Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The United Nations should promote the rule of law

International agencies and United Nations bodies are increasingly admitting their failings in the international arena. But when will the World Bank do likewise when it comes to Uzbek labour abuses?

Andy Shen
13 September 2016

World Bank Building, Washington, D.F. Shapinsky (pingnews)//

As the 71st regular session of the United Nations General Assembly opens today, victims in Uzbekistan and Haiti are waiting to see whether the U.N. will finally address a festering problem that has affected millions around the world: accountability of international organisations for the harms they inflict upon local communities.

Over the past year, the U.N. has been developing a global indicator framework to measure progress on achieving each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The framework that will be presented for adoption this week, however, is missing a critical piece: an indicator to measure progress under SDG 16 on the accountability of international organisations in the U.N. system for injuries they cause in the countries where they operate.

Although the U.N. recently acknowledged for the first time that it was involved in the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 10,000 Haitians, it remains to be seen whether it will provide remedies to victims consistent with requirements under international law. The plight of Haitians due to the gross negligence of U.N. peacekeepers has been the most publicised instance of international organisation wrongdoing in recent years, with numerous experts, including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, castigating the U.N. for its unconscionable approach to the problem. Yet there is another case involving gross human rights violations facilitated by an international agency that might be more flagrant and still ongoing but with no resolution in sight.

That case, detailed in a report released today by the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF), involves allegations that the World Bank is knowingly providing agricultural loans to the government of Uzbekistan that are used to sustain its state-orchestrated system of forced labour in the cotton sector. The report’s analysis is based on the circumstances surrounding a 2013 complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel, the organisation’s ‘independent accountability mechanism’, by civil society organisations representing Uzbek victims, and the national and international laws applicable to the Bank. The report concludes that the World Bank has been aiding and abetting the Uzbek government’s gross human rights abuses in violation of international law on responsibility of international organisations for financial complicity in international crimes, and could be held liable in U.S. courts for its misconduct.

In the two years since the Inspection Panel recommended against a full investigation of the complaint, and the World Bank decided not to suspend its loans, forced labour violations have continued unabated in Uzbekistan. Civil society monitors estimated over 1 million victims during the 2015 cotton harvest, and recent reports from the field indicate that the government’s policy of systematically mobilising hospital workers, students, and teachers will remain in effect this fall. The findings of the 2015 ILO third-party monitoring report and the 2016 U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report both accord with civil society reports that the Uzbek government is maintaining its forced labour system despite assurances to the World Bank of the contrary.

The U.N.’s apparent shift in policy concerning reparations for Haitian victims demonstrates the power of litigation and advocacy to persuade human rights violators to change their course of action. But should all victims of human rights violations caused or abetted by the U.N. and other international agencies have to resort to lawsuits and public shaming to obtain the reparations they are entitled to under international law? Wouldn’t international organisations be more effective in fulfilling their mission if they promoted the rule of law and respect for human rights not only in the countries in which they operate, but also within their own governance structures?

The international community can make significant progress in achieving effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels by developing and integrating an indicator of progress on accountability that tracks the number of victims of U.N. and U.N. agency-supported projects who receive remedies in accordance with international law. To facilitate collection of this data and advance the rule of law, U.N. member states should establish a U.N.-led monitoring and accountability mechanism with a focus on addressing human rights violations linked to U.N. and World Bank projects or operations. The World Bank may claim that its accountability mechanism is sufficient, but its failure in the case of Uzbekistan demonstrates that comprehensive reform of the Inspection Panel and other measures are needed to ensure that the Bank no longer contributes to the perpetration of human rights abuses in countries where it operates.

The recent passing of the President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, presents the first opportunity for reform in Uzbekistan since its independence 25 years ago. While the prospect of an Uzbek society based on the rule of law is uncertain, it is entirely within the control of the member states of the World Bank to ensure Bank loans do not contribute to human rights violations, and to provide remedies consistent with international law when they do. If U.N. member states sincerely believe that the advancement of the rule of law at the national and international levels is essential for sustainable development, it should be a matter of priority for the U.N. to ensure human rights are respected and the rule of law realised across the whole U.N. system, including at the World Bank.

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