Statement on safeguarding human rights in conservation, and addressing allegations of human rights abuse

Posted on July, 10 2019

Update - 25/11/2020: Read the the latest on the Independent Panel's review, and their complete report: "Embedding Human Rights in Nature Conservation - From Intent to Action", here."

WWF does not tolerate human rights abuses, and we are deeply concerned for those affected by alleged abuse. Collaborating with local communities and respecting human rights are core principles of our work.

WWF works in extremely challenging geographies and social contexts. We are continuously strengthening our ways of working, with the aim of increasing protection of people’s rights and better ensuring their safety, wherever we operate around the world.

On 4 March 2019, we announced an Independent Review to fully understand, and act on, allegations made relating to human rights abuses in places where we work. This Independent Review is being conducted by a panel which is being led by former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. The panel will report its findings and recommendations when the review concludes.

Update on Actions in Democratic Republic of the Congo

In June 2018, in response to allegations in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), WWF and the government’s l’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) launched an investigation which was expanded to include allegations supplied by Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) between May and November 2018 of six violent crimes. The Congolese NGO, APEM, representing RFUK, was also invited to join the investigation which concluded in February this year.

Based on the findings of the investigation, the following steps were taken without delay:

  • WWF and ICCN referred all six cases investigated to the Auditeur militaire, the relevant authority to initiate legal proceedings in-country;
  • On WWF’s recommendation, ICCN suspended all eco-guards suspected to be involved in the incidents, pending prosecution; and,
  • An additional independent investigation will take place in August to further examine allegations raised recently by RFUK.*

Amongst other things, the report has not been made public out of concern for the health and safety of the victims and the victims’ communities and in order not to interfere with due process, including criminal investigations against alleged perpetrators. A draft of the report was shared with the donors to the project and was offered to RFUK on a confidential basis.

As a follow up to the report, WWF has also advocated in the strongest terms and at the highest level with the DRC authorities to advance the judicial process and bring all alleged perpetrators to justice. This was agreed at a meeting in Kinshasa in May 2019 between the Director Generals of WWF International, ICCN, and DRC’s interim minister for environment and sustainable development.

This agreement also included:

  • The implementation of a new Code of Conduct, to be signed by all park employees;
  • A plan to improve and expand the complaints mechanism in Salonga in 2019;
  • An immediate end to joint patrols between ecoguards and military units; and
  • Ongoing efforts to help implement community forest enterprises as one way to ensure the involvement of local populations and sustainable livelihoods for communities as stewards of conservation

Results of the Salonga investigation have been shared with the Independent Review panel, and the findings will help inform our Global Environmental and Social Safeguards Framework so we can better ensure our work lives up to the high standards expected from us and we expect of ourselves.

Update on Global Safeguards Framework

We are working across the WWF Network to ensure that we meet our goal of putting people at the heart of conservation. Specifically and with immediate effect, we are:

  • Strengthening the WWF Environmental and Social Safeguards Framework (ESSF) to build on existing policies and implementation of these in our conservation work;
  • Establishing a Global Safeguard Unit to manage the new framework consistently and universally across WWF;
  • Establishing an Independent Monitoring and Review Mechanism to investigate complaints made by local communities, building on existing whistleblower mechanisms.

We are also planning a new series of in-depth conversations with indigenous peoples and local communities, experts, social, conservation and environmental NGOs, governments and development organizations. We understand the need to listen to the people and communities most affected, and ensure they are actively involved in the design and implementation of local projects. These conversations will take place over the coming weeks and months, and we will report on our progress in implementing the safeguards framework and the outcomes of these conversations.

All of these efforts, including the Independent Review, are part of our broader commitment to ensure a future where people and nature thrive together.

*Update 7 February 2020: Additional inquiry concluded
Now concluded, this investigation addressed the inquiries referenced above as well as new allegations uncovered since, including those raised by UK-based NGO RFUK in April 2019. It was led by the Military Prosecutor's Office (Boende) in Salonga, and a local human rights organization, CODHOD, who was commissioned by WWF International. The investigative team reviewed substantial evidence relating to 21 allegations against rangers and/or military personnel (most dated prior to 2016 before WWF became co-manager) and interviewed reported victims, witnesses, and accused.
The findings of the report are highly distressing, and we are treating them as a matter of the highest priority. All of the information has been provided to the DRC authorities and we have urged the DRC government to not only act swiftly on the specific allegations but also fulfil the state’s primary responsibilities to protect civilians during patrols. We further urge the DRC government to provide duty of care to individuals who, following alleged violations, are vulnerable. We are also immediately acting on the recommendations made for WWF specifically those related to the further safeguarding of communities involved or impacted by conservation activities. 
The report remains a private document out of concern for the health and safety of the alleged victims and the victims’ communities and in order to not interfere with due process, including any criminal investigations against alleged perpetrators. A redacted version without names has been shared with government stakeholders and the relevant funders as well as the Independent Review panel. The WWF International Compliance Unit will work with WWF –DRC, and as needed local human rights advocates, to track the cases through the judicial system, and will share regular updates with relevant partners.