Policy Developments in Transnational Protections for Environmental Whistleblowers

Environment Whistleblower Policy

Whistleblowers and Wildlife Trafficking

Countering wildlife trafficking and enabling protection for whistleblowers go hand-in-hand. Following Sara Walker’s article on disrupting wildlife trafficking through enhancing whistleblower protections, this article looks more specifically into whistleblower protection in policy developments at the multilateral level.

Although there is a general understanding of what whistleblowers are, there is no accepted definition locked in an international instrument. The general definition on the National Whistleblower Center’s website refers to “someone who reports waste, fraud, abuse, corruption, or dangers to public health and safety to someone who is in the position to rectify the wrongdoing,” thus closely linking whistleblowers with the crimes of corruption – a crime often embedded in wildlife trafficking and other environmental crimes more broadly (as explained in the Wildlife Justice Commission’s report on Crime Convergence).

Expected and observed is therefore an increasing presence of the concept of whistleblowers in multilateral instances concerned with addressing corruption. However, the concept is struggling to gain ground in fora concerned with tackling transnational organized crime more broadly. This article will present the latest policy developments to assess the broader trends of whistleblower protection in relation to wildlife trafficking and environmental crime. First, the developments of the concept in fora dealing with corruption will be described before the same concept is explored in relation to fora dealing with transnational organized crime. Ultimately, an assessment will be made to define where more work is required to recognize the key role played by whistleblowers in fighting environmental crime.

Anti-corruption: A Natural Avenue for the Protection of Whistleblowers

The basis for the introduction of the concept of whistleblower and its protection in relation to environmental crimes can be found in the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which was adopted in 2003. The concept is given a privileged position, although the term itself does not appear in this manner. The principle is present in two instances: first, as a preventive method in Article 8(4), with respect to the reporting of public officials; second, in relation to criminalization and law enforcement, as Article 33 specifically foresees that:

“each State Party shall consider incorporating into its domestic legal system appropriate measures to provide protection against any unjustified treatment for any person who reports in good faith and on reasonable grounds to the competent authorities any facts concerning offenses established in accordance with this Convention.”

It would, however, take many more years for environmental crimes to be explicitly linked to the work of the Convention and thus recognizing the role of whistleblowers in fighting such crimes. Finally, through resolution 8/12 on “Preventing and combating corruption as it relates to crimes that have an impact on the environment” adopted in 2019, this link was officially made. Interestingly, this resolution entails a specific reference on whistleblower protection:

“Encourages State parties […] of the Convention and in conformity with national legislation, to consider establishing and developing, where appropriate, confidential complaint systems, whistle-blower protection programmes, including protected reporting systems, and effective witness protection measures, and to increase awareness of such measures.”

It is important to mention that in 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) had already recognized the important role that whistleblowers can play in tackling corruption in relation to wildlife crime. Resolution 17.6 made a specific provision related to the protection of whistleblowers (OP 4), further recognizing the important link between whistleblowers and combatting corruption pertaining to wildlife trafficking.

However, it is interesting to see whether the role played by whistleblowers can be detached from this corruption nexus and integrated into instruments dealing more generally with serious and/or transnational criminality.

Whistleblowers and Transnational Organized Crime

An important starting point for analyzing international priorities for fighting transnational organized crime are the declarations surrounding the UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. These are indicative of the international community’s coordinated efforts on crime prevention, criminal justice, and the rule of law. The latest of these declarations is the Kyoto Declaration (2021). It makes reference to whistleblowing by emphasizing the importance for States to:

“take appropriate measures to provide effective protection for witnesses in criminal proceedings and for reporting persons.”

The Doha Declaration (2015) interestingly made a direct reference to whistleblower protection (OP 10) and was the first declaration to do so. This change in wording between the two declarations may be a sign of the contentious nature of whistleblowing in these international instances. As the concept is gaining ground in relation to wildlife trafficking – and environmental crime more broadly – it appears that a number of States have been reluctant to reiterate the direct reference to whistleblowers and to recognize the role which they can play.

The Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ), the preparatory and implementing body for these congresses, recently adopted a key resolution for consideration by the General Assembly. This resolution on ‘’preventing and combating crimes that affect the environment’’ (2021) logically followed the Kyoto declaration on environmental crimes. However, neither the term whistleblower nor reporting persons are directly referenced, although the text in OP 11 calls upon:

“states to take all appropriate measures to provide effective assistance and protection for those persons who contribute to combating crimes that affect the environment in a peaceful manner.”

States could in theory use this to encompass those who take risks to report wildlife trafficking. These developments suggest that whistleblower protection is a concept that requires further advocacy to be recognized in these instances.

A Way Forward

Overall, it is safe to argue that the recognition of whistleblower protection provisions has steadily been increasing in specialized fora in relation to environmental crime, as demonstrated by the latest resolutions from the IUCN Marseille Congress (resolution 38; resolution 40; resolution 54; and resolution 108). However, a lot of work is still required for it to be acknowledged in more general and politically sensitive resolutions. The latest UNGA resolution on tackling illicit trafficking in wildlife adopted in July 2021 for instance does not mention whistleblower protection nor more generally those who protect the environment. It does, however, contain a specific reference to rangers (OP 17), shedding light on an important group protecting the environment. It is important for future UNGA resolutions against wildlife trafficking to include other groups of actors concerned with protecting the environment such as whistleblowers.

Whistleblowers should be seen as an additional tool at the service of law enforcement agencies. Alertness is necessary to ensure that explicit references remain, in one way or another, in different international instruments. Further efforts are required for this concept to be widely recognized as an effective tool to fight environmental crime.

Want to learn or do more to further this work? This topic and more is discussed within the Environmental Crime and Corruption Working Group, open to those working on policy developments in the field of corruption and environmental crime.

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