Human Rights Standards for Conservation (Part I)

Article, 30 July 2014

Human rights appeared in international law in the early 1900s when it was widely considered to apply only to states.

This discussion paper provides an overview of the evolution of international law and policy as relevant to conservation initiatives, and presents the case that diverse actors such as international organisations, businesses, NGOs and funders, also have responsibilities and obligations for ensuring just conservation.

Lake Bogoria, the ancestral land of the Endorois people, Kenya (Photo: Emma Eastwood/MRG)

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is working with Natural Justice to systematically review and analyse relevant international law to answer the following three questions:

  • Which actors bear human rights obligations and responsibilities in the context of conservation initiatives?
  • What are their obligations and responsibilities? 
  • What are the grievance mechanisms available to peoples and communities in cases of violations of their human rights?

The first publication in the series is "Human Rights Standards for Conservation, Part I: Which Standards Apply to Which Conservation Actors?". It is also available in Spanish

With a focus on issues relating to protected areas and Indigenous peoples and local communities, it provides the legal rationale for the human rights obligations of governments and their agencies, international organisations, businesses, and NGOs including funders.


  • There is an evolving consensus that internationally agreed standards regarding the human rights of indigenous peoples and local communities have been established through international instruments, custom, and other sources of international law;
  • International law is a dynamic system that is now widely recognised as setting standards for non-State entities, including international organisations and businesses; and
  • The social license of businesses to operate gives rise to their responsibility to respect human rights, and other entities with similar or even broader social licenses, such as NGOs, also have similar responsibilities to respect human rights.

Have your say:

We are keen to receive feedback on our conclusions and comments on their implications, from a range of interested parties including the following non-exclusive groups: lawyers, conservationists, Indigenous peoples, and local communities.

To contribute your reflections, email Natural Justice's Harry Jonas ( or IIED's Dilys Roe (


Harry Jonas ( is a lawyer and co-founder of Natural Justice.

Dilys Roe ( is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group and leader of the biodiversity team.