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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

How the World Bank's Peer Review Services Deny Staff the Right to a Fair Hearing

Shelley Walden, August 12, 2011

Today GAP released a report that evaluates recent reforms to the World Bank’s Peer Review Services (PRS), the lower level of the internal justice system used by Bank whistleblowers and staff to challenge violations of their rights. The report – which is available here –  finds that the Bank has created a deficient justice system that fails to comply with both numerous international human rights standards, and with recommendations made by experts who previously reviewed the system.

Serious rights violations and structural shortcomings identified include:

  • Many staff members are denied the right to appeal. For example, cases that challenge actions, inactions or decisions (including the imposition of disciplinary measures) taken in connection with misconduct investigations performed under the Bank’s whistleblower protection policy go directly to the highest level of the Bank’s justice system – the Administrative Tribunal –  with no possibility of a subsequent appeal to another body.
  • PRS fails to guarantee the rights to call or cross examine witnesses.
  • The right to obtain documentary evidence can also be limited by a Peer Review Panel, contrary to recommendations made in several Bank studies.
  • Oral hearings are not guaranteed before PRS or the Administrative Tribunal and are not required to be public, in violation of several international standards.
  • Staff members are not permitted access to advice from counsel during a hearing and must draft all PRS submissions themselves. Since the burden of proof will rest with the applicant in most cases, denying the requesting staff member the right to an attorney could disadvantage him or her.
  • Decisions are non-binding and can be rejected by the Vice President of the requesting staff member and responding manager, in consultation with the Vice President of Human Resources.
  • Those charged with implementing the system are perceived by staff members to lack independence.
  • The PRS lacks a provision for immediate provisional relief when urgent action is required to prevent undue hardship resulting from an administrative decision.
  • The time limit for filing a grievance is too constrained.
  • Strict confidentiality requirements are imposed, resulting in de facto gag orders.

Because the Bank is not subject to national law in the countries where it operates, these deficiencies are especially problematic, as staff members are completely dependent on the functioning of the Bank’s internal justice system when their rights are violated. 

GAP calls on the Bank to address these shortcomings. For the reasons identified in this report and in previous Bank studies, five options for reforming the PRS are suggested:

  • Peer Review Services would remain intact, but significant reforms would be enacted, including but not limited to: safeguards to protect the applicant’s right to a fair hearing, guaranteed right to counsel, right to call and cross-examine witnesses, and the right to appeal. Decisions should be binding and not subject to managerial approval. While this is the simplest option for the Bank, it is probably the least likely to produce a fair resolution for staff members, as it appears that issues of impartiality and independence can never be fully rectified within a peer review system at an Intergovernmental Organization.
  • A professionalized, two-tier justice system would be established, staffed by professional judges, based on the current United Nations Model outlined by the Redesign Panel in General Assembly documentA/61/205.
  • Staff would be given the option to access independent external arbitration (using a three strike method for determining the arbitrator), an option that has been suggested in U.S. legislation and several studies commissioned by the Bank.
  • An external Appeals Tribunal would be established to review cases from all the Multilateral Developments Banks, the International Monetary Fund and perhaps other Intergovernmental Organizations. This Tribunal, which could have its own independent secretariat, funding and judges, could eliminate duplication of effort, while saving financial resources and increasing independence.
  • The World Bank could opt to waive its immunities from national courts in employment disputes, as recommended by several legal scholars.

Regardless of which option the Bank chooses, it should commit to providing its staff members with an impartial justice system that will comply with the standards established in international human rights instruments.