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Opinion Column
For the week of August 2 through 8, 2000

World Bank backs down after Washington stands up for Tibetans

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

That the World Bank was forced to back down from one of its ill-conceived, destructive projects is as significant for the world as canceling this particular project was for Tibet. The World Bank has never backed down before.

"The world grows smaller and smaller, more and more interdependent….today more than ever before life must be characterized by a sense of universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human but also human to other forms of life."

- HH the Dalai Lama

It was one small step for the occupied nation of Tibet, a huge step for mankind and its collective sense of universal responsibility. It was a humble if significant victory and a temporary respite from 50 years of oppression and brutality by China of the Tibetan people.

The World Bank, that austere institution which tends to lend and give money to undemocratic regimes and the big businesses that support them (and vice-versa), at the expense of human rights and human decency and environmental integrity, backed down from going through with one of its more destructive proposed projects. A year and a half ago the World Bank was prepared to give $40 million to China to be used in "resettling" Chinese citizens from that over-populated country into Tibet.

That the World Bank was forced to back down from one of its ill-conceived, destructive projects is as significant for the world as canceling this particular project was for Tibet. The World Bank has never backed down before.

The proposed "re-settlement" project would have been an environmental, cultural, human rights, social and, in the long run, economic catastrophe for Tibet. Among the new settlers would be some 58,000 farmers from central China where many years of over-population, over-grazing and a drought some think is caused by global warming is causing some 900 square miles of land to degrade into useless desert each year. Moving those people into Tibet would in time create the same over-populated, over-grazed conditions.

The people of Tibet knew this. The Tibetan people in exile knew this. Environmental groups around the world knew this. Anyone familiar with basic human rights issues and with the long-term and consistent brutality of the Chinese government towards its own people and the peoples it has subjugated knew it. Anyone with a brain, a heart, a consciousness of Tibet and an ethical standard a millimeter higher than the bottom line knew it.

Only, it seems, the World Bank didn’t know it.

China has already resettled far too many of its citizens into Tibet since it invaded that defenseless country half a century ago. In the beginning, most of the new settlers were military citizens. Only later did the civilians arrive. During these 50 years of military rule in Tibet, a third of the Tibetan people have been murdered, hundreds of thousands of others were forced to flee and seek refuge in other countries around the world and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans who stayed in their own country (including monks, nuns and children) have been tortured, maimed, jailed, raped, beaten and persecuted in countless ways. The Tibetan people are now a minority in their own country.

But the World Bank was prepared to give China $40 million to support its destruction of Tibet.

Still, after all this time and after all the indignities and hardships China has inflicted upon them, the Tibetan in Tibet and in exile have not lost their spirit.

In June of 1999 the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), a Washington, D.C.-based organization for the defense of Tibetan people, filed a claim with the World Bank’s Inspection Panel urging it to investigate violations of the bank’s own policies and procedures for this project. At the same time it instigated and ran a fast-paced and multi-faceted campaign to stop the project with the help of international environmental, human-rights, Tibet support and other political groups. Through intensive international mobilization and coordination, the ICT and the Tibet movement accomplished what no other movement has ever been able to do: force the World Bank to annul one of its own ruinous projects.

One reason for this turnaround was the large number of U.S. citizens who contacted and voiced opposition to the project to their congressmen and their representative at the World Bank.

In the words of John Ackerly, president of ICT, "Only days beforehand, it looked as if we were in danger of losing, but on the 11th hour we found that all the international organizing had paid off.

"The U.S. government and many other governments, including Germany and Japan, were supporting our position much more strongly than we could have imagined….Ultimately, the key to victory was the U.S. government. They stood up to China in this case because so many of you made your voices heard….As president of ICT, I have too often seen the U.S. government shortchange Tibet. But in this instance, it made me proud to be represented by our government, because they stood up to China at the World Bank not only for Tibetans, but for all persecuted peoples adversely affected by World Bank projects."

The U.S. government’s statement to World Bank President James Wolfensohn and the board of directors concluded, "It is time for this organization to see the issue for what it is—delivering on its own commitments to credible internal controls and faithful execution of agreed policies and procedures. It is time to take responsibility."

The World Bank’s Inspection Panel report found that the bank’s management had violated all of the bank’s major human rights and environmental safeguards, thus putting Tibetans at great risk.

China, of course, will neither become a responsible government nor cancel its own resettlement plans for Tibet. But the rest of the world should neither condone nor pay for it. Even if China will not, it is encouraging and momentous that enough concerned citizens in concert can force the impregnable World Bank to conceive of and deliver on its own commitments to universal responsibility.


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