Diplomats who abuse their immunity from prosecution to keep their “imported” domestic workers as virtual slaves are a repeated scandal. What has not gained as much media coverage and public exposure is the flagrant abuse of sovereign immunity by international organizations.
For decades, the World Bank, the third-largest employer in our nation’s capital, has sustained racially discriminatory practices. And within the last few months, an appeal to address the issue has seen inaction by the newest president of the World Bank, appointed in 2010 by President Obama.
In 2009, the Government Accountability Project identified only four Black Americans out of more than 1000 American professionals working at the bank, not counting several thousand foreign nationals. The bank’s reply essentially was that there are not sufficient qualified Black Americans.
In fact, as the bank’s own internal reports have documented, discrimination is the root of the problem. In 1998, the Team for Racial Equality, consisting of senior officials including the bank’s current chief counsel, reported that “The findings of three earlier World Bank studies send a clear message: race-based discrimination is present in our institution.” One of the serious issues that the 1998 report and several subsequent ones identified is the “ghettoization” (segregation) of Blacks in the Africa regional vice presidential unit, housed in a separate building from the World Bank’s main office,
In 2009, a former senior vice president explained that Blacks were placed in the Africa regional section to give them opportunity to prove their competence and win the confidence of management before they were considered for assignments in other areas. This made it difficult for Black professionals to gain higher positions — and difficult for the bank to retain skilled Black professionals who could find greater opportunities elsewhere.
The situation was so insulting that a segment of 18th Street between Pennsylvania Avenue and G Street has been unofficially christened “Apartheid Avenue.” To the left of the Street stands the Bank’s “J” building where Blacks are largely segregated. To its right sits the bank’s flagship building where Black professionals face glass doors.
Because of the bank’s immunity from U.S. courts, victims of racial discrimination are confined to an internal tribunal. Since its establishment in 1980, the tribunal has dismissed all racial discrimination claims filed by Blacks. In contrast, according to GAP’s 2009 report, “Complainants of other races who allege racial discrimination or applicants claiming reverse discrimination have better prospects for compensation awards.”
The expectation of change was high when President Jim Yong Kim was nominated by President Obama and confirmed as the first minority president of the World Bank in 2012, and opened his first annual meeting by saying that his life was “fueled by” Dr. Martin Luther King’s optimism about the human condition.
To his credit, President Kim assumed personal leadership in advancing the bank’s agenda for equality for women and the LGBT community. In the last six months he published two op-ed articles on women and LGBT issues, met with external advocacy groups, and made presentations and chaired sessions at related forums. In contrast, he has not met with leaders of the DC Civil Rights Coalition, delegating this to his chief of staff.
The coalition submitted a petition calling on the president to (i) resolve outstanding cases of racial discrimination; (ii) establish an external commission; and (iii) introduce external arbitration as an alternative adjudicative outlet. To date, President Kim has not answered the coalition’s call.
The bank’s formal posture remains that the bank “has zero tolerance for discrimination” and that staffers with grievances have access to a “reputable, independent, and impartial tribunal.” What is clear, however, is that the reality still does not match the rhetoric. It is time for President Kim to take aggressive action to shut down Apartheid Avenue.