The World Bank (WB) is an international development bank that provides lowinterest loans, interest-free credits and grants to developing countries for education, health, infrastructure, communications, and many other purposes. The World Bank specifically refers to two of the five World Bank Group development institutions: the IBRD (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) with 189 member states, and the IDA (International Development Association), with 173 member states.

The World Bank Inspection Panel, created in 1993, is composed of three members appointed by theBoard of executive Directors of the World Bank for a non-renewable period of five years. The Panel is a non-judicial “impartial fact-finding body, independent from the World Bank management and staff” 1 . Panel members cannot have worked for the Bank in any capacity for the two years prior to being appointed to the Panel, and cannot go back to working for the Bank again after their term at the Panel. 2

What are the issues that can be dealt with?

The World Bank Inspection Panel was created to address the concerns of people who believe they have been harmed, or are likely to be harmed, by the projects supported by the WB. The Panel assesses allegations of harm to people or the environment and reviews whether the Bank followed its operational policies and procedures during the design, preparation and implementation phases of the various projects. 3 The Panel handles on average 7-9 complaints a year, and in 2020 it received 13 complaints. The Panel does not prescribe remedies.

In its consideration of claims that directly or indirectly raise human rights concerns, it has identified four circumstances in which Bank policies and procedures may require the Bank to take human rights issues into account : 4

  • The Bank must ensure that its projects do not contravene the borrower’s international human rights commitments ;
  • The Bank must determine whether human rights issues may impede compliance with Bank Policies as part of its project due-diligence ;
  • The Bank must interpret the requirements of the indigenous Peoples policy in accordance with the policy’s human rights objective; and
  • The Bank must consider human rights protections enshrined in national constitutions or other sources of domestic law.

In practice however, the Panel has not typically considered claims that were framed in terms of domestic or international law violations unless they were also framed as violations of Bank policy. When claimants seek to raise human rights issues, they should be careful to show how alleged violations of their human rights were caused by the Bank’s failure to adhere to its own policies.

The WB has about 50 operational policies, including the following 5 :

  • Environmental assessment : this policy evaluates the potential environmental risks and impacts of a project and examines alternatives as well as ways of improving the project selection, sitting, planning, design, and implementation. It also includes the process of mitigation and management of adverse environmental impacts throughout the project’s implementation.
  • Gender development : this policy covers the gender dimensions of development within and across sectors in the countries in which the WB has an active assistance program. Here, the borrower’s record with respect to gender and minority rights should be assessed.
  • Indigenous peoples : this covers special considerations with regards to land and natural resources, commercial development of natural and cultural resources, as well as the physical relocation of indigenous peoples. The policy includes a process of free, prior, and informed consultation with the affected indigenous peoples’ communities at each stage of the project and the preparation of an “Indigenous Peoples’ Plan” or “Indigenous Peoples’ Planning Framework”. This policy requires the borrower to undertake a social assessment to evaluate the project’s potential positive and adverse effects on indigenous peoples, and to examine project alternatives where adverse effects may be significant.
  • Involuntary resettlement : this policy covers direct economic and social impacts that result from the Bank-assisted investment projects in order to avoid involuntary resettlements whenever it is possible. The policy provides for a resettlement plan or resettlement policy framework that includes information, consultation and compensation. This policy requires that particular attention be paid to the needs of vulnerable groups among those displaced, including women and ethnic minorities. Complaints can therefore address situations where free, prior and informed consultation has not been conducted prior to resettlement, or when information, consultation or compensation has been insufficient.

In sum, various rights may be affected in projects financed by the World Bank. These may range from the right to food (activities that pollute land or destroy it, preventing its use for production of food), the right to health (transportation of chemicals), the right to life (the use of security personnel, environmental damages) to the right to property (indigenous peoples’ land rights, free, prior and informed consent), etc. 6

Who can file a complaint? 7

Complaints to the World Bank Inspection Panel are formally known as a “Request for Inspection”, which can be submitted by “any group of two or more people in the country where the Bank financed project is located who believe that, as a result of the Bank’s violation of its policies and procedures, their rights or interests have been, or are likely to be adversely affected in a direct and material way” 8 . Organisations, associations, societies or other groups of individuals can file requests, as long as they meet this directly affected standards. However, one individual alone can not. Alternatively, the following entities may file a request on behalf of affected people:

  • A duly appointed local representative acting on explicit instructions as the agent of adversely affected people;
  • A foreign representative acting as the agent of adversely affected people, in exceptional cases; 9
  • An executive Director of the Bank in special cases of serious alleged violations of the Bank’s policies and procedures; and
  • the executive Directors acting as a Board. 10

Requesters may ask for confidentiality in the handling of the Request.

Under what conditions?

  • The complainant must live in the territory of the borrowing state and in the area affected by the project. 11
  • An affected party must believe that: - they are suffering or may suffer harm from a WB-funded project; - the WB may have violated its operational policies or procedures with respect to the design, appraisal, and/or implementation of the project; - the violation is causing the harm. 12
  • The complaint can be submitted during the design, appraisal or implementation of a project, and must be submitted before the project’s funding is closed and before 95 percent of the funding has been disbursed. A complaint may be submitted before the WB has approved financing for the project or program. 13
  • The project must be funded at least in part by the International Development Association (IDA) or the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). 14
  • Before speaking to the inspection panel, the complainant needs to raise his/ her concerns with WB staff;
  • If Management fails to demonstrate that it is taking adequate steps to follow policies and procedures, the complainant may submit a request for inspection to the Inspection Panel directly;
  • The complaint can be submitted in any language. For working purposes, the Panel will translate the request into english.
  • The request should be dated and signed by the Requesters or their representative, and be sent with any supporting documentation, via post or E-mail.

Process and Outcome

  • When the Panel receives a request, it first checks whether it is frivolous or outside its mandate. If it is the case, a notice of non-registration will be sent, but if the request is admissible, it is registered by the Panel and sent to the World Bank’s management. The latter has 21 days to respond. Under the Inspection Panel’s Pilot Program, the Panel can delay a decision on registration and allow bank management an opportunity to resolve the dispute before the Panel takes any further action. 17 This new policy has generated a lot of criticism from civil society. 18
  • The Panel may visit the project area, or make an eligibility determination based on a desk review. It then decides whether to recommend an investigation to the World Bank executive Board. The Panel may also postpone the decision on whether to recommend an investigation in order to give management and complainants another chance to resolve the issues first.
  • If the executive Board approves an investigation, the Panel reviews relevant documents, interviews WB staff, and visits the project site.
  • An investigation may take a few months, or more in complex cases.
  • The Panel sends a written report of its findings to the Executive Board and the President.
  • Within six weeks, the WB Management must respond and indicate how it plans to address the Panel’s findings, usually in the form of an action plan, which it must develop in consultation with affected people.
  • These decisions are then made available to complainants and the public in the form of an investigation report published on the World Bank’s website.

Inspection Panel Eligibility Phase

Inspection Panel Eligibility Phase

Inspection Panel Investigation Phase 19

Inspection Panel Investigation Phase

The Inspection Panel in action

Cambodia: Boeung Kak lake evictions 20 .

The Boeung Kak settlement used to consist of nine villages surrounding the iconic lake in central Phnom Penh, where some 4000 families resided. In February 2007, the Municipality of Phnom Penh granted a 99-year lease to the private developer Shukaku Inc. over a 133-hectare area covering the lake and the nine surrounding villages, illegally stripping residents of their land rights. In September 2009, IDI associates assisted community representatives to prepare a complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel, alleging that the World Bank breached its operational policies by failing to adequately supervise the Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP). This World Bank financed land titling project was established with the stated aim of improving security of tenure for the poor and reducing land conflicts in Cambodia by systematically registering land and issuing titles across the country. However, land-grabbing and forced evictions have escalated significantly over the last ten years, while many vulnerable households have been arbitrarily excluded from the titling system. This exclusion has denied these households protection against land-grabbing and adequate compensation for their expropriated land, often thrusting them into conditions of extreme poverty.

Despite many households having strong evidence to prove their legal rights to the land, Boeung Kak residents were excluded from the titling system when land registration was carried out in their neighborhood in 2006. Shortly thereafter, the Cambodian Government granted the Boeung Kak lease to Shukaku, and the 4000 families residing in the area were suddenly classified as illegal squatters on State-owned land. In addition to being unfairly denied title en masse, residents were also denied the protection of the LMAP Resettlement Policy Framework (RPF), which established a fair process for resettlement and compensation of people found to be residing on State land, in accordance with World Bank social safeguards.

The Inspection Panel found in favor of the Boeung Kak community’s claim that non-compliance with Bank safeguard policies in the design, implementation and supervision of LMAP contributed to the harms that they had suffered. Accordingly, Bank Management made a number of commitments to attempt to address harms suffered. Specifically, it committed to “working with the Government and Development Partners towards ensuring that the communities who filed the Request will be supported in a way consistent with the Resettlement Policy Framework.” Further, Management pledged to “continue to pursue actions so that people can benefit from a set of protection measures in line with what they would have received under the RPF,” 21 including the possibility of using other World Bank credits or trust fund mechanisms.

The Cambodian government, however, showed no willingness to cooperate with the Bank on these remedial actions. In turn, Bank Management informed the Government that it would stop providing loans to Cambodia and would not resume lending until there was a satisfactory resolution of the Boeung Kak case.

Within a week after this lending freeze became public knowledge, on August 17th, the Cambodian government issued a sub-decree granting title to the remaining 800 families over 12.44 hectares of residential land in the Boeung Kak area. By the end of December 2011, more than 500 families had received titles.

Despite this considerable positive development, the case is by no means closed. At least 90 families were excluded from the land concession, and on September 16th, eight of the excluded families were violently evicted. The other excluded families live under a daily threat of being forcibly evicted.

FIDH – through the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders – is also mobilised to protect members of the Boeung Kak community targeted for their activities in defense of human rights. 22