Philip Alston, a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights who sharply criticized World Bank President Jim Yong Kim's leadership in a November Washington Post op-ed, told BuzzFeed News on Monday that Kim declined to meet with him during a brief visit to Washington this week to promote changes to the Bank's approach to human rights.
"I asked to meet with him but he was not available during this visit," Alston said. "What Kim has said about discrimination ... all point[s] to the fact that he could take the lead on [human rights] if he wanted to, but so far he hasn't."
Alston is in Washington as the Bank is wrapping up a global consultation on a "framework" for including environmental and social "safeguards" in its lending. Alston, who is tasked by the U.N. for investigating extreme poverty, led a group of 27 U.N. human rights officials who sent a joint letter to Kim in December that criticized the proposal for going "out of its way to avoid" incorporating well-established principles of international human rights law.
The letter echoed some of the themes Alston sounded in the November op-ed, which argued that Kim and other bank officials were dodging the human rights regime for political reasons and undermining protections for vulnerable groups in the process. While the Bank has tied loans to reform of economic institutions, and previously reined in funding for projects that would harm the environment or indigenous groups, stances involving "human rights" broadly have been avoided.
Alston was especially galled at the fact that Kim has invoked the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King to argue that prosperity creates social justice while the Bank "won't go near human rights with a 10-foot pole."
"It is as though King's 'dream' was about the creation of a large and benevolent bureaucracy, perhaps based in Washington, that could, by working through governments and not talking about rights, bring prosperity and dignity to the poorest in our societies," Alston wrote.
A spokesperson for the World Bank president said in an email to BuzzFeed News that Kim "was not able to meet with Alston because of scheduling" and that he would be meeting with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights next week to "discuss human rights issues in connection with our safeguards consultations."
The lending institution's approach to human rights matters made headlines in early 2014 when the Bank announced that it would indefinitely suspend a $90 million health care loan to Uganda in response to the sweeping Anti-Homosexuality Act enacted in February. Kim followed the action with a Washington Post op-ed in which he appeared to pledge that he would work to make ending discrimination a part of the Bank's work.
"Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies," Kim wrote. "At the World Bank Group, we will have a full internal discussion over the coming months about discrimination more broadly."
His move tied a loan to the treatment of minority groups in an unprecedented way. It appeared to be a reversal of a long-standing Bank policy that such concerns were "political" and therefore something that the Bank was barred from factoring into its lending by rules set up during the 1940s to ensure that the institution would appear neutral. The World Bank and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, which are the world's largest development institutions, have continued to steer clear of questions of social justice even as the U.N. Development Program and other major development institutions have increasingly incorporated human rights principles into their missions.
Human rights advocates had hoped that the Bank's safeguards framework would move the World Bank in that direction. But instead, Alston said, the document conspicuously avoided using the term "human rights" in an effort to keep distance from the protections established by treaties that have been negotiated over the past several decades. Though the Bank talks about advancing the status of women and other social priorities, its failure to use the language of human rights law leaves its policies unclear. Perhaps worse, this disregard from the world's largest development institutions is a slap at human rights law itself.
"The Bank's refusal to engage with human rights undermines very significantly the global human rights regime," Alston told BuzzFeed News.
Alston said that the Bank's failure to directly engage with human rights norms also made the Bank's response to Uganda's anti-homosexuality law counterproductive both for the Bank itself and for LGBT people.
"I think you've singled out one particular application — LGBT [rights] — in one particular country — Uganda — and taken really quite harsh measure, a $90 million project has now been dropped, essentially, dealing [primarily] with maternal health," Alston said. Though Bank officials have maintained the loan is still pending, it has not been released even though the Anti-Homosexuality Act was struck down by Uganda's Constitutional Court in August.
The Bank had never defined what kind of "discrimination" by loan recipients would be of concern or how a state could respond when concerns were raised, Alston said. The Bank hadn't applied this test in other cases of rights violations, and it hasn't applied it to the other roughly 80 countries that have anti-LGBT laws. So it seemed to be capricious rather than sincerely committed to human rights.
"If you don't react in a principled way what you end up doing is setting up a policy that is not sustainable," Alston said.
Alston said he had "nothing but respect for Dr. Kim," but said he needed to show leadership at this crucial moment. "The key that moving to a nuanced and principled human rights policy is leadership. ... I do see [Kim] as the central person at this stage."