Contrasting views of human rights in business: World Bank and IT companies

November 19, 2015

Here two contrasting statements on the theme of business and human rights. One describes the hesitation of the World Bank to apply human rights criteria and even use the word human rights (posted in the Huffington post of 18 November 2015 by Nezir Sinani [] and Julia Radomski, and the other is a piece written by Owen Larter and Nicolas Patrick entitled “Microsoft & DLA Piper – Why Human Rights and Human Rights Defenders are Right for our Business” [published in the ISHR Monitor on 27 October 2015].

The Huffington Post’s “Leaked Document Reveals Internal Struggle for Human Rights Protections at the World Bank” states that at a time when the World Bank is poised to increase its investment in fragile and conflict states, strong safeguards to ensure the poorest and most vulnerable don’t pay the price are more important than ever.


For the past three years, Bank officials, governments, civil society organizations, and communities have given their input in debating and redrafting the Bank policies responsible for protecting communities and the environment. In a confidential statement to the Bank’s Committee on Development Effectiveness, submitted a month before the second safeguards draft was made public, six Executive Directors (EDs) of the World Bank expressed pointed criticisms of the Bank’s proposed new draft policies.

The major criticism relates to human rights. While to the layperson it might seem obvious that the World Bank would support human rights, or at least do their best to avoid rights violations, the Bank is notorious for evading use of the rights word in its policies. This aversion has persisted despite decades of evidence of egregious human rights violations resulting from Bank-funded projects. Earlier this year, a major media investigation found that the Bank had physically or economically displaced 3.4 million people over the last decade and exposed many cases where poor and vulnerable communities had suffered extreme distress and human rights abuses as a result. In fact, the head of the World Bank’s private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), announced he will step down amidst allegations of human rights violations in the IFC’s projects.

The EDs behind this statement, representing United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the Nordic and Baltic (who together hold quarter of the shares), wrote that “it is very much the responsibility of the Bank to ensure that its operations do not violate human rights.

Protesters in front of the World Bank office in Brussels (Belgium), September 2014 (Photo credits: Arnaud Ghys)

The also statement uses strong language in arguing that “it is fundamentally the Bank’s responsibility to ensure that it is able to deliver on the requirements of its own policies” – in essence, responsibility for environmental and social harm caused by World Bank projects lies with the Bank. These concerns align with much of the feedback given by civil society organizations throughout the safeguards review.



The second piece [however self-serving it may be in view of the origin of its authors] about Microsoft and DLA Piper has no problem with the word human rights, far from it. It starts by saying that increasingly many global multi-national corporations have committed to conducting their business in a way that respects human rights. For many the motivations are purely ethical (for instance many businesses have signed the UN Global Compact which includes a commitment to promote human rights). Others are driven by a mix of business and moral considerations – for instance, the many corporates who now recruit direct from the third sector need to demonstrate a strong human rights policy to readily attract such talent, in return for the wealth of expertise, insight, networks and even credibility such individuals can bring.

Then it describes with some detail the efforts made by the two companies, mentioning things such as:

  • DLA Piper and Microsoft’s support for human rights is deeply ingrained into our corporate culture and practices.
  • At DLA Piper, many of the lawyers and consultants in the pro bono and responsible business teams come from the third sector and many in Microsoft’s Corporate Citizenship teams across the globe bring extensive experience of the NGO sector.
  • Both DLA Piper and Microsoft are proactive in respecting human rights and both have adopted human rights policies, (Microsoft’sGlobal Human Rights Statement), with Microsoft also having created the Technology and Human Rights Resource Centre, designed to advance public understanding of the human rights impact of ICT.
  • DLA Piper and Microsoft benefit from close, collaborative relationships with hundreds of NGOs; a strong connection to civil society that makes our businesses stronger.
  • Our collective experience certainly supports the belief that businesses thrive in communities that are rights respecting ..and human rights defenders are crucial in fomenting rights respecting communities.

As a result of this mutual and long-standing support for human rights, DLA Piper and Microsoft believe there are several ways the business sector and civil society can provide mutual support to each other to minimise the risk of persecution of human rights defenders:

  • Human rights defenders should partner with and work constructively with the business sector and foster partnerships and collaboration.
  • Multi-national corporations ought to implement training for local managers (ensuring that local staff are trained to be respectful of the role of civil society, especially when communicating with regulators).
  • Businesses should always aim to behave in a way that respects the rule of law. Where in doubt, this case needs to be made repeatedly and clearly (for instance articulating their support for gay rights).
  • In certain circumstances businesses may wish to speak out in defence of NGOs and other civil society groups facing persecution. Having a prominent and well-developed policy on both Human Rights and external relations is helpful for guiding a company’s behaviour.
  • Some of this personal risk to business or reputation can be alleviated by having strong Trade associations, with their own systems and processes for responding on behalf of all members (example: the technology industry via the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition around supply chain transparency).

Rights respecting businesses need to be aware of the limitations being placed on NGOs around the world, and start to seriously assess how this expands the role and responsibility of the business community……..Only through continued engagement between the business community, NGOs and human rights defenders can we continue to progress this important agenda.

see also:


Leaked Document Reveals Internal Struggle for Human Rights Protections at the World Bank | Nezir Sinani

Microsoft & DLA Piper – Why Human Rights and Human Rights Defenders are Right for our Business | ISHR

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