Human Rights Accountability of the IMF and the World Bank: A Critique of Existing Mechanisms and a Theory of Horizontal Accountability

U. C. Davis Journal of International Law and Policy, 18 May 2006

In this article, I describe the IMF and the World Bank's coercive use of the conditionality arrangement in determining the fiscal and monetary policies, and shaping the development decisions of debtor countries as constituting not an expansion but, in fact, a transfer of "public decision making" power from debtor states to these non-state actors. I argue that the exercise of such public decision making power by these institutions has a significant coercive impact on the lives of the people within developing countries. When such coercion results in severe deprivation of basic human rights, the need for accountability of such institutions to the people becomes imperative. I examine the prevalence of horizontal application of rights in liberal democratic constitutional orders and argue for its extension to the international level in order to curb the state-like power of non-state actors such as the World Bank and the IMF. 

My argument involves five steps. First, I describe the evolving role of the IMF and the World Bank from institutions entrusted with the role of “monetary cooperation” and “assisting/facilitating ‘development’”, respectively, to institutions engaging substantively in the “development process” as ‘global policy makers’ for the debtor states. I argue that the changing role of these institutions and the criticisms made against them with respect to the exercise of their roles provides the basis for the demand for human rights accountability of these two institutions.

Second, I examine existing institutional accountability mechanisms for the World Bank and the IMF. I discuss both self regulatory measures and quasi independent accountability mechanisms set up by these institutions, for instance, the World Bank Inspection Panel and the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office. I demonstrate the inadequacies of these accountability mechanisms to justify the need for non-institutional mechanisms of accountability.

Third, I examine non-institutional mechanisms of accountability at the municipal and international levels. Based on this analysis, I argue in favour of international human rights accountability of these institutions and describe the attempts that have been made so far to develop such a theory of accountability. The incompleteness of the existing theory of international accountability leads me to look to the horizontality thesis to articulate a comprehensive theory of international human rights accountability.

Fourth, I make a normative argument in favour of the application of international human rights law to non-state actors like the World Bank and the IMF based on the doctrine of horizontal application of rights in constitutional law. I justify the need for transplanting a constitutional rights doctrine of accountability to international human rights law by means of an argument about the ‘nature’ of rights as protection against power. I demonstrate the prevalence and growing popularity of the horizontality doctrine via a comparative constitutional law analysis of this doctrine in various constitutional systems, including Ireland, India, South Africa, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada, thereby concluding that horizontal application of rights is an accepted doctrine of comparative constitutional law.

Finally, I argue for the normative extension of horizontal application of rights on the international plane to ensure that international human rights law binds the World Bank and the IMF in their activities and operations. I give some preliminary ideas about how rights would be horizontally applied to constrain the actions of the World Bank and the IMF. I conclude by raising certain questions that must be addressed in order to make this model of accountability more meaningful. These questions investigate the possible fora where these rights might be enforced and explore the possibility of extending this doctrine to other intergovernmental organisations and non-state actors.