The International Monetary Fund: Human Rights are not my Business?

By Mustapha Hadji
The 1980s debt crisis opened the door for IMF to directly interfere in the fiscal and monetary policies of borrowing countries. The Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) have impacted the lives and livelihoods of third world citizens for decades.[1] Reducing public spending was the “magical recipe” prescribed by IMF to crisis-wracked countries to get out of the debt spiral. Cutting public spending meant little to no money for social programs, public education, public health services and many other programs and services that create safety nets for vulnerable social segments of those countries.

Countries to which SAP had been applied had relegated the social protection of their citizens to the backseat of their priorities hence failing to fulfil or create the conditions for their citizens to enjoy their human rights, especially the rights contained in the 1966 ICESCR. Furthermore, borrowing countries desperate for hard currency to repay their debt were pushed to open their economies, to go on privatisation sprees and to dig deep into their natural resources from rainforests to open sky mines. The environmental costs for such policies were calamitous. Furthermore, vulnerable communities, such as indigenous peoples and villagers, saw their livelihoods shuttered and their rights violated by States and TNCs.[2] The legacy of SAP and the “Washington Consensus” is a reminder that policies that do not consider the human component are doomed to fail. It is no surprise that the legacy of those programs still haunts IMF. In her reaction to a question at a 2016 conference the Fund’s managing director tried to distance herself and the Fund from those failed policies by providing a vague answer saying that: “Structural adjustments? That was before my time. I have no idea what it is. We do not do that anymore.”[3]

“Countries relegated the social protection of their citizens to the backseat of their priorities.”

One cannot but wonder if IMF has truly changed its neoliberal policies which took little to no consideration of their impact on the social well-being of people. Or instead has the Fund refurbished policies from the past as brand-new policies and mechanisms just giving the impression that it has adopted new approaches mindful of peoples’ rights?

“The damage will continue to be borne by the vulnerable as long as IMF continues to see human beings as mere numbers and statistics.”

IMF’s austerity measures are similar in their impact to previous IMF formulas. They could be a resurrection of SAPs for both they and austerity measures call on governments to tighten their belt by decreasing public spending and looking for new revenues through taxation and other macroeconomic means. These measures target what is left of the already frail social protection programs keeping the most vulnerable afloat. For instance, the debt crisis in Greece demonstrated that austerity measures meant squeezing the public sector to its minimum without considering what that meant for pensioners and public employees and their families. Moreover, most recently Tunisia was pressured to take similar measures if it were to be granted a “four-year $2.9 billion Extended Fund Facility.”[4] Tunisians were dissatisfied with the Fund’s conditions and started protesting to pressure their government to not accept IMF’s conditions due to their negative impact on peoples’ rights and social well-being.[5] The damage will continue to be borne by the vulnerable as long as IMF continues to see human beings as mere numbers and statistics that fit in some elaborate econometric formulas.

The above confirms Mr. Philip Alston’s findings in his 2018 report to the UNGA. The Special Rapporteur stated that “IMF has not adopted an official opinion in relation to human rights[6] and added that “the sole taboo at IMF seems to be human rights.[7]

To justify its stance, the Fund invokes the Articles of Agreement and what it commonly calls “Marco-Critical.” The former “confer on it the powers of oversight and to provide financial assistance and advice[8] and the latter gives it some leeway in interpreting its mandate. The Special Rapporteur indicated in his report that a 2010 mandate review conducted by the Fund concluded that “The Articles are sufficiently flexible to accommodate major reforms.[9] This shows that the possibility is there, what is lacking is a leadership willing to cut loose old practices and inaugurate a new chapter in the Fund’s approach to human rights and when doing so it should not only focus on some rights that make the Fund look good (e.g gender equality) and ignore other human rights.   

To sum up, IMF has an important role to play in the promotion and protection of human rights and it should assume its responsibility in that regard. Reality has shown that IMF’s policies and programs go beyond their intended scope, and have impact on the respect, protection, and fulfilment of rights. Therefore, IMF should put in place preventive measures and implement more effective due diligence processes to prevent the infringement of rights, especially economic, social, and cultural rights of vulnerable communities. Hiding behind archaic interpretations of the Articles of Agreement is not a plausible excuse any longer. IMF is part of the UN system, a champion of human rights promotion, and as such should be mindful of human rights and set high standards for other international financial institutions to follow.

The recommendations contained in the Special Rapporteur’s reports and the 2014 Tilburg-GLOTHRO Guiding Principles should be given serious consideration by the Fund. The UN human rights bodies should develop innovative ways to bring organisations that are part of the UN system in line with their human rights obligations. The question is whether this will happen soon, or will it be put in the backburner for many decades.

Mustapha holds an MA in Global Affairs from the USA. While in the United States, Mustapha worked as an adviser at an Arab Embassy in Washington DC, as an Africa researcher with a USG contractor in Virginia and a field protection delegate with an international humanitarian organisation. Mustapha is currently a fellow at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis.  Mustapha’s research interests include African affairs, conflict resolution, and human rights and democratisation.


[1] Pilger, John. “War by Other Means”, 1992, http://johnpilger.com/videos/war-by-other-means

[2] Idem

[3] UN Doc. A/HRC/38/33, Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on The IMF and its impact on social protection, May 2018. Para.6, P 5

[4] Capelli, Clara (March 25, 2018), Tunisians Take to The Streets Over IMF-Imposed Austerity. Retrieved on Nov 4, 2018 from: https://www.brettonwoodsproject.org/2018/03/tunisians-take-streets-imf-imposed-austerity/

[5] Chandoul, Jihen (Jan 17, 2018), The IMF has Choked Tunisia. No Wonder the People are Protesting. Retrieved on Nov 4, 2018 from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/17/imf-tunisia-people-rioting-2011-economic-reforms

[6] UN Doc. A/HRC/38/33

[7] Idem

[8] Idem – Para. 12. P5

[9] Idem – Para. 13. P5