank also has participated in the UN High-Level Task Force on the Implementation of the Right to Development, and we regularly dialogue with other UN agencies to learn from their experience and on expert meetings on human rights indicators.

    Under the aegis of the OECD in the DAC Govnet's Human Rights Task Team, the Bank has collaborated with several international partners, including the UN, on an action-oriented policy paper on human rights in development for the DAC. A product from that work is an OECD commissioned study on Integrating Human Rights in Development: A Synthesis of Donor Approaches and Experiences, in which the Bank participated actively.

    The Bank is developing other partnerships to further its understanding of human rights, through a 'learning by doing' approach and we are exploring the establishment of a Justice and Human Rights Trust Fund to further support the Bank's work in such an exercise.

    We will continue to dialogue and form strategic alliances with the rest of the UN family, with other international organizations, donors, and civil society organizations where they can complement and add value to our work.

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Updated: October 2009

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