Whistleblower Protection: An Essential Tool for Addressing Corruption that Threatens the World’s Forests, Fisheries and Wildlife

A Topic Brief co-authored by NWC Executive Director, John Kostyack, and co-founder, Stephen Kohn, in the Targeting Natural Resource Corruption series from the World Wildlife Fund

Executive Summary

Global progress on environmental conservation and management is greatly hampered by corruption. Weak law enforcement, which is both a facilitating factor and a result of corruption, is one important reason. The United Nations Environment Program identified a lack of law enforcement capacity as a key gap in tackling environmental crimes in 2018. In 2019, the United Nations’ first report on the global environmental rule of law found that “despite a 38-fold increase in environmental laws put in place since 1972, failure to fully implement and enforce these laws is one of the greatest challenges to mitigating climate change, reducing pollution and preventing widespread species and habitat loss.” Building stronger anti-corruption policy around the world and better utilizing existing laws is an urgent conservation priority.

One promising anti-corruption strategy centers on whistleblower protection. In the past few decades, whistleblowers have proven to be a powerful tool for detecting and prosecuting environmental crimes and corruption. Thanks to modern whistleblower protections, such as those incorporated into the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, whistleblowers around the world are currently partnering with law enforcement officials to make a meaningful dent in corruption in a host of industry sectors such as oil and banking. To date, whistleblowers have relied heavily on U.S. laws because of the unique protections and rewards they provide. These laws have been widely praised by law enforcement officials knowledgeable of the direct contributions made by whistleblowers to the successful detection and enforcement of various crimes.

Conservation practitioners and anti-corruption professionals can support the use of these successful whistleblower laws for the benefit of natural resources conservation. Working to secure new whistleblower protections in the many places where there are serious gaps may also be an important contribution, where the conditions exist for those laws to be used effectively.

Key Findings

  • Environmental conservation and management is already a difficult task when laws are properly enforced. It is far more challenging when corrupt actors are allowed to sidestep legal frameworks and plunder natural resources with impunity.
  • Whistleblowing is a powerful tool for exposing and prosecuting corruption. However, many legal systems fall short when it comes to protecting whistleblowers from retaliation by wrongdoers and their allies. Where effective whistleblower protection is lacking, those with evidence of corruption legitimately choose not to step forward to assist law enforcement officials.
  • Strong whistleblower protection systems ensure confidentiality, utilize independent reporting channels, and provide financial rewards tied to the whistleblowers’ role in producing a successful outcome.
  • Several whistleblower laws in the Unites States laws have been used successfully to challenge corruption in other countries and may offer options for whistleblowers around the world. Practitioners in the conservation and natural resource management fields can support these efforts in a number of ways outlined at the end of the paper.

Recommendations

  1. All practitioners should familiarize themselves with the options available for those who witness natural resource corruption in their country, including opportunities for securing protections and rewards under U.S. laws.
  2. Practitioners should seek out opportunities for expanding whistleblower protections, like the implementation of the European Union Directive in 2021, to ensure that new laws incorporate best practices: confidential handling of whistleblower disclosures, mandatory financial awards linked to the whistleblower’s role in producing a successful outcome, and an independent reporting channel.
  3. Practitioners who witness corruption or other violations should consider safe options for reporting, whether through a strong whistleblower program in their country, a third-party intermediary, or a relevant U.S. whistleblower law. It is recommended that practitioners consult with a qualified whistleblower attorney prior to blowing the whistle or acting on behalf of a whistleblower.
  4. Practitioners who think their organization could serve as an effective third-party intermediary between whistleblowers and enforcement agents in their country or enforcement abroad should familiarize themselves with the relevant law, establish strong partnerships with non-corrupt enforcement officials, and publicize opportunities for members of the public to safely disclose evidence of natural resource corruption. If practitioners plan to work with whistleblowers, they must ensure the confidentiality of those coming forward through, among other things, staff training on cybersecurity and other information security practices.
  5. Practitioners should assess other opportunities for assisting whistleblowers in countries where protections are lacking. Because natural resource corruption frequently traverses national borders, such whistleblowers may benefit from introductions to NGOs and officials in countries with strong whistleblower protections.
The Targeting Natural Resource Corruption project is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government, or individual TNRC consortium members.
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