Human Rights and Peacebuilding: Difficulties of Activists

Preventing wars and massive human rights violations, and rebuilding societies in their aftermath, requires an approach that incorporates the perspectives of both human rights advocates and conflict resolution practitioners. This is easier to assert than to achieve. These two groups make different assumptions, apply different methodologies, and have different institutional constraints. As a result, they tend to be wary of one another.
In the short run, both seek to end violence, loss of life, and other suffering as quickly as possible. In the long run, both human rights and conflict resolution practitioners try to assist societies in taking steps to ensure that the violence does not recur and that the rights of every human being are respected. Yet the methods each uses to achieve these goals, as well as their underlying assumptions, are different. As a result, at times they adopt contradictory or even mutually exclusive approaches to the same problem. For example, conflict resolvers, eager to achieve a negotiated settlement to a conflict with minimum loss of life, may insufficiently factor in the relevance of human rights to the long-term success of their work and to the protagonists they seek to bring together. Human rights advocates, by limiting their activities to shaming, negative publicity, and judicial condemnation of responsible individuals, may miss opportunities for human rights improvements that could be achieved through the use of negotiation and diplomatic techniques upon which conflict resolvers rely.
In order to explore these apparent differences more explicitly, I worked with a human rights colleague, the late Ellen Lutz, to commission a set of case studies of conflicts in which both human rights and conflict resolution professionals have worked extensively: Colombia, Sierra Leone, and Northern Ireland. Our purpose was to see how these two agendas proceeded in each case, and whether constructive interaction between their activities was achieved. Our case studies uncovered two crucial dilemmas that must be addressed if we are to see better understanding and synergy between human rights and conflict resolution in peacebuilding practice. One is the tension between establishing sustainable non-violent relations between contending groups within a country, and prosecuting the members of such groups for human rights abuses and/or war crimes. The second is the significant role that the international community plays in supporting or undermining norms that would help to integrate human rights and conflict resolution practices. ACCOUNTABILITY VS. INCLUSION IS A DOMINANT CHALLENGE DURING ALL PHASES OF CONFLICT, NOT JUST AFTER A PEACE AGREEMENT HAS BEEN SIGNED.
One of the most challenging issues in the period after a peace agreement has been reached is how to deal with war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the previous Government. While human rights advocates push for accountability for crimes committed and punishment to deter further abuses, conflict resolution advocates worry that punishing the perpetrators might further splinter the society, making the healing process more difficult.
One of the interesting findings in our case studies is that this disagreement about whether perpetrators should be punished or rehabilitated occurs not only after an agreement has been reached, but also at every other conflict phase. In Colombia, where violence is still occurring and no agreement has been reached, this tension manifests itself in the Government’s response to the guerillas, particularly the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). One of our case writers claims that while there is a real yearning on the part of FARC leaders for inclusion and dignity, they have come to see violence as the only way they can participate in a Government from which they have been alienated for generations by the Liberals and Conservatives. However, over the years these same guerillas have turned to illegal activities, including war crimes and drug trafficking, to support themselves. This creates a real challenge: to recognize the legitimate interests of the guerillas to establish that politics, as opposed to violence, is the way to resolve differences (the conflict resolution perspective), while at the same time to strengthen the rule of law by prosecuting criminals for their drug activities and kidnappings (the human rights perspective). How can both views be accommodated?
In Sierra Leone, the conundrum occurred around the issue of amnesty for Fodoy Sankoh, the leader and founder of the rebel group Revolutionary United Front, as the peace agreement was being negotiated. It was such an important case that it pushed then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as an institutional policy, to explicitly withhold UN support for the granting of amnesty to faction leaders for war crimes as an incentive for a peace deal. While the Secretary-General could not initiate sanctions against such leaders, the withholding of UN approval for amnesty sent a signal that the United Nations was refusing to be a party to such a deal. Since the Sierra Leone talks, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has started its operations, making it possible to prosecute leaders for alleged war crimes. This makes it even less likely that leaders can demand complete amnesty in return for signing a peace accord. It remains to be seen what the impact of the ICC will be on future peace negotiations. As of this writing, for example, the ICC investigations into the actions of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda are impeding the conclusion of peace talks there.
The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, while containing a strong human rights component to govern future relations, is silent on acknowledgment of past acts of discrimination against the Catholics in the region — which was the original cause for violence when the Troubles began in the late 1960s. Our case writers note that the founding of the state was based on discrimination and, even now, the human rights provisions in the Good Friday Agreement are “under-implemented.” In fact, over the years the emphasis shifted from a focus on human rights to a focus on power-sharing. One might argue that the continuing low-level violence and tenuous implementation of the Agreement may, in some measure, be because the core of the conflict is still largely not discussable and has still not been addressed.
These cases do not provide answers to these conundrums, but rather illustrate how complex the trade-offs are in the context of real world circumstances. For example, no systematic analysis has been done that determines whether or not amnesty leads to the undermining of rule of law or to the instability of peace agreements. These cases point to the need for such an analysis to be done. THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY PLAYS A KEY ROLE IN DETERMINING WHETHER HUMAN RIGHTS AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION PRACTICES COMPETE OR COLLABORATE.
In all three of our cases, outside actors had a huge impact on how human rights and conflict resolution processes have proceeded. The United States and the United Nations, in particular, set the tone by their policies and behaviours.
The United Nations was the dominant external actor in Sierra Leone, fielding a strong team of human rights experts to advise on provisions of the peace agreement, structure a truth commission, and coordinate the activities of the many human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that were active in the country. Even on the conflict resolution side, as discussed above, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Sierra Leone took a strong stand against international amnesty for human rights violations. The United Nations also helped set up a tribunal to prosecute perpetrators when the violence escalated after an agreement had been reached. The collaboration that took place between the conflict resolution and human rights actors in Sierra Leone, encouraged and supported by the United Nations, provides a positive model to draw upon in designing operations in other countries.
As our cases show, such collaboration has not occurred in Colombia or Northern Ireland. In Colombia, with both United States military training and financial support, the Government has taken a military approach toward the guerilla movements, hoping to defeat them and destroy the drug trade. Neither goal has been accomplished. While the human rights violations get international attention from NGOs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the peacemaking process has not received comparable outside support. It appears that international involvement, especially from the United States Government, has made the situation worse instead of better, particularly in relation to human rights/conflict resolution collaboration.
To some extent, the same can be said of Northern Ireland. The peacemaking process, conducted under the auspices of international mediators, reinforced the notion of two tribes engaged in inevitable competition, according to our case writers. The power-sharing arrangements enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement further solidified these divisions. At the same time, thirty years of violence might have been avoided if the international community had been willing to confront the discrimination and human rights abuses that took place there much earlier on, before the Troubles began. Even now, the human rights origins of the conflict are not resolved, and low-level violence continues. Both the human rights and conflict resolution agendas are suffering.
The international community, therefore, has a responsibility to incorporate human rights norms in conflict resolution efforts for peacebuilding in cases of extreme power asymmetry. Human rights norms help address these asymmetries in two important ways. First, they help empower the weaker party — a norm that the conflict resolution community already endorses. By strengthening the salience of human rights norms, third-party conflict resolution processes can achieve greater efficacy by giving a weaker party the support it might need to negotiate from a more equitable vantage point. Second, human rights norms are important in reinforcing the notion that a state’s sovereignty carries with it a responsibility to protect the civilians within its borders.
Most importantly, those designing and implementing conflict resolution processes for peacebuilding in intra-state conflicts cannot assume that human rights are “not our issue.” They are key components of parties’ interests and concerns, significant indicators of power asymmetry and sometimes power abuses, and often both a cause and a consequence of the conflicts we are trying to settle or transform. It is crucial that peacebuilders know and understand the strengths and weaknesses of human rights norms, and how to use these norms in a constructive and appropriate way. 

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