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WWF’s lack of contrition as Independent Review finds systemic failings in its treatment of human rights

25 November 2020

Yesterday, WWF published an independent review into human rights violations including killings, torture, sexual and physical violence and intimidation against indigenous peoples and local communities that have occurred in its operations in several areas of the world. This long overdue 160-page report lays bare institutional failings and problems with its organisational culture that allowed these abuses to occur and go unaddressed.   

Despite these damning findings, in its public response WWF International fails to take responsibility for its shortcomings or issue a sincere apology to the many individuals who have suffered human rights abuses carried out in their name. The fact that no WWF staff were found to be directing the violence, as proclaimed by WWF, is of little comfort to the victims.

The Panel’s report makes it clear that WWF “has not fulfilled its human rights commitments”. In many instances, the organisation continued financing and equipping park rangers even after hearing about horrendous allegations. WWF executives need to be held accountable for this negligence and the organisation’s consistent failure to prevent, detect and remedy abuses across its programmes.

WWF’s failings come across particularly strongly in the case of Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where RFUK and its local partner APEM have exposed egregious human rights abuses at the hands of park rangers. The Panel’s investigation reveals that allegations of sexual and physical abuse by WWF-supported park rangers were raised internally as early as 2016 (though were almost certainly known about well before this) but WWF’s country office refused to take action for fear of upsetting government institutions. It has knowingly entered into agreements with the government for the co-management of the park without conducting human rights due diligence.

Even after WWF headquarters became involved in 2019 and commissioned investigations, as a result of international pressure and media coverage, efforts to suppress reports of human rights abuses in Salonga went on. It has also withheld information from its international donors as exposed in a recently published investigation by the US Department of Interior.

To this day, WWF has done little to address the situation – the organisation did not investigate the situation beyond the specific cases that made media headlines, provided no support whatsoever for victims to seek redress, and has implemented barely any of the social measures they promised.

WWF’s suite of nice-sounding social policies and safeguards seem to have little bearing on how its projects are implemented on the ground. The review found that its opaque funding and operational structure, complex interrelationships between WWF International, its country offices and it host governments have all obscured lines of responsibly and accountability. While the organisation has taken some steps to address its failings, it remains to be seen if these will be any different from its previous commitments.

The review was limited only to human rights allegations included in the Buzzfeed and Kathmandu articles. It is very clear these are only the tip of the iceberg. Similarly, WWF’s own investigations into human rights abuses around the Salonga National Park were limited to a tiny fraction of communities impacted by its operations, and it actively resisted looking into further allegations when it became aware of them.

We call on WWF to go beyond “feeling deep regret and sorrow for those who have suffered” to offering a full apology to the victims of human rights abuses that are partly attributable to WWF’s institutional failings. It should now also commission independent investigations into the full extent of human rights violations linked to its operations. This should be accompanied by compensation measures for survivors, including the creation of an independent fund to support them to seek and obtain redress. We also call on it to take disciplinary actions against those found responsible for downplaying, covering up or supressing reports of human rights abuses.

Joe Eisen, RFUK Executive Director, said, “The cover-ups, negligence, and lack of regard for the victims detailed in the review is further confirmation of WWF’s institutional failings on human rights. Yet rather than showing contrition or accountability for these failings, WWF’s statement in response is mostly just spin. We are long overdue a complete reset of international biodiversity conservation that puts Indigenous Peoples and local communities at the heart of it”.

For more information on this, see this joint NGO statement.

Background information:

The independent investigation, commissioned by WWF after Buzzfeed published a series of serious allegations against the organisation in early 2019, was carried out by a high profile expert panel, comprising Judge Navi Pillay (former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), Professor John Knox (former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment), and Dr Kathy McKinnon, Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas. The Panel received submissions and information from civil society and from directly affected communities and reviewed internal documents from WWF to investigate the allegations and the extent to which respect for human rights has been integrated into WWF’s operations.

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