Hemantha Withanage: development banks must uphold human rights

By Lorena Cotza Nov 03, 2020


In this article, Hemantha Withanage (Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka and International Convenor at the NGO Forum on ADB) calls on the development banks to uphold human rights and engage with human rights defenders when making post-Covid-19 recovery plans.

Public development banks are a major driver of development. They are active in the infrastructure, mining, tourism and many others sectors. But in the past decade, they have been icnreasingly criticized for human rights violations linked to their projects.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are a set of guidelines for States and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations. They were endorsed by the Human Rights Council in its resolution 17/4 of 16 June 2011.

For over 50 years, development banks have struggled with the role that human rights should play in their work. Although the development banks have transformed their core missions over the years, many issues remains the same. Development banks are under increasing pressure by the local communities and civil activists to respond to calls for greater engagement in human rights. But unfortunately, we have seen that development banks continue to support countries responsible for human rights abuses.

The COVID 19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of upholding human rights across the nations and in the development sectors, because it has shown how the poor and working class are more vulnerable and how they were unequally treated in the COVID-19 responses, despite the financial support given by development banks to respond to the pandemic.

Human rights are inextricably linked to equal opportunities for people to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. Even the economists and policy makers think that the advancement of human rights contributes to economic development. Multi-lateral development banks have the potential to influence governments to do better on this front.

Yet, development banks remain hesitant to include human rights among the key objectives of development, and continue to rely on traditional economic measures like trade, sector efficiencies, employment, income and capacity building.

This matter further surfaces in the upcoming “Finance in Common” summit, where all public development banks in the world will gather to discuss their post-COVID recovery plans and their future goals. We have noticed that in the Summit agenda there’s no mention of human rights and they are not engaging with communities, human rights defenders, and civil society.

The NGO Forum on ADB states that true development is hindered most where domestic institutions are weak, and human dignity is not respected. Many banks’ member countries remain poor as a result of a national failure to provide people with basic services and equal opportunities for all. The NGO Forum on ADB members have witnessed how many national governments failed to address human rights in their COVID responses.

Therefore we demand that development banks should put human rights at the core of their development agenda and promote human dignity and equal opportunities, encouraging member countries to do the same. We also call on the development banks to engage with local communities, civil society and human rights defenders when designing post COVID recovery plans.

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Lorena Cotza
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