How can the IDB Group effectively implement its commitment not to tolerate reprisals in its projects and operations?

The Inter-American Development Bank Group (IDB Group) has committed to refuse to tolerate reprisals, but the institution has yet to successfully operationalize the commitment, with responses to reports of reprisals remaining ad-hoc. We recommend that the IDB Group develop an institutionalized approach to assess the risk of reprisals, incorporate preventive measures into project design, and systematically and predictably respond to reports of reprisals when they occur. 

With roughly three in four documented attacks against human rights defenders in 2020 taking place in Latin America, the IDB Group has an important role to play in preventing its projects and operations from contributing to reprisals against project stakeholders. The IDB’s  Environmental and Social Policy Framework (2020) and the IDB Invest’s Environmental and Social Sustainability Policy (2019) include commitments not to tolerate reprisals and mandate contextual risk assessments during project design. The IDB Invest has also produced guidance on reprisals for its clients. While this marks a necessary and positive policy shift, making a commitment is only the first step; effective implementation of these commitments remains a challenge. Adopting an institutionalized approach to assessing the risk of reprisals, putting in place preventive measures, and responding to reports of reprisals when they do occur will be key for the IDB Group to protect project-affected communities and achieve positive development outcomes.

Attacks on defenders are very rarely singular events nor unforeseeable, and largely stem from an environment that discourages or actively represses critique which is often perpetuated by the client (government or private sector company). Typically, retaliation against one individual or group can have a chilling effect on an entire community. Reprisals also escalate over time, often intensifying as perpetrators take increasingly violent measures to silence the defender. Development projects occurring in the context of unresolved land rights, internal armed conflict, or whose proponents have links to state security, intelligence forces, or paramilitary groups, have a particularly high risk of reprisals. For example, the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project in Chile and the San Mateo and San Andres Hydroelectric Projects in Guatemala demonstrate how a lack of preparation, mitigation, and effective response to reprisals set the stage for conflict and reprisals to escalate over time, impacting not only on the livelihoods of defenders that were victims of threats, criminalization, judicial harassment, and surveillance, but the entire community. In both cases, the costs of permitting reprisals were so high they outweighed the benefits of the projects.

The IDB Group’s response to reprisals and retaliation has been isolated and ad-hoc, often depending on the will and judgment of individual staff to respond. IDB projects have been weak in identifying and confronting the structural conditions on the ground that enabled the reprisal, oftentimes seeking evidence to distance their clients from the reprisal. Moreover, the IDB Invest’s measures so far have only been oriented to support clients in dealing with reprisals but fall short in recognizing that often reprisals are carried out by or in favor of its clients. For these reasons, it is critical that the IDB Group responds to instances of retaliation and engages with clients, authorities, and other parties to decrease risks for project-affected communities, for example by establishing mediation processes and supporting capacity building to prevent recurrence.

We offer the following recommendations for the IDB Group to operationalize its zero tolerance commitment. These recommendations were shared by civil society organizations [1] with the IDB Board of Directors in a February 2022 briefing. Most of the recommendations mirror CSO recommendations that were shared with the World Bank when they developed their zero tolerance to reprisals statement.

1. Include an assessment of reprisal risks in the due diligence process. IDB Group operations should be informed by baseline assessments of the civic space environment in the country and contextual risks specific to the project. At the country level, the IDB should conduct civic space assessments to examine laws, regulations, and practices, such as restrictions on CSO registration and funding, and laws regulating or criminalizing assembly, association, and expression. Then, at the project level, as required by the IDB’s ESPF, [2] the IDB Group should screen for contextual risks in the early stages of project preparation, including land disputes, labor disputes, the industry’s track record in the area, historical cases of reprisals, and any existing legacy issues in the project area. As these contextual factors increase the risk of reprisals, in projects where screening indicates a high risk of reprisals, we recommend the IDB Group conduct, in close consultation with project stakeholders including human rights defenders, a full contextual risk assessment to help inform preventative measures.  

2. Mitigate risks through reprisal-sensitive stakeholder engagement and project design. Based on the contextual risk assessment and project level due diligence, if a project has a heightened risk of reprisals, guidance for staff and project teams should indicate specific measures that the IDB Group can take to prevent and mitigate the risks. Specifically, the IDB Group should: 

  • Develop, in consultation with stakeholders, a reprisal prevention and mitigation plan, including measures for reprisal-sensitive stakeholder engagement to adapt project design and stakeholder engagement in high-risk contexts.
  • Independently monitor the situation on the ground. 
  • Provide training on reprisals for implementing agencies. 
  • Publicize project grievance mechanisms and design them to be independent of the project structure and able to accept confidential or anonymous complaints.
  • Engage directly with project stakeholders and civil society during supervision missions when the risk assessment finds the government unable to organize reprisal-sensitive stakeholder engagement sessions. 
  • Create additional leverage points with the client by including reprisal commitments in loan agreements and contracts. For example, include requirements to report any allegations of reprisals not to meet only timeline and budget demands but also to demonstrate meaningful engagement with detractors when reprisals happen.   

3. Respond swiftly to reports of reprisals. The IDB Group needs to develop a reprisal response protocol that follows a predictable process and includes a mandate for immediate action when any threat or instance of reprisal is reported. This protocol should detail a process for how reports of reprisals or threats will be handled and escalated within the institution. The burden should not be put on the person reporting the reprisal to prove either the existence of the threat or the linkage with the IDB Group to trigger a response from the institution, and the IDB Group should prioritize making sure the targeted person is safe in their immediate response. 

4. Train staff and dedicate funding. For the IDB Group to deliver on its commitments, it needs to invest in training and capacity building for staff, senior leadership, and implementing agencies. In addition, the IDB Group should dedicate funds to hire staff with expertise in addressing reprisals and stakeholder engagement to work on the ground and be prepared to address these issues.  If the IDB strengthens its presence in countries, the institution will be better equipped to provide in-country operational support and offer solutions to the implementing agencies and TLs when risks of reprisals are high or when they happen. Also,  the IDB Group should train Team Leaders (TLs) on how to respond to and escalate a report of retaliation, or fear of retaliation pursuant to the reprisal response protocol discussed above. Overall, the IDB’s TLs and management should be prepared to respond and operate in environments with high reprisal risk without endangering stakeholders and project-affected groups.

Without written internal guidance and comprehensive training on reprisals and retaliation, staff can easily overlook or not take reports of reprisals seriously, or inadvertently put project-affected groups at risk. We urge the IDB Group to work closely with civil society to develop specific and actionable guidance on reprisals and retaliation.

[1] The organizations that participated in the IDB Board Workshop were: Oxfam, Center for International Environmental Law, International Trade Union Confederation, Nomogaia, Coalition for Human Rights in Development, Lifeline Fund, Accountability Research Center, and Front Line Defenders.

[2] “The IDB’s due diligence on environmental and social risk and impact management is integrated into its overall operation’s due diligence, including the review of material risks that may affect the environmental and social sustainability of the operation, such as contextual and third party risks.”