What happens when NGOs are accused of violating human rights?

International NGOs have concrete moral and ethical responsibilities in the ways they work overseas that should be subject to external verification, but how?

Domenico Carolei
16 April 2019, 9.02pm
Credit: Flickr/@Doug88888. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

On April 4 2019 the UK Charity Commission opened a formal inquiry into allegations that the UK branch of the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) may have been complicit in violence perpetrated against indigenous people overseas. WWF, famous for its panda logo, is one of the biggest International NGOs operating in the field of nature conservation, so this inquiry is significant in and of itself. However it also raises much wider issues concerning NGO compliance with international human rights standards, and how to promote more accountability as NGOs grow in size and influence on the global stage.

In March 2019, BuzzFeed News reported that WWF-UK may have equipped and worked directly with anti-poaching squads that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting and murdering indigenous people in national parks across six countries in Asia and Africa between 2002 and 2016. The evidence gathered to document these allegations came from over 100 interviews conducted with human rights victims and from documentary sources such as leaked confidential memos, internal budgets and emails discussing the purchase of weapons.

WWF-UK reacted to this news by organising an independent review at the organisational level to look into the allegations, supported by a team of human rights specialists. A statement on the organization’s website says that:

At the heart of WWF’s work are places and the people who live in them. Respect for human rights is at the core of our mission. We take any allegations seriously and are commissioning an independent review to look into the cases raised in the story. We have asked BuzzFeed to share all evidence it has obtained to support these claims, to help inform and strengthen this review. WWF’s work relies on deep community support, engagement and inclusion. We have stringent policies designed to ensure both we and our partners are safeguarding the rights and well-being of indigenous people and local communities in the places we work. Any breach of these policies is unacceptable to us and, should the review uncover any, we are committed to taking swift action.”

WWF-UK also says that “will comply fully with any Charity Commission process.” Nevertheless, the allegations have provoked significant reactions from politicians in the US, UK, and Germany. Eliot Engel, the chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that “If this reporting is accurate, WWF should do whatever it takes to root out the problems and demand accountability.” Almost one million of WWF’s members (out of five million worldwide) are based in the US, and the US Agency for International Development has supported WWF on many international projects.

According to Buzzfeed, British MPs have called on the Department for International Development (DFID) to investigate whether any UK taxpayers’ money had gone towards funding WWF activities subject to the allegations. DFID is a major institutional donor to WWF, having granted £17,769,547 to the organisation via international partnership programmes between 2011 and 2016. Similarly, German MPs asked KFW (the German development bank) to stop funding WWF’s activities in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Charity Commission will assess whether WWF-UK conducted proper “due diligence” to ensure that grant money sent overseas did not contribute to any of the alleged human rights violations. Essentially, this investigation is aimed at verifying whether the charity’s staff and trustees carried out all the necessary checks on individuals and organisations to whom WWF-UK gave money or with whom they contracted. These checks need to be undertaken by any charity in order to be confident that they know who they are working with, and are able to identify and manage any associated risks.

These issues are obviously important, but the Charity Commission inquiry is also limited. First, it concerns only WWF-UK, which is the British division of WWF International, an NGO registered as a non-profit entity under Swiss law with its headquarters in Gland (Switzerland), and operating in over 100 countries through national divisions and local partners. Any alleged shortcomings in the rest of WWF International will not be covered.

Second, the Charity Commission is not a prosecuting authority, nor a human rights judge. It is an independent watchdog that oversees compliance with charity law among non-profit entities operating in England and Wales. It is the responsibility of law enforcement agencies and juridical bodies to investigate and adjudicate any criminal matters related to alleged human rights violations.

The limits of this investigation have been highlighted by Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International (SI), who commented that “It’s a step forward that the Charity Commission is finally launching an investigation, but we’re not holding our breath.” SI is a British NGO that defends indigenous rights internationally, and in 2016 it filed a complaint to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that accused WWF of facilitating violence against Baka ‘Pygmies,’ by forcing them to leave their homeland in Cameroon to make way for a national nature reserve.

From a legal perspective this complaint was unique, because it was the first to be filed by one NGO against another using OECD Guidelines that had originally been designed to handle complaints against multinational companies. Interestingly, the OECD ruled that these guidelines can also be invoked to scrutinise the human rights performance of International NGOs, not just corporations. Both NGOs initially accepted the OECD system as a conciliation forum in which to resolve the dispute, but the case did not reach a final decision because the talks broke down. Nevertheless, the case established an important precedent that may be useful in future in strengthening the accountability of NGOs in the international arena.

The investigation launched by the Charity Commission represents a positive step forward, regardless of its eventual findings, because it confirms that international NGOs have concrete moral and ethical responsibilities in the ways they work overseas that are subject to external verification. In light of allegations against Oxfam and Save the Children in 2018 concerning their handling of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse - both of which have also become the subject of formal Charity Commission Inquiries - this has become an important matter of public concern. It is precisely the Commission’s mandate to shed light on whether charitable funds are managed and spent responsibly.

However, while asking how money is spent and whether there is any connection to alleged human rights violations is obviously important on a case-by-case basis, there is a much wider issue at stake here: the absence of any legal framework at the international level that sets out the human rights responsibilities of NGOs and includes concrete mechanisms to hold them to account.

Thus far, the issue of NGO accountability has been addressed predominantly through self-regulatory initiatives defined by NGOs themselves, such as Accountable Now, the Sphere Standards and the Red Cross Code of Conduct. These initiatives provide voluntary standards for NGOs to regulate their own behavior, but they have been criticised because they rarely include any compliance and enforcement mechanisms, and this leads to patchy and inconsistent implementation. Over the last 25 years, the increasing influence acquired by NGOs in global governance has not been accompanied by a parallel process of regulation, in contrast to other non-state actors such as multinational companies.

Efforts by international institutions to address corporate responsibilities to respect human rights date back to the early 1970s with the first OECD Guidelines, and more recently, there have been further efforts with the adoption of the UN Global Compact and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. By comparison NGO activities are currently under-regulated when it comes to respecting international human rights law. The dispute between Survival International and WWF illustrates this regulatory vacuum, since SI had to invoke an instrument - in the form of the OECD Guidelines - that was originally designed for multinational companies. In which case, how do we ensure that international NGOs comply with international human rights standards?

This is a tough question to answer, because increased regulation carries the risk of partial, overly-restrictive or inappropriately-intrusive action by governments who want to curb NGO activities for political reasons. After all, the current international system is state-centric, not civil society-driven. In that sense an easy way forward would be to strengthen existing NGO self-regulatory initiatives by equipping them with a credible and stringent system of monitoring and sanctioning outside the control of states. Alternatively, international human rights initiatives like the UN Global Compact could be extended to cover NGOs, especially since over 4,000 non-business entities have already signed it.

Going further, initiatives like the Compact could be used to lay out a soft-law framework that defines the human rights responsibilities of NGOs, with NGOs themselves as the principal standard-setters of this framework but monitored by an independent body which would work like a supra-national charity commission or an ombudsman. Whichever route is chosen, ensuring NGO compliance with international human rights law is an important part of building a better and safer world.

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