By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Human rights groups slammed the World Bank on Thursday over an internal report on Zimbabwe that suggested it would be a sign of "political development" for the country if its poor human rights record did not get any worse.
In the leaked July 27 document, seen by Reuters and reported by some African media, the Washington-based bank laid out a potential plan for clearing $1.88 billion of Zimbabwe's arrears with the region's big three multilateral lenders - the IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank (AfDB).
The report identified progress on Zimbabwe's human rights record as a needed benchmark to justify re-engagement with the southern African country and bring it back into the international financial fold.
The bank believed Zimbabwe was committed to "major change", with 92-year-old Robert Mugabe - Zimbabwe's only leader since independence from Britain in 1980 - recognizing the need for outside help to resuscitate a moribund economy, the report said.
But as a proposed indicator of "political development" away from "coercion" in the country, it said in a bullet point: "Number of alleged human rights violations level off or decline from 2014 average and/or no unwarranted arrest of key opposition leaders."
Rights groups took exception to such a benchmark in a country where security forces are accused of routine abuses, ranging from harassment of opposition supporters and activists to beatings and forced disappearances.
"Reading this literally turned my stomach," Todd Moss, the chief operating officer of the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based think-tank, wrote in a blog that also accused the World Bank of being too ready to believe the government's rhetoric on reform.
"For the World Bank to move ahead with funding Zimbabwe based on this naive and deeply flawed analysis would be a colossal mistake," he added.
The report also noted that - with the exception of disputed and bloody elections in 2008 - Zimbabwe's politics were largely non-violent, due in large part to "strong coping mechanisms and a rigid security apparatus".
"It is shocking to hear that the World Bank is considering a bailout package for Zimbabwe at a time when the human rights situation in the country is deteriorating as police use excessive force to crush numerous peaceful protests," added Dewa Mavhinga, senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch in Johannesburg, adding that the bank risked "unwittingly funding abuse in Zimbabwe."
In a statement issued in Washington, the World Bank distanced itself from the report.
"The Zimbabwe Turnaround Elibility Assessment Note that was leaked to some outlets is an unofficial draft document that has not been approved by the Bank," the World Bank said.
The institution said it would only resume direct lending to Zimbabwe when the arrears were cleared. It said it was committed to helping Zimbabwe achieve its long-term development goals and cared "deeply about the well-being of the people of Zimbabwe."
The report comes about a month after the World Bank approved new safeguards for people and the environment in its financing that have come under criticism from non-profit groups for creating "loopholes" with vague language and reliance on borrower country laws and standards.
One of Africa's brightest prospects when it won independence, Zimbabwe's economy has collapsed since 2000 after the expropriation of thousands of white-owned farms and disastrous hyperinflation.
Clearing the arrears is a pre-requisite for restructuring its $8.3 billion of foreign debt, or attracting investment to upgrade its creaking infrastructure and kick-start the economy.
The document said Harare would repay its $120 million of arrears to the IMF using its Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) at the Fund.
The outstanding amounts owed to the World Bank and AfDB - $1.156 billion and $601 million respectively - would be cleared via a mixture of short-term loans arranged by the Cairo-based Afreximbank and Lazard, a large U.S. investment bank, and the AfDB's 'Transitional Support Facility'.
It did not provide further details.
A spokesman for Afreximbank said this week the deal had not yet been finalised.
(Reporting by Ed Cropley in Johannesburg, additional reporting by David Lawder in Washington; Editing by Andrew Hay)