When the Belfast Agreement was negotiated in April 1998, political parties found that human rights issues provided a foundation for building a bridge between the opposing positions. While compromise on the central question of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland appeared impossible, underlying fears of domination and discrimination could be addressed by providing for human rights protections. Human rights standards provide a basis for separating legitimate negotiating demands (for example, equality) from illegitimate ones (for example, domination). Because they are universal and thus transcend the parties in conflict, human rights standards provide an important touchstone for what is just.
However, not all conflict resolution initiatives use human rights as a basis for measuring justice. Some people engaged in conflict resolution regard human rights demands as an obstacle to the establishment of a peaceful settlement. Human rights activists are criticized for being too focused on principle; they in turn view conflict resolution practitioners as too pragmatic.
Lurking just beneath the surface of the “principle” versus “pragmatism” debate is a more subtle and fundamental division over the causes of conflict and the best ways to end it. Some believe that conflict is rooted in interethnic hatred, while others view it is a consequence of racial domination and discrimination, or a government's illegitimacy. If one believes that a conflict is about interethnic hatred, then that leads to one set of solutions; if it is about the denial of justice and equality, that leads to another.
Groups have been demanding human rights protections since the onset of the most recent phase of the Northern Ireland conflict in the 1960s. At first human rights activism centered on the civil rights of the Catholic/Nationalist community in terms of equal opportunity to obtain jobs, voting, and housing--the issues at the heart of the conflict's reemergence. But after the state introduced security measures, a new wave of activism emerged, centering on issues concerning the rights to a fair trial, use of summary and arbitrary execution, mistreatment in prisons, abuse in detention, and police harassment and collusion with paramilitary groups. During the late 1980s local human rights groups became increasingly sophisticated in using international forums--including the UN, the Council of Europe, and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International--to raise human rights concerns.
The approaches of different human rights groups and the human rights lobbying of political parties varied. The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), established by a group of lawyers to examine the administration of justice in Northern Ireland, operated with three core principles. First, it would take no position on the constitutional question, but it asserted that, regardless of which government was sovereign, rights should be protected. Second, it insisted that international human rights norms were the applicable standard for questioning domestic practices; this was an attempt to maintain a principled basis for intervention and retain objectivity in evaluating the justice system. Third, it opposed the use of violence to achieve political ends. In later years the CAJ was criticized, particularly by Unionists, for failing to monitor and condemn the practices of paramilitary groups such as the IRA. However, the CAJ's opposition to political violence itself constituted an outright rejection of such practices, which could have been compromised by a more nuanced attempt to engage with those practices without a clear international legal basis or to use the problematically selective basis of humanitarian law. Other human rights groups, such as the Pat Finucane Centre, more clearly situated their approach to human rights abuses within the constitutional context of Ireland’s partition and cited the state's denial of equality as "the single most important explanation for the initiation and perpetuation of violent conflict" in Ireland. In other words, they did not assert their neutrality on the constitutional issue. All human rights groups agreed that human rights abuses were part of the problem and therefore had to be part of the solution.
The term “conflict resolution” is a fairly recent one in Northern Ireland, although work aimed at resolving conflict has always been ongoing. Academic groups such as the University of Ulster's Centre for Conflict Studies, and more recently the Institute for Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity (INCORE), have used the language and literature of conflict resolution to approach discrete subsidiary conflicts in Northern Ireland and the conflict as a whole. Some of this analysis accords a place to human rights. For example, conflict resolution analysis of disputes over Orange Order (Protestant) marches through Catholic/Nationalist areas has been informed by analysis of human rights issues in relation to protests and policing. Some practitioners, most notably those affiliated with Mediation Network Northern Ireland, also work explicitly in a conflict resolution paradigm and have used human rights standards to inform their work.
The most heavily funded branch of conflict resolution practiced in Northern Ireland has been “community relations”--the branch that also has been most at odds with human rights approaches. Community relations programs are government-funded initiatives aimed at bringing Catholics and Protestants together and fostering mutual understanding. During the period prior to the peace agreement, the community relations industry, while undoubtedly affecting the lives of some individuals, was singularly unable to provide any broader structural initiatives aimed at challenging the conflict and its effects. Moreover, statistics now show that Protestant and Catholic communities were in fact becoming more segregated in terms of both housing and social interaction and were also increasingly divergent in their perceptions of the conflict and state structures.
Even defining community relations proved difficult. Cross-community initiatives were complemented and sometimes even replaced by single-identity community development work and cultural traditions initiatives. Single-identity work involved only one community, but it was justified as community relations on the theory that only after working on their own community development would communities have the level of confidence needed to reach out to others. More problematically, cultural traditions work involved “cherishing” traditions to foster mutual respect between communities, even when those traditions themselves instigated division and discrimination against the other community and often also against women.
Prior to the peace process, community relations proponents operated at best with a toleration of human rights groups and at worst with an antipathy toward them as divisive and partisan, obstacles to good community relations--and therefore peace. Instead of viewing all difficult issues as political and subject to negotiation, human rights groups suggested that in some areas there were absolutes that, even if divisive, must be addressed. Conversely, many working from a human rights perspective viewed community relations work as perpetuating a status quo in which key causes of violence were not addressed and conflict could not be meaningfully resolved. The focus on intercommunal dialogue denied the role of the state in the conflict; dialogue between Catholics and Protestants, even on issues of justice and equality, was not an adequate substitute for the government actually delivering justice and equality.
While dialogue between conflict resolution and human rights practitioners is valuable, it should not necessarily lead to a uniform approach. During periods of conflict elsewhere, domestic human rights groups claiming rights abuses are routinely dismissed, particularly by those they criticize, as partisan: this was certainly the case in Northern Ireland. If the human rights NGO is to have influence, it must generate legitimacy both domestically and–just as important–internationally by a disciplined and rigorous approach to fact-finding and the application of international human rights standards. It will be more successful if it separates out human rights issues from political issues. On the other hand, groups with a broader conflict resolution mandate can and should engage in a broader way with a range of political issues.
The case of Northern Ireland suggests, however, that meaningful resolution of conflict requires strategies that adequately address underlying human rights issues. Human rights protections are not the whole solution; broad agreement on political institutions is also necessary to resolve the conflict. Yet human rights are too often not recognized as part of the solution. It does not serve lasting peace for human rights protections to be subjected to barter and exchange.
The founding documents of the Community Relations Council (CRC) show that, contrary to what Christine Bell suggests, human rights were an essential element in the work of conflict resolution/community relations. And any assessment of the projects funded by the CRC also shows that issues of rights, justice, equality, and political choice have been and continue to be essential to the dialogues taking place within CRC projects. Moreover, all of the Northern Ireland human rights organizations mentioned in Bell’s article accepted and benefited from CRC funding for their work on human rights (CRC Annual Reports 1990–2000).
The conflict resolution field does not have problems with human rights work per se, but rather with the selective and limited way in which some institutions and individuals have been promoting human rights in Northern Ireland. The human rights field is seen as having only two major focuses for its work: to provide a challenge to state abuses of human rights, and to promote a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
When human rights organizations focus solely on state abuses, and exclude paramilitary abuses, the human rights agenda appears to be supporting a Nationalist/Protestant (as opposed to a Unionist/Catholic) agenda. Conflict organization workers admire the necessary and often effective work on state abuses that has been undertaken by organizations such as the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), British-Irish Rights Watch, Liberty, and Amnesty International. But the fact that these organizations refused give the same attention to the acts of the paramilitaries who were responsible for the majority of the 3,700 killed and the 30,000 injured in Northern Ireland gives the impression that they are against state killings but neutral on killings by paramilitaries—a very narrow human rights perspective. In addition, the CAJ had no Unionist spokespersons, which reinforced the perception that the human rights agenda was a Nationalist one. Although addressing only state violence has a logic, as Bell explains in her essay, many in both communities in Northern Ireland have not grasped it. After all, this logic does not prevail elsewhere: in regions such as Sri Lanka, Columbia, and Sierra Leone, human rights organizations routinely document and condemn human rights abuses by both state and nonstate actors.
Under pressure, the CAJ eventually stated in its literature that it opposed the use of “political” violence, and in the late 1990s Amnesty International was persuaded to condemn punishment shootings and beatings. However, much of the damage in ghettoizing human rights had been done already. This was to affect the establishment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) in 1999. Initially, the NIHRC was seen by many as a Nationalist organization. Now the NIHRC is taking steps to address the concerns raised by previous human rights approaches: It is addressing nonstate abuses and has Unionist spokespersons on its board, which may help convince people in Northern Ireland that its agenda is indeed necessary for all.
Practitioners of conflict resolution were frustrated by repetition of the simplistic suggestion that a human rights approach was the only way to solve the conflict. Many in the human rights field gave the impression that if you did not agree with their particular way of pursuing human rights issues, you were against human rights. As a result, many in Northern Ireland saw human rights workers as generally judgmental, obsessed with political correctness, and lacking experience in dealing with the complex and muddy issues that conflict resolution workers often confront.
In many of the situations in which conflict resolution workers are involved, citing a Bill of Rights is not particularly useful. Whether dealing with a riot, or trying to stop maiming and murder, or merely trying to get groups who hate each other to meet for the first time, one needs a very wide and sensitive repertoire of approaches: referring to people’s rights in such situations can be about as useful as referring to the Ten Commandments.
The conflict resolution people’s skepticism about the usefulness of the Bill of Rights in solving the problems of Northern Ireland has proved well founded. Most of the remaining controversial issues—contentious parading (that is, Orange/Unionist marches through previously Protestant areas that have become Catholic) and the continuing violence at local community interfaces—have not been amenable to a human rights approach. Communities have appropriated human rights for their own particular needs, As one recent independent report has suggested, the result can be two communities, both of which see themselves as victims and who see their rights as having primacy over the rights of the other community. Conflict resolution activists with many years of experience in the field know that rights and responsibilities merely become weapons for division unless they are deployed within the context of long-term and sustained dialogue between communities in conflict.