WWF admits ‘sorrow’ over human rights violations

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One of the world’s largest charities has known for years that it funds alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses, but has repeatedly failed to address the issue, a long and delayed report revealed on Tuesday.

A BuzzFeed News investigation first revealed in March 2019 how WWF, the beloved nonprofit with the plush panda logo, funded and equipped park rangers accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulted and murdered dozens of people. In response, WWF immediately commissioned an “independent review” led by Navi Pillay, a former United Nations commissioner for human rights.

The 160-page review, which has now been published online, corroborates the problems exposed by BuzzFeed News in Nepal, Cameroon, Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo. The report claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic had prevented the panel from traveling to places where the abuse allegedly took place.

The review found that WWF has repeatedly failed to meet “its own human rights commitments” – commitments which are not only required by law, but essential to “the conservation of human rights. nature”.

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In a statement issued in response to this review, WWF expressed “deep and unreserved pain for those who have suffered” and said that the abuses committed by park rangers “horrify us and go against the grain. all the values ​​we defend ”. The charity acknowledged its shortcomings and welcomed the recommendations, saying “we can and will do more.”

Pillay’s review declined to determine whether senior executives, whom BuzzFeed News found, were aware of the escalating violence in at least one wildlife park as of January 2018, were responsible for the missteps of the charity.

In the Congo Basin, where WWF has done a “particularly weak” job in meeting its human rights commitments, the nature conservation charity has not thoroughly investigated the accounts of murder, rape and torture for fear that government partners “will respond negatively to past human rights violations,” the panel found. There and elsewhere, WWF has provided technical and financial support to park rangers, known locally as “eco-guards,” even after learning about similar and horrific allegations – and in some cases , after damning reviews commissioned by the nonprofit itself confirmed. reports of serious and widespread abuse ”.

The report found “no formal mechanism in place for WWF to be made aware of alleged abuses during anti-poaching missions” in Nepal, despite allegations of torture, rape and murder ranging from the early 2000s to Last July, when park officials allegedly beat a young native and destroyed the homes of a local community. “WWF needs to know what’s going on on the ground where it works” in order to implement its own human rights policies, the report said.

Frank Bienewald / Getty Images

A river in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal.

Overall, WWF has paid too little attention to credible abuse allegations, failed to build a system for victims to file complaints, and painted an overly optimistic picture of its anti-poaching war in public communications, according to the report. “Unfortunately, WWF’s commitments to implement its social policies have not been adequately and consistently followed,” the report’s authors wrote.

WWF has supported efforts to fight wildlife crime for decades. Although local governments formally employ and pay rangers who patrol national parks and protected wildlife areas, in a number of countries in Africa and Asia, WWF has provided crucial funding to make their work possible. . The charity framed its crusade against poaching in the hardened conditions of war.

In a multi-part series, BuzzFeed News found that WWF’s war on poaching had taken civilian lives – poor villagers living near parks. At the time, WWF responded that many of BuzzFeed’s claims “did not match our understanding of events” – yet the charity quickly revised several of its human rights policies after their publication.

In the United States, the series sparked a bipartisan investigation and proposed legislation that would prohibit the government from giving money to international conservation groups that fund or support human rights abuses. It also resulted in a freezing of funds by the Home Office, a review by the Government Accountability Office and separate government investigations in the UK and Germany.

The new review offers more recommendations for the charity to improve its oversight, including hiring more human rights specialists, conducting stronger due diligence before embarking on conservation projects, signing human rights commitments with the WWF government and law enforcement partners on the ground, and establishing an effective complaint. so that indigenous peoples can more easily report abuse.

The review found that there had not been “cohesive and unified efforts” in the network of WWF offices around the world to “deal with complaints of human rights violations” until in 2018.

Many of the panel’s findings pointed straight up: “Commitments to take responsibility for respecting human rights should be endorsed at the highest level of the institution,” the panel wrote. Although all WWF offices in the Congo Basin fall under the direct authority of WWF International, staff at its headquarters in Gland, Switzerland, have done little to oversee the organization’s work there.

WWF International has also failed to provide clear guidance to local offices on how to implement its human rights commitments. For example, there were no network-wide standards for how to work with law enforcement and park rangers. As a result, each program office “has been left to its own devices to develop – or not – codes of conduct, training materials, conditions for supporting guards and procedures for responding to allegations of abuse.”

“Ultimately, it was the responsibility of WWF International and the WWF network as a whole to ensure that allegations of human rights violations by environmental guards to which WWF provided financial and technical support were properly addressed.” , wrote the panel.

Ezequiel Becerra / Getty Images

Director General of WWF International Marco Lambertini

Last October, BuzzFeed News revealed that Managing Director Marco Lambertini and COO Dominic O’Neill personally reviewed a WWF-commissioned report documenting accounts of “accelerating” violence from the Guards backed by the Guards. WWF in Cameroon. This report was sent to superiors in January 2018 – more than a year before BuzzFeed News began reporting similar abuses. Yet Pillay’s review does not say much about the responsibility of WWF leaders for the failures of the charity.

Instead, the review focused on WWF’s complex system, whereby individual program offices partner with countries “with seemingly very limited consultation or oversight from WWF International”, even when WWF International is legally responsible. This has obscured “clear lines of accountability and accountability,” resulting in “difficulty and confusion” and “ineffective” attempts to address human rights, the panel wrote.

The panel could not find a single contract between WWF International and its partner countries containing provisions regarding human rights responsibilities or the rights of indigenous peoples.

The panel also criticized at length WWF press briefings, saying it needed to be “more open about the challenges it faces” and “more transparent about how it reacts to allegations of associated human rights violations. to the activities it supports. ” In some cases, “it is clear that in order to avoid fueling criticism, WWF has decided not to publish the reports commissioned, to minimize the information received or to overestimate the effectiveness of the responses offered”.

An internal focus on promoting “good news” appears to have “led to a culture” in which program offices “have been unwilling to share or bring up the full extent of their knowledge about allegations of human rights violations. man for fear of frightening offending donors or state partners, ”the report said. “WWF at all levels should be more transparent both internally and externally about the challenges it faces in promoting conservation and respect for human rights. Equally important, he must be more candid about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of his efforts to overcome these challenges. “

The report immediately drew criticism from prominent voices who said it did not fully recognize the charity’s responsibility for abuses against indigenous peoples. Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, the tribal rights group, said that “the report echoes previous WWF responses in blaming the ‘government guards’.”

A spokesperson for Rainforest Foundation UK said that WWF International’s response to the report “does not take responsibility” for WWF’s shortcomings “or offer a sincere apology to the many who have suffered human rights violations perpetrated in their name.

The Forest Peoples Program, an indigenous rights group that reported abuse to WWF, said the report showed the need for all conservation charities to look at each other carefully.

“The human rights violations suffered by indigenous peoples and local communities listed in the report highlight fundamental issues that arise in the conservation sector as a whole, not isolated to WWF,” said Helen Tugendhat. , program coordinator at the Forest Peoples Program. “We urge other conservation organizations as well as funders to read this report carefully and to assess and modify their own practices.”

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