An interview with Mac Darrow, Representative of the UN Human Rights Office in Washington DC

Darrow warns against continuing to invest in bad infrastructure projects. Among other things, he demands to inform the public about the risks involved in large projects and the obligations to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement.

Picture of a triangular, modern infrastructure

Sebastian Duwe: When thinking of the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, infrastructure is not the first issue that comes to mind. What is your approach to infrastructure?

Mac Darrow: OHCHR and UN human rights mechanisms have worked on infrastructure related issues for many years, although mainly “downstream”, in a reactive way, after harms have occurred, supporting indigenous peoples and other project-affected populations in obtaining remedy and redress. The challenge we are now all facing is how to see human rights risk factors within the larger political economy and finance and investment policy contexts, and aim for an effective preventive role in “upstream” policy engagement.

Drawn portrait of Mac Darrow

Mega-infrastructure projects may cause human rights infringements, while the world is in dire need of better infrastructure to improve human rights standards. How do we handle this conundrum?

This is a particularly challenging question. Part of the answer is surely to encourage innovative, local solutions and ensure that the real, root causes and political economy of under-investment in infrastructure are front and center of the financing debate. Ambitions for private participation and institutional investors’ financing of infrastructure seem optimistic at present, particularly in many low-income countries. There is also an urgent need to promote greater public awareness of the promise as well as risks of infrastructure projects and policy-making and encourage wider adherence to quality infrastructure standards. Scaled-up investment in bad infrastructure will only backfire. The G20’s Quality Infrastructure Investment standards agreed recently in Japan provide a useful reference point, including calling for human rights to be respected, although Paris Agreement commitments must also be respected.

From your perspective, what are the most common human rights violations associated with large-scale infrastructure projects, who is most at risk?

This depends upon the infrastructure sector and country context but poor consultation, gender-blind project design, unaffordable user fees, and threats and reprisals against environmental and human rights defenders are among the more common problems. And financing risks, poor planning and governance, and climate change risks can have systemic and enduring adverse human rights impacts.

On the flip side, what is key to good projects that strengthen human rights? 

From the consultations leading to the recent OHCHR-hbs publication, the critical factors include: (1) avoid the assumption that “big is best” or that the private sector should be the default provider; (2) ensure maximum transparency and meaningful participation of all relevant stakeholders in decision-making from the earliest stage, not only in relation to specific projects, but also financing decisions and investment agreements; (3) integrate human rights due diligence and environmental and social impact analysis within all key decision-making and risk management processes, from the earliest stage; (4) ensure that (publicly consulted) infrastructure plans and projects are consistent with Paris Agreement (climate) commitments; (5) ensure that human rights and environmental criteria are integrated within cost-benefit analyses and Environmental, Social and Governance metrics; and (6) ensure accountability and remedy for any harms to people or the environment.

You just mentioned our recently published report on “The Other Infrastructure Gap: Sustainability” focusing on human rights and sustainability in large-scale infrastructure projects. What are your main takeaways?

For me they are two-fold: (1) increased quality infrastructure is indispensable for human rights and sustainable development, but (2) the promise of infrastructure will not be realized unless human rights risks are addressed at micro (project design and implementation), meso (workers, infrastructure users) and macro-policy levels.

The study addresses human rights as well as environmental impacts of large-scale infrastructure projects. How do the two dimensions interact?

The study affirms the intuition that environmental and human rights considerations and impacts are intimately linked. This is not to say that there can be no trade-offs or tensions, conceptually or in practice; for example, forestation (REDD) projects have on occasion violated indigenous peoples’ rights, and the human rights framework does not obviously put boundaries on human consumption. But amidst rapidly diminishing natural resources and increasing security threats, environmental and human rights defenders are increasingly showing common cause. Successive High Commissioners for Human Rights have described climate change as the single largest global threat to human rights. Our publication makes a strong case, we hope, for Paris commitments to be integrated throughout all levels of infrastructure policy-making and project design, implementation and de-commissioning.

A German version of this interview first appeared in print in the Böll.Thema 1/20.