Human Rights Standards for Conservation (Part I)

Human rights appeared in international law in the early 1900s when it was widely considered to apply only to states. This discussion paper provides an overview of the evolution of international law and policy as relevant to conservation initiatives, and presents the case that diverse actors such as international organisations, businesses, NGOs and funders, also have responsibilities and obligations for ensuring just conservation.

Article, 30 July 2014
Lake Bogoria, the ancestral land of the Endorois people, Kenya (Photo: Emma Eastwood/MRG)

Lake Bogoria, the ancestral land of the Endorois people, Kenya (Photo: Emma Eastwood/MRG)

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 published in the run-up to the World Parks Congress in Australia in November 2014 as a three-part series of discussion papers that served as an empirical basis for developing a set of conservation standards.

The first publication in the series was "Human Rights Standards for Conservation, Part I: Which standards apply to which conservation actors?". It is also available in Spanish

With a focus on issues relating to protected areas and indigenous peoples and local communities, it provided the legal rationale for the human rights obligations of governments and their agencies, international organisations, businesses, and NGOs including funders.


  • There is an evolving consensus that internationally agreed standards regarding the human rights of indigenous peoples and local communities have been established through international instruments, custom, and other sources of international law
  • International law is a dynamic system that is now widely recognised as setting standards for non-State entities, including international organisations and businesses, and
  • The social license of businesses to operate gives rise to their responsibility to respect human rights, and other entities with similar or even broader social licenses, such as NGOs, also have similar responsibilities to respect human rights.


Harry Jonas ([email protected]) is a lawyer and co-founder of Natural Justice.

Dilys Roe ([email protected]) is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group and leader of the biodiversity team.