In countries around the world, people who suffer harm because of development projects financed by the World Bank Group take grave risks to speak out and often face severe consequences. Yet the bank has taken few concrete steps to protect community members from harassment and ensure that people can speak freely without putting themselves or their family members at risk.
In Cambodia security forces have jailed Nget Khun, a 75-year-old community activist on several occasions for protesting evictions stemming from projects financed by the World Bank (PDF). Grandma Mommy, as Khun is known locally, and her fellow community members have been in and out of jail for years. During a May 2012 arrest, she said, four or five security personnel carried her “like they were carrying a pig” and threw her in a car.
After a summary trial in which her defense lawyer was given no time to prepare his case or call defense witnesses, she and 12 other activists were convicted of illegal occupancy of public property and obstructing public officials. An appeals court later suspended their sentences after public pressure, but they spent a month in jail. In November 2014 she and six other women were convicted of obstructing traffic and spent five months in jail before being pardoned in April. The government has also violently cracked down on protesters and threatened community activists.
The bank has strongly opposed the government’s plan to evict people from their homes in Khun’s community, but it has been silent about the attacks on outspoken community members.
Many people affected by bank-financed projects live in countries where the government has limited tolerance for criticism. Over the last two years, Human Rights Watch interviewed critics of projects financed by the World Bank and its private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corp. (IFC), in Cambodia, India, Uganda, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. More than half the activists and individuals, who have lodged formal complaints against 34 bank-financed projects, said they were threatened or faced some form of reprisal because of their criticism. Yet the bank and the IFC have done very little to protect them.
In India community members opposing a hydroelectric dam have faced threats and harassment from construction employees and contractors, including abusive remarks about their gender and caste. And in Uganda, human rights defenders who opposed the eviction of locals by a firm receiving IFC financing were put under government surveillance and harassed by unknown men. Officials threatened to cancel licenses for their organization to function.
In other countries, these attacks take place in a broader and sometimes brutal campaign to shut down independent voices — particularly those critical of state-run development projects. But the attacks on dissidents filter out valuable perspectives, undermining development and silencing people who have been harmed by development projects with no recourse. Abusive measures can prevent people from objecting to harmful and ineffective projects that violate their rights.
The World Bank has long been aware of these risks, and its inspection panel has highlighted the retaliation against those who complain to it. In repressive countries such as Uzbekistan and Ethiopia, where governments routinely punish dissent and make it hard for independent groups to function, the bank has often played down the risk of abuse to avoid engaging in difficult conversations with partner governments.
However, the bank has a responsibility to demonstrate that it not only tolerates but also values independent reporting on its investments. It needs publicly and vigorously to resist reprisals against community members, activists and other independent voices. Deterring such reprisals entails publicly establishing the bank’s support for the rights and safety of community members and activists as a priority issue.
When reprisals occur, bank officials should go beyond closed-door conversations with government officials and develop a strategy to persuade governments or companies to end the attacks, investigate them and provide remedies to victims.
The World Bank Group president, Jim Yong Kim, has spoken about the importance of learning from mistakes. Critics play a key role in highlighting these missteps, and the bank should stand with them. He could leave a lasting legacy by making the bank a responsible and responsive financial institution that takes proactive measures to prevent reprisals against its critics and vigorously responds to retaliations when they occur.