Professor John Knox testifies before members of U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on human rights and international conservation

John H. Knox, Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law

In testimony before members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, Wake Forest Law Professor John Knox discussed the key role that Indigenous peoples and local communities play in the conservation of natural ecosystems, and recommended steps the United States should take to protect against human rights abuses of these groups by governments and conservation organizations.

“It is now well understood that the world is facing a global biodiversity crisis, which threatens one-quarter of all species with extinction,” said Knox in written testimony submitted to the committee. “But it is far less well understood that the biodiversity crisis is also a human rights crisis. The best way to conserve the natural environment is to protect the human rights of those who live in nature: the Indigenous peoples and local communities who directly depend on forests and rivers for their material and spiritual well-being.”

During the Oct. 26 hearing of the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, Knox also described the findings of an independent expert panel on which he served that conducted an in-depth investigation of the World Wildlife Fund’s involvement in alleged human rights abuses in protected areas in Africa and Asia — findings which he said WWF had taken out of context and given a false impression of in its statement to the subcommittee.

“The panel found that WWF knew, often for many years, about alleged human rights abuses in the parks in protected areas that it supports in each of these countries,” Knox testified. “WWF nevertheless continued to provide financial and material support, and most importantly, WWF often failed to take effective steps to prevent or respond to the abuses.”

Before beginning to question the witnesses, Subcommittee Chair Rep. Jared Huffman of California noted that he associated himself with Knox’s comments and said that “WWF still doesn’t seem to get it . . . in response to this panel’s investigation, WWF continues to portray this as largely exculpatory, something that exonerates them from accountability.”

Knox, who also served as the first United Nations independent expert and special rapporteur on human rights in the environment, noted that WWF’s problems with implementing human rights commitments are not unique, but just one example of a larger issue that runs throughout the world of international conservation. Such behavior, he argued, will not change until the U.S. and other donor states withhold funding for international conservation unless a protected area or conservation initiative can demonstrate it is respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities; providing effective protections against human rights abuses by park rangers; complying with human rights responsibilities; ensuring independence grievance mechanisms to hear and provide appropriate relief for complaints; and engaging in transparent practices.

“I would encourage you to consider and propose legislation that would ensure that funds to WWF and other conservation organizations include basic human rights protections,” said Knox in his written testimony. “The U.S. government, like other donors, has a responsibility to ensure that the funds they provide for international conservation are used consistently with its own human rights commitments.”

In addition to Knox, the subcommittee also heard testimony from Joan Carling, global director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International; Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at World Wildlife Fund – US; and Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation.

Read Professor Knox’s complete written testimony. Watch a recording of the hearing, “Protecting Human Rights in International Conservation.”

The mission of Wake Forest Law is to advance the cause of justice by creating knowledge and educating students to meet the legal needs of the world with confidence, character, and creativity. We instill in students a respect for the law, a devotion to the ideal of service, and a commitment to professional values. We educate students from around the world in a richly diverse, equitable, and inclusive community. Learn more at, and stay up to date on what’s happening in the Wake Forest Law community by following us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.