Human rights standards for conservation: rights, responsibilities and redress


Despite increased recognition that conservation initiatives can violate the human rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, addressing 'unjust' conservation remains a contemporary problem. IIED and Natural Justice sought feedback on a series of papers that aimed to serve as a foundation for clear guidance about the human rights obligations of conservation actors, and specific details of the rights and forms of redress available.

San peoples from the Kalahari have lived in harmony with nature, but their contribution to the conservation and sustainable uses of biodiversity lacks appropriate recognition, particularly in Botswana and South Africa (Photo: Harry Jonas)

IIED worked 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 results were released to coincide with the IUCN World Parks Congress in November 2014. The three-part series of discussion papers and the synthesis report were planned to serve as an empirical basis for developing an accessible "Guide to Human Rights Standards for Conservation".

Part one provided an overview of the evolution of international law and policy as relevant to conservation initiatives, and presented the case that diverse actors such as international organisations, businesses, NGOs and funders, also have responsibilities and obligations for ensuring just conservation.

The second part identified the relevant body of human rights law, CBD decisions, and IUCN resolutions and recommendations that contained provisions relevant to upholding the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in a conservation context.

Part three clarified which redress mechanisms exist, their strengths and weaknesses, and asked whether a body focused specially on the conduct of conservation initiatives should be formed.

A synthesis report proposed a number of options for taking this work a step further to elaborate a set of specific minimum human rights standards for conservation initiatives. Over the next year we will be running a consultation process on these options and developing a funding proposal for taking them forward. The options include:

  1. The series' findings could be further distilled and the key rights afforded to indigenous peoples and local communities clarified, and then be presented as a set of core standards
  2. In addition, a set of stakeholder-specific guidance and related tools could be developed. These might include simple checklists for conservation implementers and 'Know Your Rights' tools for local communities
  3. Guidance could be provided to funders to enable them to monitor and evaluate the projects they support against these standards
  4. A deeper assessment of existing redress mechanisms could be conducted to explore the need for a globally recognised grievance mechanism dedicated to conservation-related disputes, and
  5. The standards, guidance and grievance mechanism could be developed, monitored and upheld by an independent body.

Work to date on this initiative has been conducted by a small group of conservation and human rights lawyers and researchers. This initiative could continue under the auspices of this small group or could be widened into a multi-stakeholder process that allows for more extensive participation.