Managing Conflict, Promoting Human Rights

In January 2001, local South Africans forcefully evicted a group of Angolans and Namibians from two squatter camps near Cape Town. The squatters’ houses and belongings were destroyed, even though several of the squatters were married to South African citizens and/or had valid residence permits; some had even been naturalized. While those evicted sought refuge at the police station, the local municipality looked for organizations that could assist in addressing the crisis. Eventually, the municipality sought out the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR), an independent nongovernmental organization in Cape Town, to intervene and facilitate a lasting solution to the conflict.

The intervention team, comprising staff from CCR’s Mediation and Training Services project and the Human Rights and Conflict Management Programme (HRCMP), realized that resolving the conflict in this squatter area required employing both a conflict resolution perspective and a human rights perspective. An exclusive human rights point of view would fail to engage the needs, fears, and interests that caused the reluctance of the local residents to accept the “foreigners” in their midst. Focusing narrowly on the fears of the South African residents, however, would give insufficient consideration to the rights of the Angolans and Namibians. An integrated approach was necessary to reconcile the needs and interests of the parties within parameters laid down by the South African Constitution and the law, and to raise rights awareness among the parties.

Our intervention was not easy. The local residents were reluctant to accept the idea that the conflict related to issues of rights. The South African residents did not talk in terms of rights: “rights” were a foreign notion to them. They talked about such issues as the lack of employment, infrastructure and housing, the police presence in the area, and how the “foreigners” might take their jobs. Emphasizing their own socioeconomic plight, they were not receptive to the notion that the “foreigners” had rights. Raising rights concerns in relation to this conflict revealed that xenophobia was a major underlying cause of tension. The South Africans vehemently rejected the idea that their actions were motivated even in part by xenophobia; in their view, the sole problem was the squatters’ alleged criminal activities. The South Africans threatened to leave the mediation process if the issue of xenophobia was not dropped.

Our intervention team decided to focus on the needs and interests of both parties rather than to confront the South Africans. We framed the issue of xenophobia in terms of the concerns of the parties to the conflict, slowly building an understanding among the South African residents about the rights of the Angolans and Namibians living in the settlements. Grounding a conflict resolution approach in the experiences of community members—by discussing issues important to them, such as housing, development, employment, and safety—proved to be an effective (if slow!) way of addressing human rights concerns. It also helped the locals understand the moral and legal ramifications of their actions in evicting the “foreigners.”

Typically, human rights actors in South Africa take an adversarial stance in addressing human rights violations. This practice stems from the country’s past, when rights were denied and confrontation was understood to be the only way to challenge injustice. As this case demonstrates, conflict management skills were instrumental in conveying the meaning and relevance of human rights to the parties in conflict. In our work with human rights actors, we find that exposing rights activists to conflict management can greatly help to build their confidence in raising awareness of rights and addressing conflicts over rights because they learn how to negotiate over rights in terms of people’s interests.

The HRCMP has found that linking human rights and peace work requires different approaches at different times. For training purposes we have learned to target actors in each field separately. Human rights actors generally need to develop their capacity to deal with conflict in a constructive manner while doing human rights work. Conflict management practitioners, by contrast, need to develop an understanding of the meaning and value of human rights for their work and to gain the ability to identify human rights violations. They need to be familiar with various constitutional and legislative frameworks and must be able to conduct their interventions in line with the human rights instruments relevant to the context in which they operate.

While human rights and conflict management audiences may need to be targeted separately for training, it has become clear that the two groups need to be brought together when dealing with complex issues such as xenophobia, land reform, the question of traditional leadership in a constitutional democracy, and the integration of human rights into peace processes.

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, South Africa

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