Breaking Down the Advancing Human Rights-Centered International Conservation Act of 2022

Recently, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives introduced a new bill focused on strengthening the human rights standards used by the U.S. Department of the Interior in awarding international conservation grants.[1] The bill is a product of a year-long investigation by the House Natural Resources Committee into alleged human rights abuses by park rangers and so-called “eco-guards” at nature reserves worldwide.[2] This blog will discuss the major events that served as an impetus for the bill’s creation and will also detail the major provisions and goals of the bill.

Background

The Advancing Human Rights-Centered International Conservation Act of 2022 was primarily spurred on by a major exposé conducted by Buzzfeed News into the actions of the World Wildlife Fund (“WWF”).[3] The investigation spanned throughout six different countries and led to over 100 interviews and thousands of pages of confidential documents. It accused the world’s foremost environmental charity of financially supporting anti-poaching paramilitary groups, which whipped villagers with belts, attacked them with machetes, beat people to the point of unconsciousness with bamboo sticks, sexually assaulted people, and ultimately murdered many others.[4]

The report also detailed how WWF field staff in Africa and Asia signed off on anti-poaching missions in which the paramilitaries were permitted to kill those who trespassed onto nature preserves.[5] The WWF was found to be heavily financially tied to these armies, according to the dispatch. The organization allegedly funded the groups’ salaries, training, and supply costs, including paying for weapons, night vision equipment, riot gear, and batons.[6] It is also alleged that the charity funded raids on villages and attempted to broker an arms deal for a group of troops who have marched around with the severed heads of those they claim are “criminals.”[7] Concerningly, soldiers also threatened informants into providing park rangers with the names of those accused of poaching and entering nature preserves illegally.[8]

Following the report by BuzzFeed News, the House Natural Resource Committee launched an investigation into whether U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) grants had gone to support any of the alleged actions taken by the WWF.[9] Additionally, the investigation sought to determine if the conservation grant funding process contained sufficient safeguards to protect indigenous communities.[10] The investigation found four major issues, some of which only applied to the WWF’s practices and others that implicated the Fish and Wildlife Services’ grant funding and oversight functions.[11]

The first major conclusion of the investigation was that there was a major lack of necessary safeguards in the FWS vetting processes for grant agreements to find and stop human rights abuses.[12] Second, the investigation noted a lack of adequate reporting and other accountability mechanisms between FWS and its grant recipients.[13] The report also chastised the WWF for its failure to implement a complaint reporting mechanism and for its often non-existent and incomplete implementation of informed consent agreements between the organization and Indigenous Peoples and local communities around select parks and other protected areas.[14]

As a result of the BuzzFeed exposé and the committee investigation, then-ranking member Republican Rob Bishop of Utah proposed a law that covers much of the same ground as the current 2022 bill.[15] Unfortunately, that bill never managed to gain much momentum and stalled in the House Committee.[16] In October of 2021, the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife held an oversight hearing in which it again discussed the issues surrounding the WWF and FWS.[17] This hearing proved to be crucial in creating a bipartisan consensus which ultimately led to the drafting of the current bill.

Provisions of the Current Bill

The current bill has bipartisan support. It is endorsed by the Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, and ranking member Rep. Bruce Westerman, Republican of Arkansas.[18] The bill consists of four sections. The first section is merely the bill’s title, and the second provides a list of important definitions.[19] The third section deals with restrictions on international conservation grants.[20] This part of the bill prohibits the FWS from giving financial assistance to foreign security units where credible information shows that the group has committed a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights.[21] There is a possibility for an exception in cases where both the Director of the FWS and the Secretary of State certify that the recipient of any funds and the applicable government which oversees them take adequate steps to bring violators to justice and to prevent future human rights violations.[22] The third section of the bill requires risk analysis grants to include an assessment on human rights abuses. It also requires the Secretary of State and FWS to carry out measures to track and vet security forces receiving assistance and to investigate credible claims of human rights violations.[23]

Section four concerns the requirements that groups must meet to receive an international conservation grant. The section establishes four human rights requirements that groups must prove to the FWS. First, groups must certify that gross violations of human rights will not be funded or carried out under the award.[24] Second, they must provide a list of subgrantees who will carry out the grant’s work. Third, the recipient and subgrantees’ must provide their policies upholding human rights and a social safeguard plan. And fourth, groups must provide the procedures they will use to address potential human rights violations. [25]

Under this section, the social safeguards plan must be consistent with international human rights standards. It must also include a process for meaningful consultation and engagement with Indigenous Peoples and local communities, including free, prior, and informed consent.[26] The safeguards must also protect the needs and rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, provide a grievance redress mechanism, provide for practical human rights training and monitoring, and publish relevant documentation about the impacts of projects on Indigenous Peoples and local communities.[27]

Finally, section four also outlines the steps that groups must take to address human rights violations. The process begins when the grant recipient notifies FWS of a credible claim regarding the gross violation of human rights. The recipient must then fully cooperate with the investigation and corrective action to maintain grant funding.[28] Within 60 days, the recipient must provide the specific steps they have taken to address the violation. The FWS has the administrative discretion to extend this timeline by 30 days.[29] At the end of this 60-day period, the contracting officer of FWS is obligated to complete an investigation and submit a report to the director of the agency.[30] If the director finds that a violation of human rights has occurred, the director must refer that information to the Department of the Interiors Inspector General and notify the State Department.[31] The Inspector General is then required to make their own assessment. The Inspector General might be required to investigate and provide recommendations to the agency director.[32]

The sections also authorize additional actions on the part of FWS, such as conducting programmatic and financial audits on recipients of grants. These audits must be prioritized based on the risk of human rights abuses.[33]  The section further provides the FWS director with remedies to address non-compliance, such as withholding payments, denying funds for certain activities, wholly or partly suspending or terminating awards, initiating suspension or debarment proceedings, and withholding subsequent awards, or taking other legally available remedies.[34] Finally section four requires FWS to submit an annual report to Congress summarizing reports and investigations carried out under the Act, including administrative and remedial actions taken, exemptions granted, and a summary of information not referred to the Inspector General.[35]

Conclusion

The Advancing Human Rights-Centered International Conservation Act of 2022 represents a significant shift in U.S. funding of conservation projects by bringing the funding under a human rights-based framework. The bill is important because it makes it explicit that the Leahy Amendment, a set of prohibitions on U.S. funds being used for gross violations of human rights, applies to not just the State Department or Department of Defense but also to other parts of the government specifically the Fish and Wildlife service.[36] The bill is also significant because it requires conservation groups to work directly with indigenous groups. Notably, the bill could still go further by directly addressing many of the underlying issues that lead to human rights abuses, such as the disregard of community property rights recognized by indigenous communities. Regardless of the laws on the books, donors in the conservation space need to do more to vet where their money is going and to ensure that indigenous groups that are already doing important work receive funding over the more prominent and highly publicized organizations.

Ultimately the bill represents a golden opportunity for the United States to enact a bill on a bipartisan basis that would instantly become one of the premier examples of human rights-based conservation legislation around the world. The bill is also taking on new importance as the climate crisis deepens and talks continue at the United Nations to create a Convention on Biological Diversity that would designate around 30% of the globe as conservation areas.[37] Such large conservation areas will be undermined without further safeguards, which will guarantee the recognition of human rights and the protection of biodiversity.

 

[1] House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, Press Release on The Advancing Human Rights-Centered International Conservation Act of 2022, https://naturalresources.house.gov/media/press-releases/chair-grijalva-and-ranking-member-westerman-introduce-bill-to-address-human-rights-abuses-in-international-conservation. [hereinafter Natural Resources Committee Press Release]

[2] Id.

[3] Tom Warren and Katie J.M. Baker, WWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured And Killed People, BuzzFeed News (Mar. 2, 2019, 3:26 AM), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tomwarren/wwf-world-wide-fund-nature-parks-torture-death.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Natural Resources Committee Press Release.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Tom Warren, Bipartisan Bill Aims To Stamp Out Human Rights Abuses At Conservation Projects, Yahoo News (Mar. 10, 2022), https://news.yahoo.com/bipartisan-bill-aims-stamp-human-154607336.html.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] H.R., 117th Cong. (2022), available at https://naturalresources.house.gov/imo/media/doc/HR_CONSERVATION_01_xml_signed.pdf. See document available at Download File, Natural Res. Committee (Apr. 3, 2022), https://naturalresources.house.gov/media/press-releases/chair-grijalva-and-ranking-member-westerman-introduce-bill-to-address-human-rights-abuses-in-international-conservation.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] U.S. Department of State, PP410, Introduction to Leahy Vetting Policy, Version 2.1 (2021).

[37] Patrick Greenfield, Pressure grows for deal to save nature at crunch talks in Geneva, The Guardian (Mar. 24, 2022, 12:20 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/23/pressure-grows-for-deal-to-save-nature-at-crunch-talks-in-geneva-aoe

 

 

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