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One of the largest charities in the world knew for years that it was funding suspected human rights abusers, but repeatedly failed to address the issue, a lengthy, drawn-out report revealed Tuesday.
An investigation by BuzzFeed News first revealed in March 2019 how WWF, the popular nonprofit with the cuddly panda logo, funded and equipped park rangers accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting and killing 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 now posted online confirms the issues that BuzzFeed News has uncovered in Nepal, Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the panel from traveling to places where the abuses are reported to have taken place.
The review showed that the WWF had repeatedly violated “its own obligations to respect human rights” – obligations that are not only required by law, but are of essential importance for “nature conservation”.
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In a statement issued in response to the review, WWF expressed “deep and unreserved suffering for those who suffer”, saying that abuses by park rangers “horrify us and violate all of the values we stand for”. The charity recognized its shortcomings and welcomed the recommendations by saying, “We can and will do more.”
Pillay’s review denied whether senior executives – BuzzFeed News found “accelerating” violence in at least one wildlife park as early as January 2018, were responsible for the charity’s missteps.
In the Congo Basin, where WWF has been “particularly weak” in fulfilling its human rights obligations, the Wildlife Charity did not fully investigate reports of murder, rape and torture for fear that government partners would “react negatively to investigative efforts to investigate past human rights violations,” the panel found . There and elsewhere, WWF park rangers, known locally as “eco-watchers,” provided technical and financial support, even after learning of similar, terrible allegations – and in some cases after damned checks by the nonprofit itself Commissioned, it was confirmed: “Serious and widespread reports of abuse.
The report found that “there is no formal mechanism in Nepal to be notified of alleged abuses during anti-poaching missions,” despite allegations of torture, rape and murder from the early 2000s until last July as a park official have beaten an indigenous youth and destroyed the houses of a local community. “The WWF needs to know what is happening on the ground, where it works,” in order to fulfill its own human rights policy, the report says.
Frank Bienewald / Getty Images
A river in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.
Overall, WWF has paid too little attention to credible abuse allegations, failed to establish a system for victim complaints, and painted an overly rosy picture of its war against poaching in public communications, the report said. “Unfortunately, the WWF’s obligations to implement its social policy have not been adequately and consistently met,” wrote the report’s authors.
The WWF has supported efforts to combat wildlife crime for decades. Although local governments officially employ and pay park rangers to patrol national parks and protected game reserves, WWF has provided vital resources to make their work possible in a number of countries in Africa and Asia. The charity designed its crusade against poaching in the harsh conditions of war.
In a multi-part series, BuzzFeed News noted that the WWF’s war on poaching involved civilian casualties: impoverished villagers who lived near the parks. At the time, WWF replied that many of BuzzFeed’s allegations “did not correspond to our understanding of events” – nonetheless, the charity quickly revised many of its human rights guidelines once they were released.
In the US, the series spurred a bipartisan investigation and proposed laws that would prohibit the government from giving money to international conservation groups that fund or support human rights abuses. It also resulted in a funding freeze by the Home Office, a review by the Government Accountability Office, and separate government investigations in the UK and Germany.
The new review provides more recommendations for the charity to improve its oversight, including hiring more human rights specialists, performing more thorough due diligence before committing to conservation projects, signing human rights obligations with the government and law enforcement partners of WWF Place and establish effective complaint systems to help indigenous peoples report abuse.
The review found that across WWF’s network of offices around the world there was no “consistent and consistent effort” to “handle complaints of human rights abuses” until 2018.
Many of the panel’s findings pointed straight to the top: “Commitments to meet 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, the staff at its headquarters in Gland, Switzerland have done little to oversee the organization’s work there.
WWF International also did not provide local offices with clear guidelines for implementing their human rights obligations. For example, there were no network-wide standards for working with law enforcement and parking attendants. As a result, each program office was “on its own to develop or not develop codes of conduct, training materials, conditions for assisting rangers, 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 abuses by environmentalists, for whom WWF provided financial and technical assistance, were adequately addressed,” the panel wrote.
Ezequiel Becerra / Getty Images
WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini
Last October, BuzzFeed News announced that both General Manager Marco Lambertini and Chief Operating Officer Dominic O’Neill had personally reviewed a WWF-commissioned report that “accelerated” reports of violence by WWF-backed guards in Cameroon are documented. This report was sent to higher-level companies in January 2018 – more than a year before BuzzFeed News began uncovering similar abuses. However, Pillay’s criticism said little about whether WWF executives were responsible for the charity’s failure.
Instead, the review focused on WWF’s complex system of individual program offices working with countries “with what appears to be very limited advice or oversight from WWF International,” even when WWF International is legally responsible. This obscured “clear lines of responsibility and accountability”, leading to “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 that contained provisions on human rights responsibility or the rights of the indigenous population.
The panel also extensively criticized WWF press conferences, saying it needed to be “more open to the challenges it faces” and “more transparent about how it reacts when faced with allegations of human rights violations related to activities it sponsors” . In some cases, “it is clear that the WWF has chosen not to publish commissioned reports, to downplay the information received, or to overestimate the effectiveness of its proposed responses in order to avoid criticism.”
An internal focus on promoting “good news” appears to have “led to a culture” in which program offices “were unwilling to share or escalate all their knowledge of allegations of human rights abuses because of concerns about deterring donors or offensive state partners, ”the report says. “WWF at all levels should be more transparent, both internally and externally, about the challenges it faces in promoting the preservation and respect of human rights. It is equally important to more clearly assess the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of one’s efforts to address these challenges. “
The report was immediately criticized by prominent voices who said it had not fully recognized the charity’s responsibility for abuses against tribal peoples. Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, tribal rights advocacy group, said: “The report echoes previous reactions by WWF in passing the blame on to government rangers.” A Rainforest Foundation UK spokesman said the report “takes no responsibility” for the shortcomings of WWF “or a sincere apology to the many people who have suffered human rights abuses on their behalf.”
The Forest Peoples Program, an indigenous rights group that has reported abuses to WWF, said the report shows that all wildlife charities need to look at themselves closely.
“The human rights violations of indigenous peoples and local communities listed in the report illustrate fundamental problems that occur across the conservation sector and are not isolated from the WWF,” said Helen Tugendhat, program coordinator for the Forest Peoples Program. “We urge other conservation organizations and nature conservation promoters to read this report carefully and evaluate and change their own practices.”