The World Wide Fund for Nature has appointed the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, to oversee its review of revelations that the charity is implicated in human rights abuses against indigenous people.
BuzzFeed News reported in March that WWF funds, equips, and works directly with anti-poaching forces who have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people. The charity has until now refused to comment on the evidence, beyond announcing that it will cooperate fully with an independent review led by the law firm Kingsley Napley.
But in a statement announcing Pillay’s appointment to oversee the inquiry, WWF International President Pavan Sukhdev publicly addressed the reports of torture, rape, and murder for the first time. “Any kind of abuse and the tragic impact it has on individuals is extremely disturbing and distressing,” Sukhdev said. “Any shortcomings uncovered by the review will be addressed; we are committed to taking swift and appropriate action,” he added.
Pillay ran the UN’s human rights commission for six years. She has also been a judge at the International Criminal Court, and president of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
The move comes as activists have ratcheted up pressure on WWF to deliver a “far stronger” response to the “extremely serious allegations” than it has so far. The Rainforest Foundation on Tuesday submitted a letter alleging “severe deficiencies” in WWF’s investigation. More than a dozen indigenous rights groups from countries in Africa and Asia signed their name to the letter.
The letter criticized WWF’s hiring of Kingsley Napley to conduct the investigation, noting that it is “a company specialising in ‘reputation protection’ rather than human rights.” The firm lacks the “experience and credibility” to run the review, the letter says. Kingsley Napley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The letter demanded WWF make a “public statement acknowledging the scale of the problem, its intention to respond comprehensively, and a firm commitment to help find redress for the victims and their families.”
It also criticized the charity for limiting its review only to what has been reported by BuzzFeed News and the Kathmandu Post, alleging that “there are other current and historical allegations of an equally serious nature that WWF is aware of itself but that are deliberately excluded from the scope of the Review.” The letter called on WWF to release details of previous investigations it has done into human rights abuses linked to the charity.
The letter demanded “as a bare minimum” that WWF make a “clear and open invitation” for people to submit evidence, and promise to publish the review — and its supporting evidence — when it is finished.
WWF told BuzzFeed News it was “looking carefully” at the letter.
Pressure for WWF to respond properly to the revelations have come from all corners. Politicians in the US and UK have called for their governments to review whether aid money has been used to fund forces accused of human rights abuses. The UK Charity Commission has opened a formal investigation into the British branch of the charity.
The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, a major backer of WWF, has called for the charity to undertake a “full and transparent” inquiry into the “extremely concerning” allegations. Actor Susan Sarandon, another supporter, also pushed for a full investigation, and Ben Fogle suspended his role as a celebrity ambassador for WWF in the wake of the revelations.
Other prominent supporters, including actors Christian Bale and Jared Leto, as well as a number of senior British politicians from the House of Lords, have so far declined to comment. So has David Attenborough, whose new Netflix series Our Planet was produced in partnership with WWF.