Thursday, June 25, 2015

World Bank Group: Project Critics Threatened, Harassed, Jailed

(Washington, DC, June 22, 2015)
The World Bank Group has done little to prevent or dissuade governments from intimidating critics of the projects it funds, or monitor for reprisals, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The 144-page report, “At Your Own Risk:Reprisals against Critics of World Bank Group Projects,” details how governments and powerful companies have threatened, intimidated, and misused criminal laws against outspoken community members who stand to be displaced or otherwise allegedly harmed by projects financed by the World Bank and its private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
The World Bank and IFC have failed to take adequate steps to help create a safe environment in which people can express concern or criticism about projects funded by the Bank Group without risk of reprisal, Human Rights Watch found. “The World Bank has long said that public participation and accountability are key to the success of the development efforts it funds,” said Jessica Evans, senior international financial institutions advocate at Human Rights Watch. “But the World Bank’s repeated failure to confront intimidation or harassment of people who criticize its projects risks making a mockery out of these principles.”
Human Rights Watch found that people who have publicly criticized projects financed by the World Bank and IFC have faced threats, harassment, and trumped-up criminal charges. When reprisals have occurred the Bank Group has largely left victims to their fate, preferring silence or “quiet diplomacy” over the kind of prompt, public, and vigorous responses that could make a real difference.

In spite of what are often grave risks, affected community members in numerous countries have spoken out about the problems that they see with Bank-supported projects.
Here we will focus on Uganda.
In Uganda, staff at Uganda Land Alliance and a journalist who worked to document and stop forced evictions linked to an IFC project described threats, including death threats. The government also demanded a public apology to the president and threatened to deregister Uganda Land Alliance unless they withdrew their report documenting the evictions. In recent years, a growing number of governments have embarked on broad and sometimes brutal campaigns to shut down the space for independent groups. Some governments have responded with ire to criticisms of government-supported development projects, condemning those who speak out as “anti-development” or traitors to the national interests. These abusive measures can obstruct 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 independent, internal complaint mechanisms for the World Bank – the Inspection Panel – and the IFC – the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) – have acknowledged the real risk of retaliation against critics, but neither has established systematic practices to identify risks of reprisals or address them. Since receiving the Human Rights Watch findings, the Inspection Panel has announced it is working on a guidance note on how to respond to reports of reprisals, and the CAO has promised to consider the Human Rights Watch recommendations. “The Inspection Panel and Compliance Advisor Ombudsman’s eagerness to tackle the risk of reprisals and improve their systems is a great sign,” Evans said. “World Bank management should follow the lead of its complaint mechanisms and take the issue of reprisals seriously.”

selected quotes:

    “There is still the stigma. We don’t go out as strong any more. We are very cautious about what we say. We don’t say anything controversial in a meeting any more. It affects how we do our things.”
    – A staff member of the Uganda Land Alliance, an independent group whose employees faced threats and harassment and that faced de-registration following its research and outspoken criticism of an IFC-financed project.

    “Those who delay industrial projects are enemies and I don’t want them. I am going to open war on them.”
    – Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, two days after breaking ground on the World Bank-financed Bujagali dam project. Human Rights Watch found that reprisals take place in a broader climate that demonizes critics as “anti-development.”

    “Free speech is the cornerstone of transparency and accountability. Where World Bank projects are being implemented, citizens must have a voice.… The World Bank should have done more to protect the security of people speaking out against this project. It’s us who facilitate the voice of the people. I’m not aware of them [the World Bank] doing anything [about the reprisals against critics of this project].… This makes me believe they think free speech is not an issue for them.”
    – Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, a human rights defender and journalist who covered forced evictions in Uganda linked to an IFC-financed project.

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