Since the end of military rule, human rights groups have been reassessing their mode of operation. They hope to establish themselves as a constructive element in the consolidation of democracy. This is a departure from the past, when they were uncompromising critics of the government. As the executive director of the Lagos-based Constitutional Rights Project, Clement Nwankwo, sees it, “Targeting the civilian, democratic government as a human rights offender could be counterproductive, even dangerous and destructive; human rights work now should seek to uphold the government, not overturn it.” In a country where democratic governments have been too weak to sustain themselves in power for longer than a couple of years, such a claim seems valid.
As a result, human rights groups have adopted a multidisciplinary approach to conflict, combining the methodology and perspectives of the human rights field with those of the conflict resolution field. This confluence of approaches has so far evolved only within certain human rights organizations; as yet, no long-term cooperation has been established between the human rights and conflict resolution organizations.
Human rights organizations like the Constitutional Rights Project began to infuse their human rights advocacy with conflict resolution work for several reasons. First, human rights violations are often the root cause of conflicts, and thus the protection of human rights becomes an integral part of peace processes. The involvement of human rights organizations in conflicts can ensure that human rights issues are addressed in a timely and effective manner. Second, the magnitude and scope of conflicts expose the inadequacy of traditional, community-based conflict resolution methods. Conflicts in which communities turn against each other require strategies tailored to the complexities of the particular conflict, in addition to the traditional approach of identifying and exposing culprits. Human rights groups have thus begun their own conflict resolution trainings and negotiation sessions for the warring communities. Finally, the reconciliatory character of the conflict resolution field appeals strongly to human rights organizations seeking the middle ground in the work of advocating the protection of human rights, without undermining the legitimacy of Nigeria’s fledgling democracy. Thus, unlike human rights organizations elsewhere that emphasize uncompromising justice as a precondition for lasting peace, some human rights groups in Nigeria have made reconciliation and dialogue the basis of their work.
That human rights are an indispensable part of peace processes is best exemplified in the oil-producing Niger Delta. Here, conflict resolution methods alone are plainly inadequate for a number of reasons. Most important, they fail to address the real source of conflict in the Delta: unresolved human rights claims by the local communities. Economic and political marginalization, merciless environmental exploitation, and the destruction of traditional indigenous structures are only some of the most frequently cited reasons communities turn against each other. The government’s tactic of forcefully pacifying the communities under the guise of resolving intercommunal violence has exacerbated the situation; for example, the government killed and displaced thousands of members of the Ogoni and Odi communities in several brutal military interventions in the 1990s. The human rights community is adamant that halting government brutality is an essential prerequisite for lasting peace. Since human rights groups typically have targeted the government, warring communities perceive them as more neutral; human rights groups have been better able to negotiate the tense security situation an address intercommunal violence. Because conflict resolution methodologies rely heavily on viable social structures and institutions, human rights methodologies have proved better suited to situations where traditional social structures and institutions have been seriously eroded.
The frequency and devastating extent of violent intercommunal conflicts have shown that a traditional human rights approach alone is also insufficient. While lobbying, disseminating information, and exposing the government’s activities all aim to remove the source of the conflicts, these activities do little to repair damaged relationships between warring communities in other regions. In response, human rights organizations are beginning to organize their own conflict resolution workshops for the warring communities. Some of them—for example, the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta—have made it obligatory for their staff to take conflict resolution training. And they are becoming involved in peace processes through supervising the conflict resolution procedures set up by the government, overseeing the government’s analyses of conflicts, and supervising its execution of a peace process.
How to give human rights activism a more constructive role in society and promote a dialogue with the ruling regime is on the mind of every human rights worker in Nigeria. They all acknowledge that the field needs to use its expertise and experience to bring together different actors in conflicts. In the Niger Delta, for instance, a dialogue can be initiated that includes multiple communities, the oil companies, and the government. Some steps in this direction have been taken already. Some human rights groups have started doing their own independent studies of the conflicts, mediating meetings between the parties, and working to involve the government in the process. Others are working together with the government to instigate official inquiries and set up strategies for resolving the conflicts.
All of this marks a significant change in the work of Nigerian human rights groups. They have become more involved in aspects of conflict extending beyond human rights issues, thus making themselves a more relevant and more visible element of Nigerian civil society. And, whereas some human rights groups still see their role as primarily adversarial, most have opted for a more cooperative stance. Although some have questioned whether such a stance undermines the neutrality of the human rights field, this redefined position of the human rights groups might be just the type of support Nigeria needs at this moment.
The role of human rights, Richard Wilson argues, is to create the bedrock of accountability on which democratic legitimacy can be built. But need this be the sole function of human rights? Beyond accountability and retributive justice, is it valid to deploy human rights discourses for the larger ends of social stability and peace building? Today, human rights have become too important to be limited to their legalistic foundations. Beyond law and the quest for retributive justice, there is much that the legitimizing language of human rights can bring to our quest for peace and social stability, as Ivana Vuco’s essay suggests.
In highlighting the limitations of supposedly traditional African models of conflict resolution and restorative justice, the essays by Wilson and Vuco address a growing concern with the construction of localized narratives, which draw on culture and tradition, in human rights and peace work. Much of this concern springs from the old debate over the universality and cultural relativism of human rights, which in recent years has shifted toward a discourse on legitimizing universal human rights and making them relevant to local sociopolitical contexts. The debate reflects the tension between the universal and the local, and the ways in which the language of human rights has been deployed to further nation-building agendas.
When former archbishop Desmond Tutu used the African concept of ubuntu to justify the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s emphasis on restorative justice and social stability rather than retributive justice, he was following in a tradition of African leaders and intellectuals who have articulated distinct cultural interpretations of human rights to meet local political exigencies. In the 1960s, Tanzania’s president Julius K. Nyerere articulated a socialist-oriented concept of human rights, which prioritized social and economic rights over civil and political rights. Like Tutu’s ubuntu, Nyerere’s ujamaa (African socialism) was an attempt to manufacture legitimacy for state institutions using a combination of the language of contemporary human rights and perceived African traditions of communalist/restorative justice. Although such appeals to African traditions are often idealistic, they represent an attempt to legitimize nation-building agendas with the language of human rights.
Wilson clearly does not think that the compromised, nonlegal/juridical use of rights language can ultimately serve the ends of justice, human rights, and peace. He argues that regimes should seek legitimacy not through efforts to forge moral unity and communitarian discourses but, instead, on the basis of justice defined as proportional retribution and fairness. In contrast, Vuco understands the appeal that conflict resolution has to some Nigerian human rights organizations, which are employing the language of human rights as “an indispensable part of peace processes.” These organizations are seeking the middle ground in the work of advocating for the protection of human rights without undermining the legitimacy of the country’s fledgling democracy. In many other African countries, human rights groups have found it useful to draw on traditional community-based resolution methods, with their emphasis on securing consensus and on the reciprocal relationship between rights and social responsibilities, in their conflict resolution work.
The concern about detaching human rights from their legal foundation when they are deployed to legitimize nation-building agendas is a valid one. As Wilson rightly points out, the risk in this approach to human rights is that it obscures accountability and does not particularly serve to promote the rule of law. However, while legal enforcement founded on accountability and retributive justice is a core part of contemporary human rights, the normative traditions on which human rights are built are not solely legal. They are also moral, religious, and philosophical. The language of human rights can contribute a great deal more to efforts to secure peace and social stability when the breadth of its basis is recognized.
The tide of global justice is turning in favor of legality, prosecution, and punishment rather than reconciliation and forgiveness. The TRC represented a shift from this dominant paradigm of retributive justice. But rather than being a deviation from a supposedly global ideal, the TRC in its emphasis on reconciliation and restorative justice might in fact represent an African-inspired normative contribution to the universal human rights corpus. The move by Nigerian human rights groups from human rights advocacy to conflict resolution represents a similar paradigmatic shift. As Vuco notes, by making this shift, they have become more involved in aspects of conflict that extend beyond traditional human rights issues.
This is significant because one of the major challenges of human rights discourse in Africa (at both academic and policy levels) has been the need to legitimize universal human rights within local contexts. One way of doing this is by articulating a sense of human rights informed by local exigencies and perspectives, which the rest of the international community can also use. With the sanctity of the legalistic/individualist paradigm of human rights being increasingly questioned, an African sense of community obligation that goes beyond retribution can serve to strengthen the cross-cultural legitimacy of universal human rights. This may be the most significant impact of the South African TRC and the conflict resolution work of Nigerian human rights groups.