Ethics and the IUCN

Mar 12, 2020 | Commentary

By Professor Klauss Bosselmann, Chair of the IUCN WCEL Ethics Specialist Group – Program on African Protected Areas (PAPACO)

Humanity is plundering the planet with accelerating speed – destruction of natural habitats, wildlife and biodiversity included. If we do not pause now, rethink our relationship with nature and embrace non-anthropocentric ethics of respect for all life, not just human life, when will we ever? As IUCN, we should be at the forefront of ethics-based policies and practices. Despite a long tradition of ethical thinking – including the adoption of the Earth Charter in 2004 and many subsequent initiatives towards strengthening IUCN’s moral leadership -, the image of IUCN in the general public is solely that of a science-based organization focused on short-term technical and economic solutions. An ethically informed approach to IUCN’s programme and policy is still missing. The Union’s Mission Statement is ‘to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.’ This calls for an ecocentric approach to nature conservation! Nature is not an assembly of natural resources for human consumption, but refers to the physical world and life in general. Humans are just part in it. Respect and care for the community of life therefore must guide all human behaviour. This has been clearly expressed in the UNEP/IUCN/WWF document Caring for the Earth (1991) and is the core principle of the Earth Charter that IUCN is supposed to be guided by. Similarly, no less than 27 international agreements – from the 1992 Rio Declaration to the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the French proposal for a Global Pact for the Environment – call upon states ‘to preserve the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems’. The implications of this fundamental duty have been consistently ignored by governments and IUCN should have no part in ethical and legal illiteracy. The IUCN family is large and there are members who are acutely aware of IUCN’s ongoing apathy. One recent example is the intense debate around trophy hunting. IUCN does not have a policy on trophy hunting, but continues to follow the 2012 ‘Guiding Principles’ from the SSC’s Sustainable Use and Livelihood Specialist Group which considers ‘well managed’ trophy hunting acceptable as a form of ‘sustainable use’ justifying it on anthropocentric, utilitarian grounds. Its actual benefits for local communities and wildlife conservation are more assumed than proven, but crucially IUCN’s current position reveals a lack of willingness to take the 2004 Earth Charter resolution and subsequent ethics resolutions seriously. Worse, a number of motion submissions for the upcoming World Conservation Congress in June have been rejected by the Policy and Programme Committee as they are perceived as potentially controversial. 

The Ethics Specialist Group of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law, like many other bodies in IUCN, has taken a strong stance against trophy hunting. There are in fact many who cannot bear the thought that our Union should be tolerating the killing of lions, elephants and rhinos for the pleasure of rich white men (and some women) in the name of ‘sustainable use’. The WCC in Marseille offers an opportunity to pause, consider IUCN’s Mission Statement in the light of what it actually means, discuss comprehensively without the usual pressure by lobby groups and, if finally this comes to a conclusion, condemn any forms of trophy hunting and accept our responsibilities in the community of life.

Professor Klaus Bosselmann, PhD Chair, Ethics Specialist Group, IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law – IUCN WCEL Ethics Specialist Group

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