On June 25, the Board of Governors of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will meet in Beijing for the first annual meeting of the world’s newest multilateral development bank. There, governors and representatives from the bank’s 57 members will meet to announce a roster of initial projects, review operational plans and policies, and discuss prospects for expanding membership.
With $1.2 billion in funding expected to be allocated in 2016, there is great potential for the China-dominated AIIB to contribute positively to economic development and human well-being, especially considering the huge regional demand for infrastructure investment in Asia. And AIIB President Jin Liqun has pledged that bank will be a “new type of development bank” governed according to the “highest possible standards,” taking lessons from the experience and policies of existing international financial institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank or Asian Development Bank (ADB).
However, despite these promising signs, history shows that development banks’ efforts to pursue growth do not always go hand-in-hand with respecting human rights. In order to ensure that AIIB-financed projects advance the goals of inclusive and sustainable development that respects human rights, its project-selection and decision-making must be conducted with a high degree of transparency. On this account, however, the AIIB will need to do much more to demonstrate commitment to international standards on business and human rights and to show that they are leading the pack, rather than struggling to keep up with even the minimal standards of other IFIs.
The Need for Transparency
Transparency is an essential principle for any public institution to uphold and is especially important in the area of international development financing. Access to information makes it possible to evaluate how IFIs identify and address human rights risks associated with the projects that they finance. Subjecting decision-making processes and project operations to public scrutiny can further strengthen oversight and accountability by exposing potential wrongdoing and corruption.
AIIB has taken note of the connection between transparency and accountability in its “Public Information Interim Policy” (PIIP), published in January 2016 and expected to be formally adopted at the upcoming meeting. It is much less clear how the PIIP will facilitate the human rights due diligence that AIIB and its clients will be required to carry out, however, and the policy does little to enable stakeholder integration into the bank’s decision-making process.
There are many sound reasons for the bank to be more transparent and inclusive. People and communities whose lives stand to be most affected by infrastructure development projects need timely access to information in order to participate fully in decisions about the purpose, design, and implementation of those projects. Informed stakeholder engagement enables projects and policies to benefit from valuable external input, increases the chances of identifying and addressing problems at an early stage and thus decreases the possibility that operations will lead to adverse human rights impacts.
Beyond these utilitarian rationales for transparency, AIIB needs to adopt an information-disclosure policy that acknowledges that intergovernmental organizations like itself must at the very least respect the fundamental human right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas,” which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other core human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As all of the AIIB’s 57 founding members have ratified at least one of these treaties, these states should, therefore, ensure that the bank’s policies on public information disclosure make positive reference to the right to access information and that those policies are implemented in ways that make that right a reality.
How Transparent Will AIIB Be?
Public information disclosure should encompass a number of key elements: namely, a true presumption of disclosure, generous automatic disclosure rules, a clear framework for processing requests for information, limited exceptions to disclosure, and a right of appeal to an independent body.
At present, the PIIP’s presumption of disclosure is undermined by an extensive list of exceptions and broad deference to confidentiality claims made by related third parties, such as contracting states and corporations. AIIB has identified entire categories of information that are subject to confidentiality claims, rather than identifying a clearly and narrowly defined set of public and private interests and assessing on a case-by-case basis whether disclosure of a particular piece of information will cause harm to one or more of these interests.
Moreover, a policy designed to maximize transparency must also take into consideration whether the public interest in accessing a piece of information outweighs the harm to any particular (and possibly private) interest. In its present form, the PIIP has no provision for any such “public interest override” and simply rules out disclosure for information that has been categorized as confidential under the provisions of the policy itself.
The procedures for requesting information are apparently being developed, but in order to give effect to the right to access information, AIIB must ensure that all relevant procedures are accessible, simple, quick, and free or low cost. This includes procedures governing how to request information, how responses are processed, and what sort of notice is necessary in case of refusal. And to give full effect to the right to appeal when requests to access information are denied, the bank should follow the practice of other IFIs and supplement the internal appeals process currently set out in the PIIP with a fully independent appeals body whose decisions are binding on both parties.
Lack of Communication
Amnesty International and other civil-society organizations are also concerned by inadequate public consultation in the drafting and adoption of the PIIP. This comes after the bank was criticized for the way it quietly adopted its “Environmental and Social Framework” after a brief six-week public consultation period carried out entirely in English and relying heavily on video conferences that ignored the needs of communities without access to broadband Internet access.
This last point is crucial, because as the AIIB begins funding infrastructure projects in Asia (and someday beyond), it will need to do more to facilitate communication with project-affected communities speaking a multiplicity of languages and having varying degrees of literacy and access to technology. This will require significant effort and outlay of resources to ensure that key documents are translated and available through channels other than websites and email.
The right of public access should also extend to bank meetings, which provide an important opportunity to exchange information about AIIB activities. AIIB’s first annual meeting will only offer selected civil society representatives the chance to listen to a pair of 90-minute seminars on a Sunday morning. One hopes that future AIIB meetings will provide space for broader and regular engagement with a wide range of civil society actors on a variety of issues relevant to the bank’s projects and goals. Such forums should focus on relevant issues, be inclusive and offer opportunities to engage in true dialogue on policies and projects.
This may rankle some bank leaders, who aspire to operate more efficiently than other IFIs. But the goal of efficiency mustn’t come at the expense of the right of the public to access information about and provide input into development decision-making that has an impact on their human rights, including environmental protection. Established IFIs like the World Bank and ADB have struggled over many years to improve their own transparency and engagement policies under critical pressure from civil society. Their lesson to AIIB should be to act now to promote transparency and engagement from the beginning, because experience shows how difficult it can be to change organizational culture and promote greater transparency later on, after policies and habits become set within an institution.
Joshua Rosenzweig is a Business and Human Rights Strategy Advisor/Analyst at Amnesty International’s East Asia Regional Office in Hong Kong, where he has lived since 2008.