Remembering Female Prisoners of Conscience on International Women’s Day

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Female Prisoners of Conscience (starting top left, clockwise): Diane Rwigara (Rwanda), Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan, now released), Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (Iran), and Atena Daemi (Iran) 

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us take a moment to consider the plight of female prisoners of conscience, a group of women distinguished both by their exceptional heroism and by their extreme vulnerability.

As the United Nations has increasingly emphasized in recent years, even among activists, journalists and politicians generally, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) face heightened danger; they are “subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence.” The factors behind these heightened risks are complicated, but can relate both to the type of work that WHRDs often engage in (advocacy related to women’s issues), as well as who the WHRDs are (women, challenging traditional gender roles). Far too often, WHRDs face stigmatization, exclusion, violence and imprisonment.

Take the case of Diane Rwigara, for instance, a 35-year-old Rwandan politician currently being held in pre-trial detention. Diane’s crime was attempting to run against Rwanda’s authoritarian president Paul Kagame in the most recent election. Within 72 hours of her announcement of her candidacy, nude pictures allegedly of Diane were leaked on social media. When this public shaming failed to intimidate her, she was arrested—along with her mother and sister—and charged with a slew of specious offenses related to forgery, incitement to insurrection, and promotion of sectarian practices. Although Diane and her female relatives were arrested about six months ago, the government has refused to release her and her mother on bail while they await trial. There have been credible reports that the women have been tortured while in prison. If convicted, Diane’s mother and sister could spend up to seven years in prison; Diane herself faces a 15-year-sentence.

Sadly, Diane’s story is not unique. In fact, it hews closely to the authoritarian playbook on how to target a WHRD. Those who follow prisoner of conscience cases might remember a similar fact-pattern playing out with respect to Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent Azerbaijani investigative journalist, who was arrested in 2014, after a leaked video of her having sex with her boyfriend—obtained through illegal surveillance in her home—failed to shame her into silence.  After spending nearly 18 months in prison, Khadija was finally released in May 2016, however she remains under a travel ban for at least three more years.

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World Bank and the Negative Pledge Clause

World-Bank-HeadquartersDuring tumultuous fiscal years of the past few decades, the World Bank, acting in its capacity as lender of last resort, granted unsecured loans to debt-ridden sovereign nations. Instead of taking a lien over the state’s assets, the World Bank protected its interests via a broadly-worded Negative Pledge Clause embedded in Section 6.02 of the Loan General Conditions. This clause ensures that any lien created on any public assets as security for external debt that results in a priority for a third-party creditor will equally and ratably secure all amounts payable by the borrowing state. In short, should such a lien be granted, the World Bank shares in the amounts paid out to the third party creditor, thus preventing the creditor from enjoying senior creditor status and undermining the value of any later-granted lien.

Including the Negative Pledge Clause in the World Bank loan agreements helps mitigate the World Bank’s risk of providing unsecured loans by ensuring that a developing nation will not give a later creditor priority over its assets. However, the barrier that the Negative Pledge Clause constructs around a state’s ability to engage with other creditors is so formidable that the clause can end up preventing the state from attracting commercial investment for project financings. As currently drafted, the Negative Pledge Clause dissuades commercial lenders from investing in exactly the kinds of projects that might further development and enrich a nation (thus strengthening the nation’s ability to pay back its debts). This is not only unfortunate for the developing countries involved, but also challenges the raison d’être of the World Bank, a multilateral institution designed to promote development.

When it comes to promoting development-friendly projects, the World Bank and developing nations should share a similar goal: encourage infrastructure projects that enrich poor nations, making such nations more likely to repay their prior debt obligations and lessen their future dependence on developing-bank funds. However, in order for a developing nation to become a full member of the world economy, it must be able to act and grant security like other commercial borrowers. Unfortunately, the current Negative Pledge Clause, while established for some important and legitimate reasons, has worked to stifle such development.

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