World Bank Potentially Liable for Supporting Forced Labor in Uzbekistan

ILRF report finds World Bank in violation of international law on responsibility of international organizations for financial complicity in international crimes

A report by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) finds that the World Bank is committing a serious violation of international law by knowingly providing agricultural loans to the government of Uzbekistan that are used to sustain its state-orchestrated system of forced labor in the cotton sector. The report’s analysis is based on the circumstances surrounding a 2013 complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel and the subsequent events leading up to the 2016 cotton harvest, and the national and international laws applicable to the Bank. The report concludes that the World Bank has been aiding and abetting the Uzbek government’s gross human rights abuses, which violates international law on responsibility of international organizations for financial complicity in international crimes, and could be held liable in U.S. courts for its misconduct.

ILRF’s report coincides with the opening of the 71st regular session of the United Nations General Assembly where member states will debate implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Uzbek human rights defenders are waiting to see whether the U.N. will finally address a festering problem that has affected millions around the world: accountability of international organizations for the harms they inflict upon local communities.

The case detailed in the ILRF report is one of the most egregious examples of World Bank-supported human rights abuse in recent memory. Gross human rights violations continue to be aided by the World Bank despite credible evidence known to Bank leaders that its agricultural loans are likely being used by the Uzbek government to support its state-run system of forced labor. Civil society monitors estimated over one million victims of forced labor during the 2015 cotton harvest, and recent reports from the field indicate the government’s policy of systematically mobilizing healthcare workers, students, and teachers will remain in effect this fall. The findings of the 2015 ILO third party monitoring report and the 2016 U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report both accord with civil society reports that the Uzbek government continued to maintain its forced labor system in 2015 despite assurances to the World Bank of the contrary.

“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. 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. 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,” said Andy Shen, Senior Legal & Policy Analyst at ILRF and the author of the report.

ILRF’s report informs concerned stakeholders of the World Bank’s serious violations of international law and examines the potential legal consequences that may come to bear if it continues to provide loans to the Uzbek government when the risk of systematic forced labor in the country is real.  The report also recommends the World Bank, its member states, and its officers seriously consider the comprehensive reforms needed to ensure the Bank no longer contributes to the perpetration of human rights abuses in countries where it operates. Such reforms necessarily include a more transparent and rights-centered loan-making process, reform of the structure and function of the Inspection Panel, and an amendment to the Political Prohibition Provisions of the Bank’s Articles of Agreement. To ensure the World Bank complies with international law, the report recommends the establishment of a U.N.-led accountability mechanism that has the power to issue binding decisions regarding harms caused to local communities by Bank-financed projects.

“If U.N. 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 U.N. system, including at the World Bank. 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,” Shen continued.

The recent passing of the President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, presents the first opportunity for reform in Uzbekistan since its independence 25 years ago. While the prospect of an Uzbek society based on the rule of law is uncertain, it is entirely within the control of the member states of the World Bank to ensure Bank loans do not contribute to human rights violations, and to provide remedies consistent with international law when they do.

“By forcing teachers, doctors and students to work in cotton fields, the state undermines the well-being of citizens, harms public health and degrades the quality of education of school and university students,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.

“The World Bank should be supporting civil society efforts to improve the well-being of Uzbek citizens, not supporting an industry that erodes human rights, public health, and the education of university students in Uzbekistan,” said Judy Gearhart, Executive Director at the International Labor Rights Forum.