Climate Groups View Whistleblowers as Key to Fight Against Environmental Corruption

Aerial view of a log storage yard from authorized logging in an area of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

In December, the United Nations held the tenth session of the Conference of the States Parties (CoSP10) to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in Atlanta. The Conference is the largest global anti-corruption gathering. Every two years, the Parties to the Convention meet to review its implementation and discuss how to improve international cooperation and to better prevent and tackle corruption. The 190 State parties to the UNCAC and various stakeholders from around the world were in attendance.

The critical role of whistleblowers in combatting environmental crime and corruption has long been recognized by States Parties to UNCAC as well as by other UN affiliated institutions (see UNCAC Res 8/12 12 Paragraph 12, CITES Conf. 17.6 Article 5, and the IUCN’s Marseille Resolution 115, WCC-2020-Res-115).

However, civil society organizations (CSOs) believe that more than the existing UNCAC resolution is needed. Prior to the Conference, over 300 Civil Society Organizations from 99 countries signed an Open Letter calling on States to “ensure a safe and enabling environment for…actors working to expose environmental crime…including protection for whistleblowers, proactively engaging Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and putting measures in place to routinely monitor threats facing civil society.”

Throughout the week’s multiple environmentally-focused side events, CSOs explained why exactly whistleblowers are so critical to the fight against environmental corruption and what it means to ensure a “safe and enabling environment” for all environmental whistleblowers – including (1) those inside companies and financial institutions, (2) external analysts, and (3) land defenders.

“Nature crime and corruption are not crimes of passion; they are crimes of profit, and this is exactly why combatting illicit finance that fuels forest loss is so crucial,” said Erica Hanichak, Director of Government Affairs at the FACT Coalition.

According to the FACT Coalition, identifying illicit financial flows associated with environmental crimes is extremely difficult without somebody on the inside tipping off an enforcement official. However, insiders lack the incentive to report the crime, and doing so could risk their financial and physical security.

“Best practice whistleblower programs, though, which include provisions on anonymity and rewards, reverse the risk dynamic, incentivizing whistleblowers to report, rather than pressuring them to stay silent,” explained Siri Nelson, Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center. “The notion of paying whistleblowers makes some people uncomfortable. It must pay more to tell the truth than to stay silent.”

Whistleblower advocates, like Nelson, say that utilizing transnational U.S. laws like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Commodities Exchange Act, Dodd-Frank Act, and Anti-Money Laundering Whistleblower Improvement Act are the best way to enable more internal whistleblowers to come forward. These laws provide whistleblowers 10-30% of the collected proceeds of a sanction as a monetary award for providing original information. These laws can be utilized by international whistleblowers.

Members of civil society organizations also highlighted the role of “analysts,” whistleblowers who may not be inside a company but possess the expertise to identify corruption and bring new information to a judicial authority or enforcement agency. Analysts can include journalists, civil society, or industry experts.

Analysts who work to expose corruption in the mining sector are particularly important for ensuring a just transition. “You cannot achieve a just transition without combatting corruption in the mining sector,” said Bady Baldé, Deputy Executive Director of Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Minerals essential for the transition to net-zero emissions – like lithium, cobalt, copper, and nickel – are supplied by countries with high corruption indexes, leaving climate finance devoted to the mining of critical minerals vulnerable. CSOs like Resource Matters and Open Data Charter shared how civil society organizations in mineral-rich countries identified corruption in granting mining licenses.

Corinna Gilfillan, who works with the UNCAC Coalition, stated, “I’d like to really focus on the importance of legally requiring and effectively implementing strong protection and reward mechanism for whistleblowers, for both the public and private sector, to report on environmental crime and corruption.”

CSOs also highlighted that land defenders, including Indigenous communities and local populations in resource-rich areas, must be protected by environmental whistleblower laws.

Gilfillan explained that protections like anonymity are vital for land defenders. “In the timber sector, Indigenous peoples and local communities monitoring logging activities in their own communities are finding violations of the timber regulations, so playing a very important role,” she said. However, despite their success in enforcing the rule of law through social campaigns and legal action in the courts, land defenders face personal risk when blowing the whistle on human rights violations and corruption in their communities.

Nelson said, “When we talk about protecting whistleblowers in the realm of environmental crimes, we need to recognize that, on average, one land defender is assassinated every other day. Internal corporate informants are also targeted and physically threatened. We are talking about life and death, so promising ‘damages’ to whistleblowers is not enough. Protecting whistleblowers is not only about compensating them for retaliation; it’s about ensuring this retaliation can never happen in the first place.”

Ultimately, no State proposed an environmental corruption resolution at CoSP10, and language on incentives for whistleblowers was removed from the whistleblower resolution. However, CSOs now have their eyes set on CoSP11, where they aim to pass a more substantive resolutions on environmental crime and corruption, as well as a whistleblower resolution that calls on states to implement best practice whistleblower programs in the fight against climate corruption.

Such a resolution is particularly important given the large climate finance investments to transition to net-zero emissions. “Climate finance is nearing $1 trillion annually,” explained co-CEO of Accountability Lab, Cheri-Leigh Erasmus. “It requires proper governance frameworks and guardrails, which don’t sufficiently exist yet.”

Lisa Hartevelt, Director of External Relations for the Wildlife Justice Commission, which chairs the UNCAC Coalition’s Working Group on Environmental Crime and Corruption, said that, while it’s unfortunate that a Resolution on Environmental Crime and Corruption (ECC) wasn’t tabled this CoSP, “it was amazing to see the collaborative advocacy efforts from civil society organizations present at the CoSP which helped prioritize this issue on States’ Parties political agendas.” Hartevelt says these efforts “set the groundwork to yield fruit in the future for stronger global commitments to prevent and tackle corruption enabling such crimes.”

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