top of page

UNESCO accused of supporting human rights abuses in African parks

By Aimee Gabay

June 18, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

For years, human rights organizations have accused UNESCO of being either inattentive or complicit in the illegal evictions of communities and allegations of torture, rape and murder in several World Heritage Sites.

  • These sites include biodiversity hotspots in Africa, including the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania and the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo.

  • Although UNESCO is not participating in these human rights abuses itself, organizations say, a few aspects of the agency’s policies and structure allow abuses to happen: lack of solid mechanisms to enforce human rights obligations, its requests for countries to control population growth in heritage sites and the agency’s internal politics.

  • UNESCO strongly contests the statements made against the World Heritage Convention and Committee, which has made stronger human rights commitments, and says such multilateral institutions are in fact the best allies to defend human rights.

For centuries, Maasai peoples living in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) have always moved freely over vast savanna rangelands in search of water and available grassland, without any restrictions. But in 1979, when UNESCO came into the picture, a lot of things changed.

This included new land use regulations that had “consequent effects on seasonal grazing patterns” and “dismantled” their ways of life, said Andrew Simon Msami, programs director for the Tanzanian human rights organization PINGO’s Forum. He told Mongabay that Maasai peoples were not included in governance and development decisions that affected their rights and, since then, several attempts have been made to evict them, despite “stern resistance” from the communities.

According to a report by Indigenous rights organization Survival International, UNESCO has supported the illegal eviction and abuse of Indigenous peoples in many World Heritage Sites, including the NCA and Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo. They and other human rights organizations say the U.N. agency has awarded new parks the venerated World Heritage status despite knowledge of repeated cases of torture, rape and murder by rangers. They say the reasons for this range from UNESCO’s lack of mechanisms to enforce human rights obligations to its requests for countries to control population growth in heritage sites and the agency’s internal politics.

“UNESCO is not taking out a stick and beating and evicting Indigenous peoples itself,” Fiore Longo, a senior research and advocacy officer at Survival International, told Mongabay. “However, our report shows that UNESCO encourages authorities to follow a model of fortress conservation in order to ‘protect’ World Heritage Sites from ‘human encroachment.’”

A UNESCO spokesperson told Mongabay it “strongly contests” the statements made by these organizations about the World Heritage Convention. “Multilateral frameworks such as the World Heritage Convention are not the cause of the problems,” they said via email. “On the contrary, they are the best allies to defend, shed light on, monitor and effectively advance the rights of Indigenous peoples.”

The U.N. agency’s badge of approval is an incentive for many countries, as it gains them international prestige and support, attracts tourists and new funding streams. The World Heritage Fund provides state parties with up to $3 million annually for the conservation and protection of World Heritage Sites, which is important given that many countries in the Global South receive little international aid or climate and biodiversity finance.

“The value of this inscription for many countries is not meaningless,” John Knox, former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, told Mongabay. “It is prestigious. People are more likely to visit a park if it’s listed as a World Heritage Site. It matters what the World Heritage Committee says about these sites.”

Rosalie Matondo, the Republic of Congo’s minister of forest economy, sustainable development and environment, said the same. If the international community recognizes a site such as Odzala-Kokoua National Park, she told Mongabay, it gives reassurance to them and to those who want to help the Congo Basin and continue to preserve the heritage site.

However, the role this is playing in supporting and developing sustainable development projects for local populations is disputed. Since 2012, 5% of the park’s earnings have reportedly been channeled into a community fund to support local projects. But according to Trésor Nzila, executive director of the Centre d’Actions pour le Développement, “the communities claim that they do not see this money and do not know what it is used for.”

Encouragements without enforcement

UNESCO has a responsibility to ensure World Heritage Sites remain protected. However, as Stefan Disko, a world heritage adviser for the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), explained, it is up to each country’s state to enforce the values outlined in the agency’s Constitution. Its policy and operational guidelines contain no solid mechanisms to penalize state parties that do not respect Indigenous peoples’ rights, cultures and values in World Heritage Sites.

Since September 2023, UNESCO has required member states to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples living inside the protected areas. This is in line with the World Heritage Convention’s Operational Guidelines and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which all U.N. agencies have a special obligation to adhere. But according to Survival International’s analysis of documents the Congolese government submitted to UNESCO, although the government failed to obtain consent from the Baka peoples in Odzala National Park, it was still awarded World Heritage status by the World Heritage Committee last September.

Statements made to Mongabay by Nzila also said there was no consultation. “We denounced that on that occasion and asked that status not be granted,” he said. At the time it was listed, widespread violence against the Baka peoples by the park’s rangers had also been well-documented for years, including cases of torture and sexual abuse.

But Matondo denied all these allegations. She also told Mongabay that Survival International had paid community members to say what they did, which the organization denies.

“Of course we consulted people,” Matondo told Mongabay in a video call. “Consultation was also one of the conditions on the list of criteria to become a heritage site. It was part of a pact of all the conditions we had to fulfil so that the park can be integrated and recognized as a global heritage site. … If these conditions weren’t met, it would not have been possible.”

She stated the government did an investigation into these abuses, with independent consultants, which found that the allegations were false. Matondo refused to share any details of its investigation with Mongabay. Africa Parks is still undergoing its own investigation into these allegations.

Pressure to control population growth?

UNESCO told Mongabay that the protection of World Heritage Sites must be implemented alongside improvements to the living conditions and the means of subsistence of the local community. This must involve engagement with them and in no case be a constraint in their daily life.

However, human rights organizations list several cases in which the agency has encouraged or supported the illegal eviction of communities from their ancestral territories in the name of conservation. The Oakland Institute, for example, says the agency has played a role in the eviction of the Maasai in the NCA in Tanzania.

In June 2019, UNESCO and its advisory bodies published a joint mission report that stated the “the NCA urgently needs to implement stringent policies to control population growth and its subsequent impact on the OUV [outstanding universal value]”. While they highlighted the need to balance the needs of the Maasai with conservation, an increased population is leading to more built infrastructure, human-wildlife conflicts and land conflicts, they say. The mission called on the Tanzanian government to complete the review of its land model and recommended continued “voluntary resettlement of communities” in line with international norms and family planning to “decrease [the] population by 2028.”

According to the Oakland Institute, as a result, the Tanzanian government proposed a new land use model and resettlement plan with tens of thousands of Maasais threatened with eviction.

A UNESCO World Heritage Centre spokesperson told Mongabay “it had never at any time asked for the displacement of the local communities.” It added that in September 2023, it adopted a decision that expressed “its deep concern over the alleged human rights violations in and around the property” and reiterated “its unequivocal condemnation of any forced evictions.”

Longo said UNESCO listings have become a vehicle to promote the idea that local people harm the environment and that experts should be the ones to manage and protect the lands, and so, to achieve this status, it has led to “oppressive and sometimes violent acts by national governments against local communities.” The Maasai in the NCA, for example, have been criminalized, tortured and beaten by the Tanzanian government, according to the Survival International report.

“UNESCO’s support is being used to evict us,” said an unnamed Maasai leader, who was anonymous in the Survival International report due to security concerns. “We are very sick and confused, we don’t know when we will die.”

According to Survival International, the Maasai have reported these issues to various U.N. bodies, including UNESCO, requesting an investigation into the evictions, human rights violations and harassment. However, when a monitoring mission eventually took place in February 2024, Maasai representatives were not informed and UNESCO only spoke to government-appointed stakeholders, PINGO’s Forum said in a press release.


Disko from the IWGIA told Mongabay it’s important to make a distinction between UNESCO, the U.N. agency which is responsible for drafting proposals of sites or new guidelines, and the Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of the Cultural and Natural Heritage of Outstanding Universal Value, also known as the World Heritage Committee, which is made up of 21 representatives from the state parties.

Proposals are based on information provided by UNESCO’s advisory bodies — the International Council on Monuments and Sites, IUCN and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. The World Heritage Committee meets once a year to make decisions based on their findings.

“It’s always the [World Heritage] Committee who makes the final decision on whether a site gets approved or not,” Disko said. “Theoretically, [the committee] should take the advice of the experts because they have visited the place, they’ve seen the situation on the ground and they can say if the site doesn’t meet the standard.”

However, a lot of the time, “it’s very political,” he said. “There’s a lot of horse-trading political interests, economic interests of states and then the committee will, a lot of the time, disregard the advice of the advisory bodies for political reasons.”

Research has shown how the selection process of heritage sites has been driven by politization, as new site inscriptions are, in some cases, marked by aggressive lobbying, political maneuvering and dealmaking. During the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee on July 26, 2021, a spokesperson for the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on World Heritage pointed out how this decision-making culture “strongly undermines the credibility of the convention and UNESCO, and the effectiveness of protection strategies.”

To make matters worse, Disko said, as a rule, the nominations are not published beforehand, which means Indigenous peoples can’t review what’s being said in these meetings about their territories, rights or involvement until a decision has been taken. There’s no transparency, Disko told Mongabay. Civil society, for example, cannot access these files and challenge the information that’s contained there.

When a human rights abuse is reported to UNESCO, according to the U.N. agency’s protocols, it is expected to refer the matter to the relevant state member. State parties are expected to regularly submit information to UNESCO, which will then, through State of Conservation (SOC) reports created by the states, allow the World Heritage Committee to assess a situation and decide on the necessary measures to resolve recurrent problems.

One such measure may include the inscription of a site on the World Heritage in Danger List. However, according to human rights organizations, UNESCO has often turned a blind eye to these abuses and failed to adhere to its guidelines, rather than delisting World Heritage Sites in which Indigenous peoples’ rights, lands and livelihoods are not being respected.

Disko said he believes de-listing these sites is “not really reasonable” because it “goes against the logic of the whole convention,” which is meant to provide an additional level of protection to these sites.

“It’s not sensitive to what the convention is actually supposed to do,” he said. “It’s just that tourism, money and all these financial interests have taken over and they’ve lost sight, in many cases, of the original purpose.”

Although UNESCO does not have powers to stop or prosecute those who carry out human rights abuses, “it does have authority over its own process,” Knox said, “which includes not only inscription but also reporting on the site after it has been inscribed and saying how well it’s doing and if it’s meeting World Heritage criteria.”

“I don’t want to suggest that every single time there’s some kind of human rights abuse in a national park or protected area, even if it’s inscribed in the World Heritage List, somehow the World Heritage Committee has been complicit in that,” Knox added. “But historically, it has not paid any attention to the human rights issues we’re talking about.”


bottom of page