Leading Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives have signed a bill that would block the US government from funding international conservation groups that fund or support human rights abuses.
The proposed law would require federal agencies to monitor the international projects they support for abuse and, if found, to stop sending money. And each year, the agencies should submit a report to Congress on human rights abuses that have occurred in US-funded projects.
The House Committee on Natural Resources looked into the matter in response to a BuzzFeed News Survey 2019 which revealed that the World Wide Fund for Nature, a beloved wildlife conservation charity and longtime partner of the US government, had closely supported anti-poaching forces who tortured and killed people in parks nationals in Asia and Africa.
According to reports and documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, villagers living near the parks had been whipped with belts, attacked with machetes, beaten unconscious with bamboo sticks, sexually assaulted and shot. Rangers in WWF-supported parks have committed several alleged unlawful killings.
In 2019, retired Republican congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, then a ranking member of the committee, proposed a law covering a similar area. Bishop’s bill stalled, but since then lawmakers from both parties have taken up the issue.
This year’s bill has bipartisan support. His sponsors are committee chairman Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, and Rep. Bruce Westerman, Republican of Arkansas. The rest of the committee will now debate the bill, and if they approve it, it will be sent to the House for a full vote.
“With this bill, we send a signal to the world that the United States demands the highest standards of respect for every human life; we will not tolerate human rights abuses in the name of conservation,” Grijalva said. “I hope the renewed emphasis on human rights, accountability, and oversight in this bill will be a model for conservation programs in the United States and abroad.”
Westerman said the “common sense law” would increase government accountability. “This bill is the culmination of bipartisan efforts, including an investigation and oversight hearing that uncovered misuse of grants, human rights abuses, and a startling lack of outreach by federal agencies. “
The bill would introduce sweeping changes to how U.S. agencies handle human rights abuses in conservation projects. Conservation groups receiving government money should provide human rights policies detailing the procedures they would follow in the event of abuse. They would also have to name anyone they associate with overseas, such as local police forces or park rangers — who would then be vetted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State Department.
The legislation would also increase the extent to which indigenous peoples are protected in conservation projects that affect them. Donor recipients should show that they have a process of “meaningful consultation” with indigenous peoples before their historic lands are used for conservation purposes, and that they offer a “grievance mechanism” to Indigenous peoples to voice their concerns.
When abuses are discovered, they must be reported to the federal government, and the group receiving taxpayer money has 60 days to devise a plan to fix the problem. The U.S. government may withhold funding for the project until the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the secretary of state confirm that those involved have taken “effective steps to bring the perpetrators to justice and prevent human rights abuses.” of man”.
Serious human rights violations would also be reported to the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior, and the Fish and Wildlife Service would send Congress an annual report summarizing investigations conducted under the law. , including corrective actions taken.
John Knox, former UN special rapporteur for human rights and the environment, called the bill “a huge step forward in an area that really needs greater attention, and a potential model for other governments and international donors”. After the WWF scandal broke, it became clear that “most major sources of international conservation funding, including the United Nations and the United States, had not put in place effective standards to ensure that their funds would not be used for human rights abuses,” Knox said.
In a statement, the WWF said it supported the legislation. “Safeguarding community rights is fundamental to successful conservation. We support the goals of this bill to strengthen programs that conserve nature and wildlife by ensuring that they also protect and promote the rights, well-being and safety of local and indigenous communities in the landscape. where the programs operate.
The charity conducted its own internal review in the allegations, and in 2020 expressed “deep and unqualified sadness for those who have suffered”, saying park ranger abuse “horrifies us and goes against all the values we stand for”.