Human rights standards for conservation: rights, responsibilities and redress

2013 - 2016

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 Australia in November 2014 as a three-part series of discussion papers:

  • Part one: this 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.
  • Part two: this 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: this clarified which redress mechanisms exist, their strengths and weaknesses, and asked whether a body focused specially on the conduct oproposed a number of optionsf conservation initiatives should be formed.
  • Synthesis report: this 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.

Conservation standards

At the World Parks Congress there was consensus that there is at least a need to articulate the core rights agreed in international law, and to develop a set of guidelines that can help ensure these are upheld in a conservation context.

Consultations were held with a range of rightsholders and stakeholders at organisations and international meetings in the UK, Switzerland and the United States in 2015 and 2016. They confirmed that a set of standards articulating agreed rights relevant to conservation initiatives could be useful in many different contexts, such as:

  • International organisations developing regional and national conservation programmes
  • Governments managing existing and gazetting new protected areas
  • Conservation NGOs working at the local level
  • Philanthropic foundations considering funding
  • Proposals of conservation projects, and
  • Peoples and communities asserting their rights.

A set of conservation standards was published in 2016 to respond to that need. They focus on indigenous peoples’ rights – because the body of international law is much clearer on these than on the rights of non-indigenous communities. But we suggest that what we describe here represents minimum standards that should be adhered to in any conservation-related context.


Conservation standards: from rights to responsibilities, Harry Jonas, Jael Makagon, Dilys Roe (2016), IIED Discussion Paper

Synthesis report: An analysis of responsibilities, rights and redress for just conservation, Harry Jonas, Dilys Roe and Jael E. Makagon (2014), IIED Report

Part III: Which redress mechanisms are available to peoples and communities affected by conservation initiatives?, Jael E. Makagon (2014), IIED Discussion Paper

Part II: Which international standards apply to conservation initiatives?, Harry Jonas, Dilys Roe and Athene Dilke (2014), IIED Discussion Paper

Part I: To which conservation actors do international standards apply?, Jael E. Makagon, Harry Jonas and Dilys Roe (2014), IIED Discussion Paper | en español 

Human Rights Standards for Conservation, Supporting document 3: IUCN resolutions that reference indigenous peoples' and local communities' rights and concerns, Harry Jonas and Athene Dilke (2014), IIED Report

Human Rights Standards for Conservation, Supporting Document 2: Decisions of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity that reference Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities rights and concerns: CBD COP VII, VIII, IX, X, Harry Jonas and Athene Dilke (2014), IIED Report

Human Rights Standards for Conservation, Supporting Document 1: Provisions from international legal instruments relevant to the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, Jael E. Makagon, Harry Jonas and Athene Dilke (2014), IIED Report