In June 2012, community members living around the Alaknanda River in Uttarakhand, India, filed a complaint with the Inspection Panel of the World Bank. In the complaint, they raised social, cultural and environmental concerns about the Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydroelectric Project, a dam development project financed by the World Bank. Concerns raised were related to water shortages and diminished water quality, adverse impacts on local women’s freedom of movement and safety and the dam’s potential impact on religious and cultural practices reliant on the river’s free flow. All but one of the complainants requested confidentiality. As a result of their opposition to the project, community members received death threats and intimidation from the employees of the project’s executing entity. After the Inspection Panel’s field visit in 2013, community members who were seen with the Panel’s representatives were victims of threats and harassment. At times, this intimidation of community members escalated to physical violence. At others, criminal offences were filed against them by the executing entity’s employees.
What happened to the local community members in Uttarakhand is what we call retaliation. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, retaliation in this context refers to “any harmful conduct undertaken in order to prevent or discourage a person from, or punish a person for, accessing, or interacting with, a non-State grievance mechanism”. Retaliation may take place against people other than the complainants themselves. It may be directed to people associated with the complainants including family members, friends, trade unionists, human rights defenders and so forth. It may also affect employees and facilitators of the grievance mechanisms such as interpreters.
Retaliation against individuals can take many forms. According to a guide on retaliation risks published by the Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism (MICI) of the Inter-American Development Bank, the most common reprisals include intimidation, smear campaigns, dismissal from or discrimination related to employment, judicial harassment, arbitrary detention, physical assault and surveillance. Unfortunately, retaliation can also escalate to killings. According to a recent Global Witness report, 227 environmental grassroots activists were killed in 2020. In the case highlighted above, the intimidation came from employees of the executing entity but just as the forms of retaliation vary, their perpetrators do as well.
Retaliation was one of the topics discussed at the 18th Annual Meeting of the International Accountability Mechanism Network (IAMnet) which brought together (albeit virtually!) 20 international accountability mechanisms from September 27 to September 30 2021.
The Head of the Independent Redress Mechanism (IRM), Dr Lalanath de Silva, chaired the discussion on retaliation on the first day of the meeting. Participants were able to hear about practices other IAMs have put in place to prevent and respond to retaliation during complaint management. These included the working group which the Compliance Advisory Ombudsman of the IFC and MIGA leads within their parent organization to fine-tune internal guidelines on retaliation, conduct regular training of staff and build capacity in country offices. Another example was the efforts of the Independent Project Accountability Mechanism of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to develop an encrypted online complaint form and a secure cloud to share documents with external consultants. Additionally, colleagues from the Inspection Panel of the World Bank shared findings from their latest Advisory Report on reprisals, which reflects on the Panel’s experience and practice responding to allegations of reprisals in the past 30 years. In view of the complexity of the topic, its increased relevance in the COVID-19 era and the rich conversation we took part in during the meeting, the IRM believed an article on the topic would be beneficial to our stakeholders.
Managing risks of retaliation as an International Accountability Mechanism: Challenges and Best Practices
International Accountability Mechanisms (IAMs) often deal with sensitive complaints and at times have to contend with retaliation risks against their complainants, related individuals or facilitators. Contextual factors such as political repression, strong power imbalances, discrimination, poor law enforcement and/or corruption may heighten this risk. Additionally, COVID-19 measures have opened the doors to expand digital surveillance and restrain civic spaces in many contexts.
International accountability mechanisms are aware of and vocal about the limitations they face in protecting their complainants and collaborators. As non-state-based grievance mechanisms, they have no direct ability to physically protect complainants and do not have continued presence in the project sites. Parental organisations can be hesitant in interfering in what they perceive as the internal affairs of the countries in which they are operating. Additionally, staff in parent organizations might lack awareness and responsiveness to manage alleged cases of retaliation. In light of these limitations, international accountability mechanisms have established and continue to improve their procedures to prevent and respond to retaliation risks to the best of their ability.
A comprehensive account of the best practices in the field was published by the Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism (MICI) of the Inter-American Development Bank in 2019. A series of measures can be taken to prevent retaliation from the initial point of contact with complainants. Practices such as early and participatory risk assessments, granting confidentiality to complainants, establishing plans of potential mitigating measures, regular training on retaliation risk management to the IAMs and the parental organisation’s staff, and issuing zero tolerance for retaliation statements have become standard procedures. Additionally, organisations have been integrating practices from civil society organisations such as the Front-Line Defenders’ Security-in-a-box toolkit on digital security.
Moreover, IAMs can build the capacity of complainants to engage safely with them and work with the parental organization to leverage their position as financiers in case retaliation occurs. In fact, the Accountability Counsel, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving accountability in international finance, stresses that international financial organizations are not powerless in the face of retaliation. They encourage financiers to protect defenders by demonstrating zero tolerance for retaliation. This includes using all leverage – including holding off on future funding or disbursements – until retaliatory issues have been remediated and resolved. An anti-reprisals clause can also be included in loan agreements with borrowers and borrowers involved in retaliation may be placed on exclusion lists (as is practice for cases of corruption, fraud and other miscellaneous misuses of funds).
The Independent Redress Mechanism and the Green Climate Fund: Zero Tolerance for Retaliation
The Green Climate Fund (GCF) does not tolerate retaliation. This is reflected in two specific policies, namely, the GCF’s Policy on the Protection of Whistleblowers and Witnesses (PPWW) and the Policy on Prohibited Practices (PPP). Retaliation against Whistleblowers and Witnesses is a Prohibited Practices. The PPWW explicitly states that a Whistleblower or Witness may be a person who brings allegations and information in a grievance, complaint or reconsideration request to the IRM. Under the provisions of the Policy on Prohibited Practices, a retaliation may lead, among other actions, to the imposition of administrative sanctions or disciplinary/corrective measures on GCF personnel, to the cancellation or suspension of GCF proceeds which have been allocated to a party involved in fund-related activities, and to the ineligibility of that party to participate in future GCF-related activities. Under the PPWW, whistleblowers and witnesses are provided necessary protections and remedies against retaliation. (For further indications, please refer to the Policy on Prohibited Practices.)
Moreover, the IRM has established supporting operational procedures to address risks of retaliation in complaint management. Some of the measures which have been taken and continue to be taken include:
- Training the IRM personnel on retaliation risks;
- Conducting risk assessments in every grievance, complaint or reconsideration request submitted to the IRM. Risk assessments are conducted immediately at the eligibility determination phase and continuously updated throughout the case process. This assessment is conducted in consultation with complainants and with the input of external experts, when appropriate.
- Conducting retaliation risk assessments prior to the IRM’s outreach events and adapting the events accordingly to mitigate the risks;
- Providing confidentiality to complainants if requested or when the IRM perceives of retaliation risks;
- Using mediators as intermediaries instead of having face to face meetings in cases where there are risks of retaliation;
- Establishing one focal point for complainants and requesters throughout the IRM process with whom they are able to discuss concerns of retaliation. (This aims at nurturing trust.)
- Establishing clear internal information handling procedures and a communication plan with providing on the necessary steps in confidential information is leaked;
- Establishing a Memorandum of Understanding with the GCF’s Independent Integrity Unit (IIU) which addresses instances of overlap in jurisdiction between the IRM and the IIU in terms of handling allegations relating to retaliation.
Moreover, the IRM may make recommendations to the GCF Executive Director and/or GCF Board about appropriate and proportional measures to be taken to safeguard persons at risks of retaliation.
The IRM recognizes the structural limitations it faces in responding to retaliation. These include the fact that the IRM does not have continuing presence at GCF project or programme locations nor established channels of communications with all those who may, where appropriate, be invited to use their good offices to minimize risks of retaliation. Moreover, the IRM has no direct power to physically protect persons involved in IRM processes and does not purport to replace national or international judicial bodies or law enforcement agencies. However, it is dedicated to investing all possible resources to protect its complainants and collaborators and to facilitate safe access to remedy for beneficiaries of GCF-funded activities. For further information, you can email [email protected].
Article prepared by Safaa Loukili Idrissi