World Bank must protect civil society actors from retaliation and reprisals


The World Bank and its International Finance Corporation have a responsibility to protect human rights defenders and other civil society actors from retaliation and reprisals associated with projects it supports or finances.

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By Jessica Evans, Senior researcher and advocate, and Sarah Saadoun, Fellow, at Human Rights Watch

The World Bank and its International Finance Corporation have a responsibility to protect human rights defenders and other civil society actors from retaliation and reprisals associated with projects it supports or finances.

In Cambodia, a small group of women stood singing on the sandlot where Boeung Kak Lake once was. A company had filled the lake with sand and, together with the government, persuaded or coerced thousands of families to leave their homes to make way for a high-end complex. The women had come with a group of families to mark the boundaries of their destroyed homes, but the police took their tools and so they sang instead. After a few hours, the police moved in and arrested 13 women, one of them 72 years old. A court convicted them within 48 hours on trumped up charges and sentenced them to 30 months in prison, although some sentences were suspended.

The previous year, the World Bank’s Inspection Panel found, and the bank admitted, that the Boeung Kak Lake evictions were directly linked to a bank project and violated bank policy. The bank responded as it should have: When the Cambodian government refused to work with the bank to address these wrongs it froze all new funding to the government until a solution could be found for the affected families.

Yet the World Bank remained largely silent on this and other occasions when the Cambodian security forces and courts carried out reprisals against critics of the project, throwing them in jail, violently quelling peaceful protests over the evictions, and threatening, harassing, and spying on critical community members.

The World Bank and its private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), has similarly stood by in country after country when governments or companies retaliated against project critics. Over the last two years, we interviewed critics of projects in Cambodia, India, Uganda, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. More than half the people who lodged formal complaints against 34 bank-financed projects said they were threatened or faced some form of reprisal.

In one country, the government arrested an interpreter the bank’s internal complaint mechanism had hired to assist them in investigating community complaints about a major development project, but the bank did little more than ask the government about the arrest. The interpreter remains in jail. Despite the Bank Group’s considerable leverage and high-level access to its government and corporate clients, it has consistently done little or nothing to persuade them to tolerate criticism or intervene on behalf of the victims of reprisals.

The World Bank and IFC’s unwillingness to take a firm stand against efforts to silence project critics is a manifestation of the Bank Group’s broader repudiation of its human rights responsibilities. In response to a Human Rights Watch letter asking what the World Bank and IFC do to prevent and respond to reprisals, the Bank Group did not answer the question, instead emphasising that it ‘is not a human rights tribunal’. The World Bank has used similar arguments to justify not incorporating human rights standards into its safeguard policies, claiming that it cannot enforce governments’ human rights obligations and must limit itself to ensuring compliance with its own safeguard policies, which fall short of international human rights standards.

That is a poor excuse for the Bank Group to turn its back on people deserving its protection and blatantly distorts what is being asked of the bank. It is not expected to monitor a government’s – or company’s – general compliance with human rights, but to ensure that it is not linked to those violations through the projects it finances.

This principle, called due diligence, is at the heart of corporate social responsibility. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide that enterprises should undertake human rights due diligence to identify and mitigate the human rights impact not only of their own activities but also activities to which they are directly linked by their business relationships. Undertaking due diligence to prevent, investigate, and remedy reprisals would not make the bank a human rights tribunal; it would make it a responsible actor.

Moreover, reprisals serve as a clear reminder that the World Bank is mistaken if it believes it can so neatly draw a line between human rights and its safeguards. Bank Group policies require meaningful consultation with people affected by its projects, which depends on a safe environment where people can speak their mind without fearing reprisals. The same is true of its accountability mechanisms for addressing complaints: their utility is severely undermined when the bank is unwilling to protect people who initiate investigations at great risk to themselves. In other words, government and company retaliation against project critics is a serious obstacle to the effective implementation of bank policies.

As a public institution with a mandate to alleviate poverty, the Bank Group should be a leader in due diligence to protect people harmed by the projects it finances, including when they face threats, harassment, or imprisonment because they’ve filed a complaint or protested harm from bank projects. It’s high time the bank stopped shirking its responsibilities, leaving people to speak out and seek redress at their own risk.

Jessica Evans is the senior researcher and advocate working on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter at @evans_jessica.

Sarah Saadoun is the Leonard H. Sandler Fellow at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter at @sarah_saadoun


In the weeks and days leading up to the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, ISHR will publish a series of articles by leading experts including human rights defenders, UN representatives, diplomats, businesses and international NGOs. Each article will include an analysis of the important role of human rights defenders and will be compiled in a special edition of ISHR’s Human Rights Monitor, to be launched in English, French and Spanish on November 9. The views expressed in the pieces are personal and do not necessarily represent the position of ISHR.


  • Corporate accountability
  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • Cambodia
  • India
  • Uganda
  • Uzbekistan