Embedding human rights in conservation | WWF
© Karine Aigner/WWF-US

Embedding Human Rights in Conservation

Last year, WWF commissioned an independent panel of experts to review how we were responding to reports of human rights abuses by some government rangers in complex and remote landscapes in Central Africa, India, and Nepal. ‘Embedding Human Rights in Nature Conservation - from Intent to Action’ is the resulting report. We wanted a tough and unbiased evaluation of our efforts in order to continue to learn and improve our programs.

Importantly, the panel found no evidence that WWF staff directed, participated in, or encouraged any abuses. When concerns were raised, our staff took actions to respond. The panel was also unsparing in its conclusion that we need to do more. We embrace the Panel's recommendations, and we are addressing all of them, in addition to actions we’ve already taken to better meet our commitments to communities. We will report regularly on progress made against these actions.

The reported abuses committed by some government rangers horrify us, and go against all the values we stand for. We feel deep and unreserved sorrow for those who have suffered. We are determined to do more to make communities’ voices heard, to have their rights respected, and to consistently advocate for governments to uphold their human rights obligations. Our conviction is that the steps we are taking will help safeguard communities and the nature upon which they depend, and that we and our partners will deliver more lasting conservation as a result.

Who led the Independent Review?

Led by Judge Navi Pillay chair of the Panel and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the panel also included Professor John Knox, first United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, and Dr Kathy MacKinnon, Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) and former Lead Biodiversity Specialist of the World Bank. The panel members were selected for their extensive expertise and experience in human rights, development and conservation. We wanted a tough and unbiased evaluation of our efforts to continue to learn and improve our programmes.

What were the findings of the independent review?

The Independent Review found no evidence that WWF staff directed, participated in or encouraged in human rights abuse of any kind. The panel recognized WWF was one of the first conservation organizations to embrace human rights principles; that WWF’s commitments often set higher standards than the laws and practices of the states in which we work; and that WWF took many steps to support communities.

The panel also identified shortcomings and called for more rigour in how we implement our policies, listen and respond to communities and advocate for governments to protect human rights.

We welcome the Panel’s recommendations as important guidance in our evolution as a conservation organization and are addressing all of them. They will underpin efforts already underway.

What steps is WWF taking?

WWF has long recognized that conservation and human rights are at the heart of sustainable development. Over the past two years, we have designed and implemented measures to more consistently integrate human rights into our conservation work. We are committed to constantly learning and improving. With the panel’s advice now in hand, we will continue this process. We have already acted to begin:

  1. Strengthening our social safeguards, a mandatory set of actions to better engage communities, identify and manage risks, and ensure consistency in our work in landscapes. These have been approved by all WWF Boards worldwide and the implementation is being led by a new dedicated Global Safeguards Unit;
  2. Establishing an office of the Independent Ombudsperson that will hold WWF accountable to our commitments and provide conflict resolution services to communities in which we work;
  3. Taking additional steps to help reduce conflicts between communities and government rangers, such as making human rights training mandatory for WWF’s projects that involve enforcement, and helping establish the Universal Ranger Support Alliance, an international coalition dedicated to professionalizing rangers, including developing a global code of conduct.
  4. Establishing effective grievance mechanisms in every country in which WWF works so complaints from communities can be raised, received, tracked, and addressed. The Human Rights Centre in the Central African Republic, which the panel praised as a best practice, is WWF’s model for integrated grievance mechanisms in complex landscapes.
  5. Mandating screening of high risk conservation projects by a new high-level global committee of WWF’s leading conservation experts;
  6. Building staff capacity, including having trained all 7,500 of its staff around the world on its new safeguards system;
  7. Including WWF’s commitments to safeguards and human rights in relevant agreements, and more firmly using our influence if rights are not upheld.
  8. We have defined clear boundaries on what we will and will not fund, and we are prepared to suspend projects if our safeguards are not met.
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