Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 7 (Winter 2002): Integrating Human Rights and Peace Work: Articles: Averting Violations through Conflict Prevention

Mar 25, 2002

For forty years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has integrated the promotion of human rights into its programs. As the development and assistance arm of the U.S. government, USAID is uniquely positioned to help a range of organizations in countries around the world in their work to achieve the rights enumerated in international human rights documents. Increasingly, USAID is emphasizing conflict prevention as a way of averting the human rights violations that invariably occur during conflicts. Dayton Maxwell, special assistant to the administrator of USAID, spoke to Human Rights Dialogue about human rights in the context of USAID’s emerging policies under the Bush administration.

Dialogue: What principles guide USAID’s conflict-related programs?

Maxwell: We are developing new strategies to help manage the proliferation of intrastate conflicts and the terrible human costs they exact. We recognize that the time frame for addressing potential conflicts must be lengthened and our post-conflict commitment extended. The principal responsibility for preventing conflicts lies with the potential parties to the conflict. But USAID seeks to facilitate broader participation by civil society in peace efforts.

The first imperative in preventing conflict and building peace is establishing human security. Without security, human rights are seldom safe. We must find more effective ways to assure economic and physical security for populations that are vulnerable to, or targeted for, abuse. The establishment and support of free-market democracies is a critical safeguard for human rights. We must also learn how to integrate our post-conflict relief and reconstruction efforts more quickly and directly into our development assistance, democracy, rule of law, and good governance programs.

Dialogue: How are the human rights dimensions of conflicts being addressed in USAID’s conflict-prevention and peace-building efforts?

Maxwell: Conflict prevention and recovery actions offer unique opportunities for advancing human rights. Clearly, the earlier we identify potential conflicts and head them off, the more we prevent the massive human rights abuses that conflicts inevitably cause. Helping contending groups live together in peace can only serve the cause of international human rights. Holding elections requires addressing human rights issues in writing election legislation, training election workers, promoting voter registration and education, and providing security. Economic incentives can encourage different groups to work together to address issues relating to health care, public services, school construction, agricultural production, and other necessities. All of these can further our goals of protecting human rights and improving individual security.

On a larger scale, we at USAID are developing a highly professional conflict-vulnerability assessment process that will be used by teams going to conflict-prone countries. This work requires considerable development and testing before it will be made public, but it does include human rights issues.

Gaining political agreements with host country officials to assess, design, and implement conflict-prevention activities is extremely sensitive. The donor nations and international community could engage in a process to establish a culture of conflict prevention acceptable to all countries and to our human rights commitments. It could be similar to the process leading to structural adjustment reforms in the 1980s, when sensitive and initially contentious economic policy reforms to development assistance were required; they have become standard business through intensive efforts to review the benefits to host countries.

Dialogue: Are there dilemmas that have arisen within USAID as it simultaneously works to advance human rights, promote democracy, and prevent conflict?

Maxwell: Of course. For example, to establish effective governance, the inadequacies of the preceding government, as well as of the one in authority, must be addressed. This can cause tensions between human rights groups that generally seek justice for past abuses and the on-the-ground assistance and peace workers who don’t wish to jeopardize recovery and peace-building by focusing too intently on issues of past injustice. Here is another example. Should we advance our rule of law objectives by training police officers to be accountable to their communities in spite of the atrocities they sometimes commit, because ignoring the problem would result in even worse abuses? We are continually learning how to make the right judgments for the stark realities facing us. The bottom line, however, is that we are committed to helping states deal with the dilemmas that arise.

Dialogue: The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 established the increased observation of internationally recognized human rights by all countries as a principle goal of U.S. aid policy. While the goal remains, the terms “human values,” “human security,” and “citizen security” are used more often today in government circles than “human rights.” Does the change in policy priorities and language translate into a change of policies and strategies for pursuing human rights?

Maxwell: We remain absolutely committed to human rights principles. What has changed since 1961 is the number of groups that are dedicated to human rights issues. Some of them interpret human rights in ways that go beyond international law.

As for security, Article Three of the Universal Declaration states clearly that, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Our own nation was founded on the principle of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The term “human security” appears prominently in the World Bank's “World Development Report 2000/2001—Attacking Poverty,” which among other things recommended addressing the vulnerability of the world’s poor to violence. The report defined security primarily in economic and financial terms; however, the term increasingly also carries implications of physical security of persons. While alleviating poverty remains a very important issue for the United States, assuring people’s security is also a very important part of the human rights picture.

Dialogue: In your opinion what rights dimensions might be useful to donor countries in their conflict-prevention efforts?

Maxwell: Today’s challenge is to resolve societal differences through nonviolent management techniques. Human rights have an important place in this. I do not want to suggest that some rights are more important than others, but clearly when the right to life, liberty, and the security of person is respected, few conflicts arise. For the international community to assure that right, however, is not always a simple matter. Hence our conflict-prevention efforts. Beyond that, I believe our effort to promote democracy, free markets, and the rule of law—all of which are firmly rooted in universal human rights—is the right approach.

Dialogue: Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many asserted that human rights concerns abroad would be swept aside in the interest of fighting terrorism. In your opinion, is this a valid concern?

Maxwell: On the contrary. I think there actually may be increased opportunities to raise human rights norms and standards in our foreign policy and make them more prevalent in all of our relief, development, and governance activities. The polarization resulting from terrorist acts can potentially ease discussion of human rights in international forums. Now that terrible acts that get to the heart of the rights of citizens have been committed, there is less room for ambiguity and compromise in political dialogue.

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