House Bill Takes Aim At Human Rights Abuses In Conservation

Key members of the House of Representatives, from both the Democratic and Republican parties, have joined forces to support a bill that would prohibit the US government from funding international conservation groups that finance or engage in human rights violations.

The proposed law would require federal agencies to closely monitor the international projects they fund, and if any abuses are discovered, they would be required to suspend financial support. Additionally, these agencies would need to submit an annual report to Congress detailing any human rights abuses that have occurred at US-funded projects.

The House Committee on Natural Resources initiated this initiative following a 2019 investigation by BuzzFeed News. The investigation revealed that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a renowned wildlife conservation charity and long-time partner of the US government, had supported anti-poaching forces involved in torturing and killing people in national parks across Asia and Africa.

According to reports and documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, villagers living near these parks were subjected to whip lashings, machete attacks, beatings with bamboo sticks, sexual assault, and even shootings. Furthermore, there were allegations of unlawful killings committed by rangers at WWF-supported parks.

In 2019, retired Republican member of Congress Rob Bishop from Utah, who was the ranking member of the committee at the time, proposed legislation that covered similar concerns. However, Bishop’s bill did not progress further. Since then, lawmakers from both parties have reignited the issue.

The current bill enjoys bipartisan support, with its sponsors being Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, the committee chair and Democrat from Arizona, and Representative Bruce Westerman, the ranking member and Republican from Arkansas. The remaining members of the committee will now deliberate on the legislation, and if approved, it will be presented for a full vote on the House floor.

Representative Grijalva expressed that this bill sends a strong message to the world, emphasizing that the United States demands the highest standards of respect for all human life. He stated, “We will not tolerate human rights abuses in the name of conservation,” and expressed his hope that the bill’s focus on human rights, accountability, and oversight would serve as a model for conservation programs in both the US and abroad.

Representative Westerman described the bill as “common sense legislation” that would enhance government accountability. He emphasized that it was the result of bipartisan efforts, including an investigation and oversight hearing that revealed the misuse of grant money, human rights violations, and a severe lack of awareness within federal agencies.

If passed, the bill would bring about significant changes in how US agencies handle human rights abuses within conservation projects. Conservation groups receiving government funding would be required to provide detailed human rights policies outlining the steps they would take in the event of abuse. They would also need to disclose any partnerships with foreign entities, such as local police forces or park rangers, who would subsequently undergo vetting processes by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State Department.

The legislation would also strengthen protections for Indigenous peoples involved in conservation projects affecting their territories. Recipients of donor funding would need to demonstrate that they have mechanisms in place for “meaningful consultation” with Indigenous communities before utilizing their historic lands for conservation, as well as establish a system for addressing grievances raised by Indigenous people.

When instances of abuse are uncovered, they would need to be reported to the federal government. The recipient group would then have 60 days to create a plan to resolve the issue. The US government would be authorized to suspend funding for the respective project until the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Secretary of State confirm that the appropriate measures have been taken to ensure justice for the perpetrators and prevent further human rights violations.

In cases of severe human rights abuses, the matter would be referred to the Department of Interior inspector general. Furthermore, each year, the Fish and Wildlife Service would submit a report to Congress summarizing the investigations conducted under this legislation, as well as any ensuing remedial actions.

John Knox, a former UN Special Rapporteur for human rights and the environment, described the bill as a significant step forward in an area that requires profound attention. He believes it could serve as a potential model for other governments and international funders. Following the WWF scandal, it became evident that many major sources of international conservation funding, including the United Nations and the United States, did not possess sufficient standards to prevent the use of funds for human rights abuses.

WWF has expressed support for the legislation. In a statement, the organization indicated that safeguarding the rights of communities is crucial to the success of conservation efforts. They affirmed their alignment with the bill’s goals, stating the importance of strengthening programs that conserve nature and wildlife while simultaneously protecting and promoting the rights, wellbeing, and safety of local and Indigenous communities within the areas of operation.

In response to the allegations, WWF conducted its own internal review and expressed deep remorse for the suffering endured by individuals involved. They acknowledged that the reported abuse by park rangers was contrary to the values they uphold.

What do you think?

Written by Western Reader

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