The German branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature must overhaul its human rights policies, an independent investigation has found after the global mega-charity was implicated in abuses against indigenous people in parks across the world.
BuzzFeed News exposed in March how for years, WWF has funded and equipped paramilitary forces that have tortured and killed villagers living near wildlife parks it supports.
In response, WWF’s global headquarters in Switzerland commissioned an independent review of the allegations led by the law firm Kingsley Napley and overseen by a former UN special rapporteur for human rights. Separately, the charity’s German branch began its own investigation based on its own funding of national parks in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and Congo.
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The German review, run by an ex-member of the German parliament and former human rights commissioner named Markus Löning, found a number of “gaps in the procedures for human rights diligence.” The review was released quietly on Wednesday, a public holiday in Germany. The report was written in English, but the charity has refused to release the original version and published only a German-language translation of the findings.
Löning found that WWF Germany employees were not aware of the human rights rules they were supposed to follow. When WWF Germany begins a conservation project, human rights receive “little attention,” the report found, and it is “unclear” whether the WWF takes “into account” the perspective of people who might be affected by abuses. “Human rights issues do not seem to be dealt with in a structured and comprehensive manner,” the report stated.
The charity also does not set rules for the type of support it gives forest rangers, the report found. BuzzFeed News found that WWF-supported rangers in a number of countries have been accused of torture and murder.
Löning was also critical of WWF’s use of informants. Given the dangers of working with undercover agents, he advised that they be used only when no other methods could deliver results, and even then, when “security measures” have been put in place, including a risk assessment of working with partners who commit human rights abuses. BuzzFeed News revealed in March that the charity had organized, financed, and run dangerous and secretive networks of informants motivated by “fear” and “revenge,” including within indigenous communities, to provide park officials with intelligence — all while publicly denying working with informants.
WWF admitted to Löning that it is already working to improve training on social issues such as human and indigenous rights, which the charity acknowledged had been “weak and inconsistent in practice.”
Löning recommended that WWF train its staff more, consider “setting up a human rights department,” and “report more proactively and transparently on human rights issues.”
WWF International’s separate review has not yet been completed.
That investigation has been criticized by indigenous-rights activists. In a recent letter, the activists wrote that Kingsley Napley, the law firm conducting the investigation, is “a company specialising in ‘reputation protection’ rather than human rights.” The firm lacks the “experience and credibility” to run the review, the activists wrote.
The charity is also coming under scrutiny from authorities and lawmakers across the world. Politicians in the US and the UK have called for a review of government aid funding for WWF, while the UK Charity Commission said it was opening a formal investigation into allegations of “atrocities and human rights abuses,” which it described as “at odds with everything we associate with charity.”
The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has called on WWF to investigate, as has Hollywood star Susan Sarandon. Explorer Ben Fogle suspended his role as a celebrity ambassador for WWF soon after the story broke.
Other prominent supporters — including the British naturalist David Attenborough, actor Christian Bale, and Hollywood star Jared Leto, as well as a number of senior British politicians from the House of Lords — have so far declined to comment.