The ILRF says around US$308m will be disbursed to Uzbek government agricultural projects over the next five years

The ILRF says around US$308m will be disbursed to Uzbek government agricultural projects over the next five years

The World Bank has been accused of potentially violating international law by providing agricultural loans to the government of Uzbekistan, which uses forced labour in the country's cotton sector.

A report released by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) claims the bank has been "aiding and abetting the Uzbek government's gross human rights abuses, which violates international law on responsibility of international organisations for financial complicity in international crimes," and could be held liable in US courts for its misconduct.

Its analysis and findings come as the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan got underway this week.

The report, 'Financing Forced Labor,' also coincides with the opening of the 71st regular session of the United Nations General Assembly where member states will debate implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The ILRF says around US$308m will be disbursed to Uzbek government agricultural projects over the next five years.

Monitors of last year's cotton harvest estimated over 1m people were forced to work in the cotton fields, and that healthcare workers, students, and teachers will be mobilised again this autumn.

The findings chime with a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) during the 2015 cotton harvest, which found indications of forced labour related to the widespread recruitment of adults to pick cotton or make payments instead. 

The US has also taken a strong stand against the use of forced labour in cotton production by downgrading Uzbekistan in its annual 'Trafficking in Persons Report'. The move can lead to economic and military sanctions against a country.

US makes a stand against forced labour in cotton

"While the World Bank's continued financing of agricultural projects in Uzbekistan seemingly violates both its internal laws and international law, no national or international court has heard or issued an opinion about this matter, and there has never been a legal assessment conducted on its merits," notes Andy Shen, senior legal & policy analyst at ILRF and the author of the report.

"The conclusions are disturbing given the World Bank is a specialised agency of the UN and touts itself as a global development actor that respects human rights and the rule of law."

The report also recommends the World Bank, its member states, and its officers seriously consider the comprehensive reforms needed to ensure the bank no longer contributes to the perpetration of human rights abuses in countries where it operates.

The death earlier this month of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov is also seen as the first opportunity for reform in Uzbekistan since its independence 25 years ago.

"While the prospect of an Uzbek society based on the rule of law is uncertain, it is entirely within the control of the member states of the World Bank to ensure Bank loans do not contribute to human rights violations, and to provide remedies consistent with international law when they do," the worker rights group says.

In November the World Bank said ILO monitoring found no conclusive information that beneficiaries of World Bank-supported projects used child or forced labour during the 2015 cotton harvest. However, it expressed "serious concerns" about the risks of forced labour associated with the widespread organised recruitment of adults for cotton harvesting.

The Bank also said its aim is to help modernise agriculture in the country, including diversification of agriculture production away from cotton towards more value-added products; liberalisation of the cotton industry, including through privatisation; mechanisation of cotton harvesting where appropriate; and introduction of market-based labour mobilisation for seasonal cotton pickers.

In July a complaint was also filed against the World Bank's private lending arm calling for an investigation into forced labour connected to a $40m loan to Indorama Kokand Textile, which operates a cotton processing facility in Uzbekistan.

Forced labour linked to Indorama loan in Uzbekistan

An article published on just-style at the time suggests manufacturers, US importers, brands and retailers to scrutinise their supply chains following renewed interest in a US law banning the entry of imported goods made with forced or indentured labour. 

US forced labour ban requires apparel supply chain scrutiny

Click on the following link to download the International Labor Rights Forum report: Financing Forced Labor: The Legal and Policy Implications of World Bank Loans to the Government of Uzbekistan