IDB Invest and IFC’s new guidance on reprisals: a welcome step, but much more is needed

By Hannah Storey Jun 07, 2021


In March 2020, IDB Invest and IFC’s released a new guidance which lays out 10 steps companies should take to screen, prevent and respond to reprisals. In this blog, Hannah Storey analyses the document and explains why, although this is a welcome and important step, much more is needed to truly tackle reprisals. Hannah Storey is Business and development finance researcher at Front Line Defenders, working part-time for the Defenders in Development campaign.

In a world where human rights defenders are threatened and attacked for opposing development projects, IFC and IDB Invest’s new guidance for the private sector on addressing reprisals against those criticising development projects is a welcome and important step, but IFC and IDB invest must go further if they are truly committed to tackling reprisals.

Every day human rights defenders around the world work to protect their lands and resources from destruction, for equal access to healthcare, education, and housing, for better labour conditions, to expose corruption, and to advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable. Their voices are critical1. Development banks have a responsibility to listen to them, to understand what impact their investments are having and how to reach those most in need. But these voices are under threat: in 2020 the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre recorded over 600 attacks against defenders working on business-related human rights issues. 

In March 2020, IDB Invest and IFC’s released a new guidance, which lays out 10 steps companies should take to screen, prevent and respond to reprisals. Although this is a welcome step, this is a missed opportunity. As we explain below in more detail, recommendations are only addressed to clients, failing to explain how the banks themselves should act in case of reprisals linked to a project they fund. Moreover, the guidance is just a list of well-written recommendations, but does not contain any obligations to their clients or practical steps to operationalize it.

However, the guidance does include some important recommendations such as:

  1. Business enterprises should both commit to zero tolerance of reprisals and take steps to communicate that commitment to staff through capacity building, to other businesses they work with – including through contractual obligations – and to government stakeholders.
  2. Companies should undertake contextual risk analysis. Early warning signs of potential threats to defenders are often missed or ignored and even where a project itself does not cause significant direct adverse impacts, it may exacerbate reprisals risks existent in the broader project context. It is therefore important to analyse both the project and the context to establish what the risks to defenders are. 
  3. Companies should adopt an open, transparent, inclusive and safe approach with stakeholders. In 2020 the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre found that ⅓ of attacks against defenders working on business-related human rights issues stemmed from the lack of meaningful consultation. Engagement with human rights defenders throughout the lifecycle of a project is critical for keeping them safe. 
  4. Companies should have protocols in place for incident response including protecting confidentiality. Although the priority should always be in preventing reprisals, having internal guidance for how to handle a reprisal  creates a smoother and safer process for victims when incidents do occur. Internal guidance can identify practical matters such as who will be responsible for the process, as well as potential courses of action that the company can take. It is important that in this plan, the company identifies where they have leverage (financial, political etc.) to influence actors involved in, or related to, the reprisal. Where leverage is limited companies should consider how to increase it. Given the high level of risks facing defenders it is also important that any data about them or their case is handled with utmost care and with good security practices.

Unfortunately that is where any praise for this policy note ends. One criticism of the content of this document is the reliance on project level grievance mechanisms when there is a reprisals risk. When defenders are already at risk because they have voiced their concerns about the project, we cannot expect them to trust and use a project level grievance mechanism to air their grievance. 

This would have been a perfect opportunity for IFC and IDB Invest to communicate where they fit in this process, by recommending their clients to disclose to stakeholders the existence of IFC and IDB Invest’s own Independent Accountability Mechanisms to facilitate their access to a grievance mechanism which are further removed from the risk. But references to bank-level mechanisms are shockingly absent. There is no mention that reprisals should be reported to IFC and IDB invest if linked to one of their projects for example, no mention that defenders can also utilise their accountability mechanisms, and no mention that companies can reach out to the banks for further support in responding to reprisals if needed –  even if the guidance lists a host of other actors (NGOs, governments, security experts) companies could reach out to.

Disappointingly this new guidance is just that, guidance, and because of this no private sector clients are actually obligated to implement any of the recommendations, however good they are. Although it is useful to articulate best practice, without also incorporating requirements for clients, these recommendations can be easily ignored. 

Recommendations instead of obligations also mean that human rights defenders who face reprisals have little means of recourse. If IFC or IDB Invest’s client companies fail to fulfil these recommendations leading to a dangerous environment for defenders around their project, there is no accountability nor remedy for victims. 

IFC and IDB Invest have stated that the purpose of this guidance is to raise awareness and guide their clients in their efforts addressing the risk of reprisals but it remains unclear how IFC and IDB Invest intend to operationalise this document. How, for example, they will ensure that clients are aware of these recommendations and that they understand them; what support they will offer clients who want to implement them. What commitments are IFC and IDB Invest willing to make in order to ensure this guidance is actually used by the companies they financially support?

Perhaps the most glaring gap is that the guidance does not address cases when the perpetrator of violence is the company itself, which unfortunately are quite common. Between 2009 and 2017 IFC financially supported the Dinant Corporation – a Honduran producer of oil palm. According to research by the Defenders in Development campaign, Dinant was engaged in widespread violent land conflict which led to the killings of five local farmers by security services who were supplied with military-grade weapons by Dinant. In this case Dinant was, if not the perpetrator, than the facilitator of violence. Companies simply cannot be relied upon to police themselves. 

Ultimately, the responsibility for tackling reprisals does not lie solely with IFC or IDB Invest’s clients, development banks share that responsibility and have an important role to play. They have their own obligations to respect human rights. The government shareholders of these banks also have obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms. IFC as part of the World Bank Group – as a specialised agency of the United Nations – is also bound by the human rights objectives of the UN Charter. The IFC has taken the first step in issuing a statement of zero tolerance for reprisals in its projects, but it, and other institutions, have a long way to go to put in place procedures and guidance that tackle the sharp end of human rights abuses – reprisals against human rights defenders.

This new guidance for clients is a step in the right direction, and we hope to see IFC and IDB Invest now lead by example by developing their own internal procedures and protocols to address situations of reprisals within their investments. The good news is that when the banks design their own policies and procedures to tackle reprisals they wouldn’t be starting from scratch. In many ways this guidance notes provides a good roadmap for actions development banks can also take to screen, prevent and respond to reprisals. Now is the time for them to show they are really serious about this issue and demonstrate that they truly believe in what they’re asking of their clients, that they’re ready to lead by example.

1. Research by the World Bank and others has demonstrated that having a strong enabling environment for civic space and public participation correlates to higher levels of economic growth and human development, and leads to more successful development interventions. See for example Daniel Kaufmann, “Human Rights, Governance, and Development: An empirical perspective,” in World Bank Institute, Development Outreach, October 2006 and; Civic Engagement to Improve Development Effectiveness in the Europe and Central Asia Region – The Role of the World Bank, June 2004, World Bank,

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