British watchdog launches inquiry into WWF abuse allegations

Charity Commission to assess whether money sent abroad was subject to due diligence as German MPs urge funding halt

Britain’s charity regulator has launched a formal investigation into the World Wide Fund for Nature, following allegations the conservation group is implicated in human rights abuses against people in Africa and Asia.

The inquiry by the Charity Commission will assess whether WWF’s UK arm followed “due diligence” in ensuring that money sent abroad did not contribute to abuse.

“Following reports relating to World Wide Fund for Nature International, we opened a regulatory compliance case,” said a Charity Commission spokesperson.

WWF is also facing calls from German MPs for a halt to millions of euros of German funding to Salonga national park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, over allegations of abuses including gang rape, murder and torture of local people by eco-guards funded and equipped by the conservation organisation.

Salonga, which is co-managed by WWF, has received €5.4m (£4.6m) from the German development bank KfW.

WWF and KfW were first alerted to claims of abuse in Salonga last May. In February this year, alleged victims and perpetrators were interviewed during an investigation part-funded by KfW. The inquiry confirmed initial reports by the Rainforest Foundation UK, a charity that lobbies for land rights for forest communities, of alleged abuses between 2002 and 2016, the foundation said.

WWF has so far refused to release details of the report publicly, saying it will do so as part of a wider investigation into abuse.

German MPs said it was “shocking” that it has taken a year for WWF to investigate the findings in Salonga and demanded the organisation make public the study’s findings.

Eva-Maria Schreiber, a German MP, called on KfW and others to stop funding WWF.

Schreiber said: “WWF have known for a year about human rights violations and they haven’t done anything about it.

“Only if WWF recognises that if it doesn’t change its strategy on conservation, it will lose a lot of financial support, will it eventually think about really doing something.”

Another German MP, Uwe Kekeritz, said: “If the WWF does not show the necessary commitment now, the cooperation with the organisation as a whole has to be stopped.”

WWF said it took the allegations “extremely seriously”. The organisation said its final report, by law firm Kingsley Napley, would be made public, but declined to say when it would be completed.

KfW, which is considering the conclusions of the February inquiry, said it took the allegations “very seriously” and “abhors any kind of violence”.

Rainforest Foundation UK, meanwhile, has accused WWF of an “attempted cover-up” over its failure to publish details of the investigation, calling on the organisation to make a public statement on the findings and issue a public apology and plan of action.

Simon Counsell, Rainforest Foundation UK’s executive director, said WWF had many months to investigate the allegations and had a “moral duty” to the alleged victims.

“International agencies need to look closely at the strict conservation programmes they’re funding and halt support for those involving human rights abuses,” Counsell said.

WWF has worked in Salonga since 2005, and has co-managed the park with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, the Congolese park authority, since 2015.

A WWF spokesperson said:“We take these allegations extremely seriously. We are committed to a full exploration of the issues that have been raised, and have commissioned an independent review to look at specific allegations as well as our governance. The draft Salonga report will be included within this and the findings of the independent review will be made public.”

A spokesperson for KfW said it had initiated dialogue between Rainforest Foundation UK and WWF “before allegations had been published in the press”, which led to the Salonga inquiry.

“Having received the final report as well as the conclusions from the independent investigations initiated by WWF, KfW will draw the necessary consequences in close cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development,” said the spokesperson.

Contributor

Karen McVeigh

The GuardianTramp

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