A Step in the Right Direction: Publication of ICCN’s Guidelines for Grievance Mechanisms in DRC

August 25, 2023

In Kinshasa recently, an important step was taken towards securing the rights of the millions of people who live in the vicinity of national parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After a lengthy process involving consultation with local communities and civil society, ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature – Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation) published its Standard Guidelines for Complaints Mechanisms in Protected Areas.

The guidelines arrive in a context in which ICCN – the government agency responsible for the management of DRC’s national parks – and big conservation organisations have come under increasing pressure to take action to remedy and prevent serious human rights abuses, such as those investigated and reported by RFUK in Salonga National Park in past years, and following repeated allegations since.

Grievance mechanisms are a key tool to address human rights issues. They enable populations affected by park operations to make formal complaints and have them fairly heard and addressed. But they must be carefully set up with the full consensus of the communities who live around the parks to ensure transparency and accountability.

In principle, a well set up system will allow communities to report grievances – such as conflicts around land use and access, mismanagement by authorities or failure to deliver on project benefits. In the DRC, where poorly trained and under-resourced ecoguards operate in remote, conflict-affected areas, sadly, human rights abuses are also to be expected.

RFUK and its partners, APEM and GeoFirst, through funding from the Arcus Foundation, have long advocated for complaint mechanisms as an important tool in giving a voice to community concerns about rights abuses around DRC’s parks. It is a positive development that the published directives include the strong influence and recommendations of our project partners. Most notably, the guidelines require grievance mechanisms to be implemented by a third-party organisation, such as a civil society organisation that is trusted by the communities, ensuring independence from park management.

The guidance also provides for the training of community monitors to familiarise communities with the mechanism, the process and their rights.

Despite these positives, there remain important gaps in the guidance, particularly on accessibility – especially in a context where many communities are illiterate, are remotely located or are otherwise marginalised.

Further questions remain to be addressed. Details remain vague, for example, on minimum standards and criteria for addressing complaints, or what a good investigation should look like. There is little practical security guidance on how to manage anonymisation or, where confidentiality is promised, the mechanisms for implementing it.

Significantly, there are few practical commitments to remediation beyond referral to existing judicial systems that are under-resourced, extremely difficult to access and may be biased.

There are also noteworthy questions around how the structures needed to implement grievance mechanisms will be resourced and funded. This is especially a problem in DRC, given the size and remoteness of its parks. In the foreseeable future, such initiatives will likely continue to need to be supported by international funders.

Nevertheless, the publication of these guidelines is to be welcomed. They set out important general principles and provide a valuable tool, both for holding park management authorities to account and in providing a basis to push for the development and piloting of grievance mechanisms in specific parks.

Alex Economou-Li, RFUK DRC Project Coordinator said, “While DRC’s protected areas are still marred in corruption and violence against local populations, the publishing of these guidelines represents a small but significant step for those seeking justice. With the government commitment to protecting 30 percent of the territory by 2030, it is imperative that conservation efforts promote rather than deny the rights of those who depend on and protect these areas.”

This will be an important next step for RFUK and its Congolese partners as we continue to push for the adoption and proper monitoring of a complaints mechanism for the Lomami National Park, as well as advocating more widely for funding from international conservation donors to properly fund such initiatives.

RFUK’s own research has shown how critical it is that human rights need to be an integral part of conservation projects – for the ultimate benefit of both the communities themselves and wildlife.

See here for more information on our Sustainable Conservation and Human Rights campaign.

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