Whistleblower Protection in a Systems Approach to Sustainable Development

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sustainable development whistleblowers

As suggested in the first installment to this blog, an integrated systems approach to ensuring rule of law and combatting corruption, including protecting whistleblowers, is a key part of a strategy for advancing human progress across the social, economic, and environmental pillars of sustainable development. Such an approach entails deploying tools such as whistleblower protection across the legal and justice system, complemented with sector-specific strategies that bring these tools to bear to address corruption and impunity in specific sectors.

The National Whistleblower Center (NWC) and this blog have been effective advocates for both system-wide and sector-specific approaches. Many articles on this page highlight the importance of protecting whistle-blowers or confidential informants for providing information about wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. These activities involve large financial flows, often require collusion of government officials and are thus prone to corruption to enable them. Extraction and trade in natural resources, both living and mineral, continue to present a major locus of risk for illegality and corruption, and hence the need to incentivize and protect whistleblowers through sector-specific efforts that complement justice system-wide approaches.

Wildlife Trafficking: A Case in Point

In her blog of March 3, 2021, Bonnie Wyper lamented that Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while groundbreaking in its acknowledgment of the central role of good governance and rule of law in advancing sustainable development, did not single out specific issues like wildlife trafficking. However, SDG 16 was meant to speak to all 17 Goals of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Overall, the SDGs provide a menu of interdependent areas of focus that need individual attention, such as jobs, food security, education, health, water and sanitation, energy, and environment.

SDG 16’s Target 16.5 calls for substantially reducing corruption and bribery in all their forms, i.e., regardless of the sector in which corruption and bribery risk undermining the rule of law. This target must be read in conjunction with other goals and targets of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Significantly, SDG 15 calls for protecting, restoring, and promoting “sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems” including sustainably managing forests and halting biodiversity loss. Target 15.7 calls for “urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products.” Taken together, these targets point to an integrated approach that combines system-wide efforts to end corruption with efforts to do so in sectors where illegal action, such as the taking and trade in wild plants and animals, magnifies the risk of corruption.

The Parties to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) explicitly recognized the linkage between these two SDG targets in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2016. Resolution 17.6, adopted at the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties (COP 17), calls for action to prohibit, prevent, detect and counter corruption which facilitates illegal trade in endangered species of wild flora and fauna. Citing Article 13 of the U.N. Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), the Resolution highlights the importance of promoting the active participation of individuals and groups outside the public sector in preventing and fighting corruption. The Resolution calls on the CITES Parties to “work closely with existing national anti-corruption commissions, and like bodies, law enforcement agencies, judicial authorities, as well as with relevant civil society organizations, in the design and implementation of integrity policies . . . and ‘whistle-blower’ schemes”. It also calls on CITES enforcement authorities to make use of capacity-building opportunities offered by entities such as INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the UN Development Program, the World Bank and the World Customs Organization. CITES Resolution 17.6 is thus a poignant call for integrating sector-specific approaches to combatting wildlife crime and corruption with systems-wide anti-corruption efforts.

For its part, at its eighth Conference of States Parties COSP) in Abu Dhabi in December 2019, UNCAC explicitly linked anti-corruption efforts to the SDG’s, particularly Goal 16. Among the outcomes, the Parties adopted Resolution 8/12, on “Preventing and Combatting Corruption as it Relates to Crimes that have an Impact on the Environment.” Resolution 8/12 posits UNCAC as “an effective tool and important part of the legal framework” for addressing corruption related to crimes impacting the environment. It urges States Parties to make best use of UNCAC, and to strengthen anti-corruption frameworks, promote ethical practices, integrity, and transparency, to prevent and combat such corruption. Notably, the Resolution encourages countries to develop confidential complaint systems, whistle-blower protection programs, protected reporting systems, and effective witness protection measures.

Resolution 8/12 highlights UNODC’s important role in building government, private sector, and other stakeholders’ capacity to assess and mitigate corruption risks along the value chains of the wildlife, timber and fisheries sectors. Further acknowledging the multi-sector breadth of those linkages, it calls for UNODC and Member States to expand capacity-building efforts to address corruption in “other economic sectors related to the management of natural resource and waste.”

CITES Resolution 17.6 and UNCAC Resolution 8.12 together reflect a growing web of multilateral efforts to integrate system-wide anti-corruption efforts with efforts specific to sectors where corruption, crime and environmental harm are linked, with whistleblower protection a core part of such an integrated approach. Yet, multilateral pronouncements are merely snapshots of the political will of States at a single point in time – they do not guarantee effective implementation. As UNCAC convenes its 9th COSP this week in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt, the UNCAC Civil Society Coalition’s December 1 paper, “Tackling Corruption related to Environmental Crimes”, makes a solid case for translating the growing awareness of corruption linkages to environmental crimes into concrete actions at the national level. Figuring prominently among these recommended steps are strong protection and reward mechanisms for whistleblowers, and ensuring a safe, protective, and enabling environment for those who uncover and report on corruption and environmental crimes. Successful implementation depends on sustained efforts to enhance cooperation among law enforcement and natural resource protection institutions, and to jointly foster trust with and engage potential whistle-blowers and other stakeholders as partners.

Climate Change: A Growing Magnet for Corruption

The growing focus on the global climate crisis is spurring the development of new legal regimes and compliance standards, and the mobilization of international and domestic resources to control carbon emissions and build resilience to climate change impacts. Addressing climate change presents new risks of corruption and a need to ensure accountability, including by encouraging and protecting those who expose crime and corruption, within and well beyond natural resource extraction activities.

The Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow in November yielded important advances in addressing the climate crisis. Commitments to end deforestation, reduce methane emissions, phase down reliance on coal, and provide additional resources for climate adaptation and mitigation build significantly on the Paris Climate Agreement. The Glasgow outcomes highlight the need to build accountability and anti-corruption, including protecting whistleblowers, into global and national responses to climate change. Clearly this need will only grow, as additional regulatory approaches and financing will be essential to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees C.

A rapidly growing international market for carbon credits, and availability of public funding for emission reductions, presents a unique vulnerability to corruption and need for integrity – both in the accounting of carbon and in the deployment of resources that carbon credits generate. Agreement at COP 26 on Rule 6 of the Paris Playbook will help ensure integrity and accountability in carbon credit markets. At the same time, commitments at COP 26 to increase funding for climate adaptation, and to a path forward to address loss and damage from climate change, underscore that the global response to climate change will continue to evolve. As it does, combatting corruption, ensuring integrity, and protecting whistleblowers will remain a core necessity.

NWC’s Climate Corruption Campaign and the Global Climate Whistleblower Center are playing an important role in shining the spotlight, investigating, and supporting whistleblowers in key industry sectors that drive greenhouse gas emissions and face a heightened risk of fraud, such as hydrocarbons, timber and finance. Investments and policy changes in other sectors, such as transportation, electricity production and distribution, construction, urban development, land use and agriculture, to name are few, are also critical to reduce emissions and build climate resilience, and vulnerable to corruption. Building on NWC’s efforts, more work is needed to mainstream attention and responses to corruption that can undermine efforts to reduce emissions and promote resilience to climate change risks, including the protection of whistleblowers.

As the world awaits further ratcheting of climate action at the next COP in Egypt, and beyond, immediate steps can be taken to mainstream anti-corruption and whistle-blower protection in climate responses. For example, countries might consider including in their Nationally Determined Commitments under the Paris Agreement, and in their National Adaptation Plans, strategies to expose fraud and protect those who do so in the flow of public and private resources to address climate change across a full range of sectors.

A Common Cause: Whistleblowers and Environmental Defenders

Particular attention is needed to the linkage between protecting environmental crime whistleblowers and vulnerable communities – especially indigenous peoples whose lives and customs are put at risk by illegal environmental exploitation. Those calling for whistleblower protection for environmental crime and those calling out human rights abuses against environmental defenders share a common goal, and to a great degree focus on different elements of a common problem. Breaking down silos between these two activist communities is critical. And, if environmental law enforcers want the help of the communities most affected by environmental crime, it is critical to build trust within those communities that laws designed to protect informants and whistle-blowers effectively protect environmental and human rights defenders from indigenous and marginalized communities. An important step in this direction is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Resolution 115 Protecting Environmental Human and Peoples’ Rights Defenders and Whistleblowers adopted at the World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France in September, 2021.

Crime and corruption associated with exploitation of natural resources, and human rights abuses against environmental defenders, reflect a set of inter-dependent challenges that undermine the path to sustainable development. Combatting these challenges requires integration of broad societal efforts with specific approaches in a range of sectors that are key to sustainable development. Policy and legal pronouncements, such as SDG 15 and 16, UNCAC Resolution 8/12, CITES Resolution 17.6 and UNCAC provide a framework for such an integrated approach. Success, however, depends on political will and collaboration among relevant authorities. Concerted efforts are especially needed to build the trust of citizens that they will be protected from abuse and retaliation for standing up for the rule of law and protecting the resources upon which their lives, livelihoods, communities and cultures depend.

One Small Step, One Giant Leap

Building on the June 2021, Presidential Memorandum establishing the fight against corruption as a core U.S. National Security interest, at the December 9-10, 2021 Summit for Democracy the United States took an important step in this direction, releasing the first ever U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption. The Strategy calls for whole-of-government efforts to combat corruption at home and abroad, including improving information sharing among agencies, and integrating an anti-corruption focus into regional, thematic, and sectoral priorities, including the mobilization of resources to help developing countries address climate change. The Strategy commits to provide a safe and enabling environment to those exposing and fighting corruption, to protect U.S. persons who do so against any unjustified treatment and urges other countries to do the same. The Strategy might have gone further to address the full range of sectors where corruption and environmental harm are linked, beyond international climate finance. Notwithstanding this critique, it represents a significant effort to integrate system-wide and sector-specific anti-corruption strategies through a whole-of-government approach that places whistleblower protection as a key tool in those efforts.

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