Photo by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
Is the World Bank an enabler? A leading human-rights group certainly thinks so. Nearly 60 years after the International Labour Organization called for the abolishment of forced or compulsory labor, the International Labor Rights Forum is accusing the institution of violating international law in Uzbekistan, where the government dispatches a million men, women, and children into state-owned cotton fields every fall to meet harvest quotas under the threat of penalty. By “knowingly providing” Uzbek officials with agricultural loans, the World Bank is guilty of aiding and abetting human-rights abuses in the Central Asian nation, the organization said in a report published Tuesday.
Photo by Simone D. McCourte for the World Bank
“The government of Uzbekistan is primarily responsible for the perpetration of its forced-labor system, but two other actors have contributed to its longevity: the World Bank Group and global brands,” the ILRF said. Since 1995, the Uzbek system has been sustained in part through loans to the government from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association, and loans to private companies sourcing Uzbek cotton from the International Finance Corporation.”
Barring loan suspensions or cancellations, the ILRF estimated that the Uzbek government will receive $308 million in support of its agricultural industry over the next five years.
Financing Forced Labor offers the first “comprehensive analysis” of the legal implications of the World Bank’s continued financing of the Uzbek government.
Financing Forced Labor, the group said, offers the first “comprehensive analysis” of the legal implications of the World Bank’s continued financing of the Uzbek government, despite knowledge of a link between its funds and the exploitation of Uzbek citizens. The World Bank could even be held liable in U.S. courts.
“This report’s findings are based on extensive research and analysis on the legal implications of the World Bank’s loans to the government of Uzbekistan,” Andy Shen, senior legal and policy analyst at ILRF and the report’s author, said in a statement. “While the World Bank’s continued financing of agricultural projects in Uzbekistan seemingly violates both its internal laws and international law, no national or international court has heard or issued an opinion about this matter, and there has never been a legal assessment conducted on its merits.”
He continued: “The conclusions are disturbing given the World Bank is a specialized agency of the U.N. and touts itself as a global development actor that respects human rights and the rule of law.”
Legalities aside, the report also calls into question the wisdom and effectiveness of the World Bank’s policies and strategies in countries where human-rights abuses are regularly perpetuated by the state.
It is entirely within the control of the World Bank’s member states, the ILRF said, to ensure that the institution’s loans do not contribute to human-rights abuses, but to take remedial action within the bounds of international law when they do.
Plus, with the recent death of President Islam Karimov, Uzbek society has—for the first time since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991—a chance at reform.
“If [United Nations] member states are serious about promoting the rule of law at all levels, it should be a matter of priority for the U.N. to ensure human rights are respected and the rule of law realized across the whole UN system, including at the World Bank,” Shen said. “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 the Bank truly does no harm.”