Biden administrator quietly releases funds for groups linked to human rights abuses in Central Africa

Thomas catenacci

The Biden administration quietly overturned a Trump-era decision ending conservation grants used to indirectly fund human rights atrocities in Central Africa.

Although the administration has not publicly acknowledged the change, Home Office officials confirmed this in a private briefing with minority House Natural Resources Committee staff in October, a spokesperson said. by ranking member Bruce Westerman at the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a group that relies on US taxpayer dollars to fund international conservation efforts, noted that previously frozen funds had been allocated with “social guarantees” and implemented on the ground, in a statement to lawmakers earlier this year.

Eco-guards hired by WCS and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and funded by the Central Africa Regional Environment Program (CARPE), allegedly committed horrific atrocities, including rape, torture and murders dating back a decade, according to a March 2019 Buzzfeed. New investigation found.

In one alleged incident, guards beat and raped four women, including two pregnant, and in another incident, three men were hung by the penis from a tree branch by the guards.

CARPE, the largest environmental program funded by the US Agency for International Development, was designed to help protect the “ecological integrity” of the Congo Basin. With grants from the program, the groups hired eco-guards to enforce anti-poaching laws in the Republic of Congo and Cameroon, but the federal government does not have enough oversight to ensure the money was used correctly, according to Buzzfeed and other international reports.

“It was my conclusion that federal agencies simply did not have the means and the practical ability to ensure that the money they donated did not go to parties who committed serious and horrific crimes,” former Home Secretary David Bernhardt – who left the department in January after leading it for two years – said the DCNF in an interview.

“And as a result, I was not comfortable with this approach,” he continued. “Apparently the Biden administration is.”

Following the Buzzfeed reports, Bernhardt ordered the freeze of $ 12.3 million in CARPE program funds in September 2019 and launched an internal investigation into how wildlife grants were made to groups operating in Central Africa. . A year later, the Home Office (DOI) doubled down on its decision to withhold funds, saying no further CARPE funding would be given to wildlife organizations until proper controls were put in place. in place, according to a note from the internal agency.

“The American people do not want their tax dollars going to organizations that have participated in any way in such atrocities,” former deputy secretary Kate MacGregor, author of the report, told DCNF. note. time.

The House natural resources committee also launched a bipartisan investigation into the alleged atrocities after the reports were released.

“Deadly consequences”

However, it remains unclear what social safeguards, if any, have been put in place by the Biden administration to ensure that taxpayer funds are used appropriately in the future. Federal agencies and conservation groups involved have been largely discreet.

The Biden administration declined to comment. WWF and WCS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Fortunately, the Trump administration froze this funding last year. Unfortunately, as usual under the Biden administration, it is not clear now if this funding has resumed and what safeguards are in place to prevent its abuse, ”said Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert, vice-member. of the Natural Resources Committee. the DCNF. “This is unacceptable.”

“The American people deserve to know where their hard-earned money is being spent, and bureaucratic silence and mismanagement mean that our tax dollars can go for unauthorized purposes – with deadly consequences,” he said. for follow-up.

Gohmert and other Republicans on the committee wrote several letters to Bernhardt in 2019, urging him to take action to ensure taxpayer dollars do not support any human rights violations abroad.

In October, the Natural Resources Committee held a hearing as part of its investigation into human rights violations committed by CARPE grant recipients, with a specific focus on WWF. Oregon Rep. Cliff Bentz, the top Republican on the Water, Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee, and committee chair, California Rep. Jared Huffman, hosted the hearing.

“Some grant funding was suspended in 2019 until such reforms are made,” Bentz said at the hearing. “This administration has released this funding and we are awaiting documents from the Home Office to see what transparency and accountability measures have been put in place, if any.”

“Sir. Mr. President, I hope you will join us in ensuring that we receive these documents in a timely manner,” he added.

Westerman, the Republican member of the full committee, said “current accountability measures are not sufficient to ensure that beneficiaries do not inadvertently support human rights violations in the name of species conservation.” Natural Resources President Raúl Grijalva said legislation dealing with the issue would include firm restrictions on funding.

“Congress needs to get the executive branch, I think, to get its act together in terms of overseeing these kinds of grants,” John Knox, former UN special rapporteur on human rights and law, told lawmakers. ‘environment.

Knox, a member of an independent panel that investigated WWF, noted that although the group has established new guarantees, the new policies “do not adequately respond to the panel’s findings and recommendations.”

“In fact, in important ways they weaken WWF’s existing commitments,” he continued.

Yet WWF and WCS have called on Congress to increase funding for CARPE in their previously referenced statements to lawmakers. WWF has requested $ 50 million in CARPE grants for fiscal year 2022, an increase of $ 7 million.

Both groups, meanwhile, applauded the Biden administration, applauding him for his work to overturn policies enacted under former President Donald Trump.

The WCS called on the administration to “re-engage in promoting environmental and conservation solutions” around the world immediately following the inauguration of President Joe Biden in January. WWF said the administration was working to “mend our broken relationship with nature” in a statement after Biden’s first 100 days in office.

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