January 19, 2023

Realizing zero tolerance against reprisals

Safeguarding communities’ right to be heard without fear of retaliation


Photo illustration by Dominic Chavez.

Safeguarding communities’ right to be heard without fear of retaliation

By Rabi Thapa

The COVID-19 pandemic led not only to tragic loss of life on a massive scale, it greatly complicated the day-to-day existence of people across the world. Virtually everyone was more isolated than before, with government-imposed shutdowns and travel bans in many countries.

This added a layer of difficulty for those facing reprisals, which in the context of development can be defined as “any type of intimidation, threat or attack against community members and human rights defenders” who speak out against perceived harmful impacts of development projects.

It’s unclear whether reprisals increased during the pandemic – no group has done an analysis yet. But interviews with independent accountability mechanisms (IAMs) and civil society organizations reveal that both reporting reprisals and responding to them has been more challenging since the pandemic began roughly three years ago.

As civic spaces shrink, threats grow

For IAMs and civil society groups working with communities, there’s no question that reprisals have been a major issue since before the pandemic. A World Bank Inspection Panel report published in 2021 called “Right to be Heard: Intimidation and Reprisals in World Bank Complaints” found that 40 percent of complaints mentioned reprisal risks and 80 percent of complainants requested confidentiality in 2020. This is up from 33 percent and 67 percent, respectively, in 2015. The report documented an upward trend in Inspection Panel cases, and requests for confidentiality and reprisal allegations from roughly 2009 to 2021 (see Figure 1 below).