Bridging Human Rights and Conflict Resolution: A Dialogue Between Critical Communities

Jul 18, 2001

Report on a July 16-17, 2001, Carnegie Council workshop. The discussions at the conference were held on the understanding that speakers' names would not be used in any subsequent reports or publications.

"The two communities have different parents. The human rights community believes that people are bad and need laws because there will always be war, while the conflict resolution community believes people are good and that there is ideal world without war."
Comment by human rights activist at Carnegie Council workshop, July 17, 2001

"[W]atchdog-type reporting by human rights organizations makes work more difficult for conflict resolution organizations, which are trying to hold onto some threads of positive inter-ethnic relations."
Comment by conflict resolution specialist at the same event, July 17, 2001

Human rights advocates and conflict resolution specialists working in war-torn societies share the common goal of constructing stable societies based on the rule of law, but their approaches are often at odds. On July 16-17, 2001, the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, with the support of the United States Institute of Peace, held a workshop aimed at fostering dialogue, bringing together approximately twenty representatives from the two communities.

By shedding light on where the perceptions and priorities of human rights and peace workers are complementary and where they diverge, the workshop aimed to contribute to greater understanding and collaboration between the two groups. This report summarizes some of the main themes and insights that emerged during the discussions.

This report complements the Winter 2002 issue of the Carnegie Council publication, Human Rights Dialogue, which is devoted to the theme "Integrating Human Rights and Peace Work." The Dialogue issue features contributions from a variety of international and local actors working on the intersection of rights and conflict resolution work, including a member of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, a U.N. assistant secretary-general, a special advisor on conflict resolution at USAID, and activists and academics from Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and South Africa. It includes commentary and dialogue on subjects ranging from the potentially deleterious impact of truth commissions on public understanding of human rights to the priorities of international donors involved in conflict zones.

Because the workshop allowed for sustained, face-to-face interaction, it brought to light a number of issues not included in the essays published in Dialogue. Members of both communities agreed that international groups have an important role to play in trying to end conflict and the abuses that accompany conflict, but emphasized that lasting solutions must be locally rooted and reflect local capacities and priorities. The workshop also brought to light significant differences. Participants had fundamentally different ideas on whether ending conflict should be the paramount objective of activists, and on the role played by local and international media in different conflict zones. The workshop also revealed that the dichotomy between human rights and conflict resolution communities is more pronounced in the international sphere than in conflict zones themselves, where resources are more scarce and activists are more likely to work in close proximity. A summary of the workshop discussions follows.

Note on terminology: Unless otherwise specified, this summary uses the term "conflict resolution" as a catchall for the broader field that also includes conflict prevention efforts, peace-building and reconciliation initiatives, conflict management, and what is increasingly being called conflict "transformation" work.

Differing Assumptions and FrameworksThe workshop offered rights activists and conflict resolution specialists the opportunity for direct exchange of views. Most participants came into the meetings with the assumption that things needed to change; two days of intense interaction and a role-play/scenario exercise resulted in more frank discussion of where the fault lines lie.

The first session of the workshop revealed that, even among organizations within the same professional community, mandates, work priorities, and timeframes within which the participants hoped to see measurable progress varied widely according to the region and circumstances of the conflict. Each of the speakers began by describing the particular conflict on which he or she works, and the approach and goals of his or her organization. Among participants from the rights community, the range of concerns included bringing suspected war criminals to justice, seeking restitution for individuals whose land was seized during conflict, ensuring protection for refugee populations, and promoting open access to and exchange of information. Within the conflict resolution group, the range of objectives included bringing warring parties to the negotiating table, teaching conflict resolution skills, developing national security policies, and adapting traditional conflict resolution mechanisms to better address current needs.

Despite the fact that mandates and work priorities varied widely, actors working within each community shared important underlying goals. Among human rights activists, common goals included strengthening local human rights organizations, increasing public awareness of rights, reforming laws to bring them into line with rights standards, and monitoring compliance with human rights provisions. Among peace workers, common goals included instilling a culture of support for conflict resolution efforts, encouraging research and education in conflict prevention/resolution, inducing representatives of competing factions to change from adversarial to cooperative approaches, fostering dialogue among parties to the conflict, and strengthening civil society prevention mechanisms.

There was general support for the proposition that conflict is an important aspect of all societies, and that "the problem is not conflict, but the way we choose to deal with conflict." While practitioners from the two communities agreed that violent conflict can be prevented, disagreement between the two groups emerged on the question of whether conflict prevention or resolution should be the paramount value. One conflict resolution specialist said that the work of her organization rests on the assumption that fear and prejudice lead people to enter violent conflict, that conflict resolution skills can be learned, and that distortions can be redressed through better communication and confidence-building measures between groups. A number of rights workers, by contrast, emphasized that ending violence in the short term was not their goal. Rights workers are typically not concerned with conflict per se, but with how conflict is conducted. Rights workers also tend to believe that where one or more parties to the conflict insists on amnesty from prosecution as a condition of peace, long-term stability may be better served without immediate peace. One rights worker put the matter in stark terms: "My organization does not do peace. We believe that conflict is sometimes necessary—so fight, but respect rights and fight within the laws of war... [Our role is] to denounce those who fight in violation of those laws."

In addition to holding different assumptions about the desirability and role of conflict, practitioners from the two communities use different approaches in their daily work. Human rights advocacy typically emphasizes naming the violators. As such, human rights strategies are often adversarial and confrontational, based on the belief that human rights work by nature must be public and transparent. Organizations engaged in conflict resolution, by contrast, tend to emphasize cooperative approaches to their work, relying heavily on the principle of impartiality: the practitioner should not take sides or be seen to be doing so on any substantive aspect of the conflict. In this sense, conflict resolution work follows the diplomatic tradition, developing interest-based cooperative strategies while being closed and remaining out of the media spotlight. As one worker put it: "Human rights reporting can indeed be a nuisance to those trying to mediate conflict. My organization relies on its image as an impartial and honest broker. Name and blame tactics compromise that role."

A number of human rights activists challenged the idea of impartiality, stating that it is one thing not to take sides, but another to avoid controversy: particular rights claims are almost always seen as more damaging to one side than another, and though rights groups have a duty to cover abuses by all parties, they should not shy away from stating that one side is to blame for a particular incident if the facts support such a finding. Another rights participant emphasized that it is very difficult to avoid political dimensions of conflicts because both rights and conflict resolution groups implicitly "are promoting their own concept of stability."

A human rights activist observed that the human rights field was more clearly defined than the conflict resolution field, arguing that there is less consensus in the conflict resolution field on key concepts, including "peace" itself, the relationship of peace to justice, and so on. Conflict resolution specialists agreed that the human rights field is more clearly defined than conflict resolution, which lacks a framework or unifying statement of principles comparable to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the various international human rights treaties. A number of participants pointed to the fact that there isn't a single, agreed upon term for peace work, with different people choosing different terms, including "conflict prevention," "conflict resolution," and "conflict transformation." One participant emphasized that conflict resolution is a younger field and perhaps even more susceptible than human rights to being misused by governments and private actors who invoke conflict resolution language to justify and legitimize their actions.

The Interaction of Conflict Resolution and Human Rights Communities on the Ground

The interaction of the human rights and conflict resolution communities varies greatly on the ground depending on the region and the conflict. In some places, such as Nigeria, there is a sharp divide between the two communities. Workers in the field identify themselves in terms of human rights or conflict resolution and see their mandates and work as completely different and separate, to the point where no real communication or cooperation takes place. In others, such as Thailand, there is virtually no difference between the two communities. Indeed, a Thai participant said that in the Thai language "justice" and "peaceful resolution" are the same word. Culture and history may play a big role in how the communities interact.

The conflict resolution and human rights communities agreed that the work of one community can have unintended adverse consequences for the other. Human rights reporting can be a nuisance to those trying to mediate conflict because it openly identifies abusers and can increase anger and polarization. One rights worker said that the role of her organization is to be a "hunting dog"—tracking down the evidence—and then pointing the finger, not to make peace. She recognized that this could be problematic because human rights organizations do not always measure the consequences of their action for conflict prevention and resolution efforts. The problem lies not simply in what message is delivered, but also how it is delivered and when (timing can be decisive, making an otherwise useful intervention counterproductive). Greater sensitivity to such issues by human rights workers is important. As one conflict resolution practitioner said "What are the checks on human rights watchdog activities? Where is the line drawn—and who draws it—between what local organizations can do and what they cannot in terms of human rights work?"

Just as human rights tactics may cause problems for peace workers, conflict resolution work may hinder the ability of the human rights community to meet its goals. The issue of amnesties, already mentioned above, is one example. More generally, because conflict resolution workers see peace as the priority, they may strategically attempt to divert attention from the human rights records of the parties. Rights participants were particularly concerned about peace deals that fail to address the behavior of armed groups and security officials, arguing that it is crucial in the context of conflict or post-conflict reconstruction "to establish in society the rule of law and the basic concept that if one commits a crime, he or she will be punished for it."

Participants also recognized, however, that conflict resolution and human rights communities can have positive and even mutually reinforcing relationships. As one conflict resolution specialist emphasized, conflicts are often fueled by rights abuses, and addressing those abuses thus becomes "an unavoidable part of the peace process." Human rights work is also a tool of analysis and policy formation, as rights violations can be an early warning of escalating conflict. Furthermore, human rights education, promotion, and monitoring can play an important role in preventing conflict and maintaining peace in the long run. In the last decade, human rights have emerged as a strong element in preventive diplomacy and collective security. Participants agreed that the human rights emphasis on individual rather than collective guilt can be critical in freeing up space in which the reconciliation process can move forward. Participants also emphasized that conflict resolution groups can help promote understanding of human rights concepts by openly addressing rights claims in dialogue between the groups.

One conflict resolution participant suggested that there is often significant overlap between the work of the two communities. While the human rights community tends to concentrate on direct violations such as civilian killings or rape, the conflict resolution community is concerned with everyday economic and social rights. This led another participant to suggest that perhaps the two communities are moving closer together, with the human rights community growing increasingly concerned with economic and social rights, and the conflict resolution community beginning to take a more rights-based approach. Participants also noted increased borrowing of techniques between the communities, emphasizing that "there is nothing wrong with seeing the other community's tools as tools for one's own work." Human rights organizations may find it useful to borrow negotiation techniques from the conflict resolution field while peace workers borrow human rights techniques to address violations more openly. One participant suggested that there might be cycles of influence, times when each community is more or less relevant.

Finally, some participants noted that tensions between the communities were more pronounced in the Western, international NGO community than locally. At the local level, practitioners typically come from diverse occupational backgrounds and act out of strong personal moral convictions, seeking a return of some degree of normalcy in their everyday lives. Local practitioners have less at stake in any particular professional identity, have fewer resources, and work in closer proximity with one another. As one participant put it: "As soon as human rights and conflict resolution become 'fields,' problems arise. As both groups become more professionalized, you need to be more aware of trying to stay true to your goals. If you have another vocation, you see an end to your work and keep that end as your goal: if it is your field, the work is ongoing and you need and expect to remain involved in it. This changes both your motivation and the way you go about doing it."

International-Local Cooperation The final session of the workshop focused primarily on how the human rights and conflict resolution communities view the role of the international community, from NGOs to UN agencies. Local practitioners reported both positive and negative experience with international involvement. While international actors can play an important role in facilitating dialogue, international organizations and agencies often are so concerned with producing some kind of "visible" product for their headquarters or their funders that projects may not correspond with the most pressing local needs. In Indonesia, for example, the UN initiated a housing project for Internally Displaced Peoples and, without consulting locally, built an entire compound of houses. The houses were never used. Participants agreed that international actors often do not understand problems in the same way as do people on the ground and that failure to consult locally can actually make problems worse.

One participant noted that there is often strong competition among donors that results in delays in productive work, and a bandwagon effect that diverts money away from projects that are not in vogue. The relationship between local groups and the donor community can be polarizing because of a split between groups that receive money from and those that do not. International aid dollars typically are distributed through organizations in or near capital cities. One participant suggested that funders do not always respect the fine line between empowering locals and bossing them around. Another pointed out that the effectiveness of international action often depends on its timing. If extrajudicial killings are taking place, for example and no one is talking about it locally, the international community can bring it to light. However, if people are already talking about the problem locally, international involvement can distort the issue and undercut local actors.

Despite the negative impact that the international community may have, the participants agreed that in some situations the international level plays an essential role. In particular, all stated that recent developments in international justice, by providing an important second layer of justice, are a major breakthrough for locally based conflict resolution and human rights advocates. One participant said that the extradition of Milosevic, e.g., was of great significance for the peoples of the former Yugoslavia because it changed how people think. Similarly, the fact that international law places guilt on individuals rather than states can be important to the reconciliation process. One participant struck a note of caution, however, saying that "international justice mechanisms cannot be seen as just a way to ease the consciousness of the international community in the wake of its inaction."

In discussing the international-local dynamic, one participant emphasized that there is not just "one local and one international." A US-based organization working in Colombia might refer to any group based in Colombia as "local." For Colombians, only those based in the specific area of conflict would likely be called "local." Furthermore, while each organization may have its own idea of what the local is, the UN itself, or Washington may be considered their own locals. One participant noted that, "[i]n the past, non-residential communities were not involved [in conflicts]. One group did not try to go to a different area to fix a problem—that was an issue of state action."

Role of the Media

Participants from both communities emphasized the critical influence of the media in conflict zones. To the extent the press maintains objectivity, it can be a valuable resource. Where the press is seen as political and biased, however, it can exacerbate tensions. In Rwanda, for example, the media was used in a campaign of manipulation to incite inter-group hatred and violence. In this case there was a direct relationship between atrocities and the media. Another problem is the tendency of the media to focus on shocking and disturbing sensational topics and pictures to increase sales. Such sensational reporting can also have a great impact of increasing tensions, particular under volatile circumstances.

In Sri Lanka, many NGOs see the media as political and biased, while media sources accuse NGOs of being foreign funded and controlled. The result is intense competition and rivalry between the media and NGOs, each claiming to be the authentic voice of civil society. The tension is made worse by the fact that journalists in Sri Lanka are poorly paid and do not have access to formal training because there is no journalism school. In many places in Latin America, by contrast, the media has more legitimacy and is taken more seriously as an objective source. The threat that this poses to partisans is clearly revealed in the fact that roughly 150 journalists have been killed in Colombia in the past ten years. As one participant concluded: "In Latin America, the media is not part of the problem, but part of the solution in bringing about transparency and accountability. They are often seen as more legitimate and less corrupt than the judiciary and the government."

In South Africa, the media record is mixed. On land issues, the popular media has engaged in name-calling and has actually served to aggravate tensions. In other areas the media has been more open and accountable. In Thailand, the media gives more attention to peace efforts than to human rights violations, but, contrary to what one might think, this can have a negative impact by reducing the sense of urgency about conditions in conflict areas. In Macedonia, conflict resolution organizations have worked with journalists from different communities in the country to facilitate an exchange of views through specially focused publications. The Internet played a role: "Use of the internet was especially an issue between Macedonia and Greece. Much of the conflict between these two countries has been hashed out over the Internet; again, a non-violent way to deal with the conflict. There is still much work to be done and the Internet remains a largely untapped resource."


Human rights and conflict resolution work should be mutually reinforcing: respect for human rights is a necessary precondition of a lasting peace, and conflict resolution efforts offer opportunities for creating forward-looking mechanisms to ensure rights are respected. As one participant summed things up: "Who tells you what rights mean? You can't wait for a lawyer to come along and tell you—you build it over time and build consensus about what appropriate behavior is. You have to build a constituency for peace." Workshop participants agreed that communication between human rights and conflict resolution groups to date has been surprisingly limited and relations in the field often uneasy. They also agreed that increased cooperation between practitioners from the two communities and between international and local groups within each of the communities would lead to more optimal results.

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