Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 7 (Winter 2002): Integrating Human Rights and Peace Work: Articles: Troubleshooting Difference

Mar 25, 2002

Preventing wars and massive human rights violations -- and rebuilding societies in their aftermath -- requires strategies that incorporate perspectives from both the conflict resolution and human rights fields. Yet collaboration between the two fields does not always come easily.

In the fall of 2000, faculty from the two areas at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy founded the Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution (CHRCR). The impetus for creating the center was our collective professional experience and academic knowledge, which pointed to a lack of collaboration between professionals in the two fields. We could see that many professionals in each field have a grating disregard for one another. Moreover, neither field has a formula that is sufficient to meet the needs of achieving peace or protecting human rights in conflict settings or of preventing conflict and human rights abuses from occurring.

CHRCR works to develop cross-disciplinary understanding and collaboration between the two fields. Through conferences, training programs, and publications, CHRCR’s aim is to help grassroots and internationally oriented practitioners in each field better understand the priorities, norms, techniques, and processes of their counterparts, thereby overcoming some of the suspicion and tension that exist between the two communities. For example, in some volatile conflict situations, human rights advocates could be more effective if they expanded their tool kits beyond naming, shaming, and seeking remedies in judicial forums to include conflict resolvers’ broader array of negotiation and diplomatic techniques. Conflict resolvers could better ensure that negotiations lead not just to a ceasefire but to a permanent peace if they were more willing to assert basic norms of international human rights and humanitarian law.

One of our projects, Healing Societies, directly addresses the most widely cited tension between the two fields with regard to post-conflict objectives: exacting justice versus seeking reconciliation based on amnesty for past crimes. Sometimes this tension becomes absorbed into the conflict, undermining the aims of both fields. For example, in Rwanda where Tutsis were the primary victims of the genocide, justice has come to be viewed as a “Tutsi issue.” Hutus, who received greater support from international NGOs that emphasize reconciliation or coexistence, have come to be identified with the latter issue. This phenomenon can also be seen in the case of Sri Lanka, as described elsewhere in this issue by Jehan Perera, where Sinhalese dominate the peace movement and human rights are generally associated with the Tamil minority.

The Healing Societies project focuses on the overlaps between post-conflict objectives and ways they all can be achieved in particular post-conflict circumstances. Instead of emphasizing one objective over another, the project starts with the premise that all five of the following post-conflict objectives should be met in order for a society to heal fully: (1) ending violence and stopping human rights violations so that survivors feel physically safe; (2) coming to terms with the past accurately and completely; (3) doing justice; (4) creating conditions—including repairing past harm and strengthening civil society—that make it possible for society to move forward; and (5) achieving reconciliation and coexistence between former perpetrators and those with whom they were in conflict.

The differences between the two fields can be turned to advantage, and opportunities for synergy need to be identified and promoted. For example, one concern peace workers and other observers often raise is the impact of human rights reports on sensitive conflict resolution initiatives or negotiations. Alvaro de Soto, the United Nations mediator in El Salvador, admitted that while at first human rights reports were a hindrance, he later developed channels to anticipate them and used their pending release to urge the parties to avoid embarrassment by reaching accords that included significant human rights protections.

The two communities face similar dilemmas, as in the case of the difficult tradeoffs inherent in the timing of their actions. For conflict resolvers, seeking a rapid resolution to end the violence may set the stage for intensified conflict in the future. Adopting a longer-term response that focuses on altering underlying societal conditions, however, runs the risk of perceived failure and the prolonging of suffering or loss of life as the conflict drags on. Similarly, when focusing on immediate violations, human rights advocates end up paying less attention to underlying systemic causes of abuse and the long-term structural remedies needed to correct them. Efforts can be made to help both communities navigate these decisions in such a way that they are mutually reinforcing.

Whether to maintain neutrality presents another shared dilemma. Conflict resolvers often see human rights NGOs as waging a nonviolent war against those parties to the conflict who abuse human rights, and for this reason they disassociate themselves from human rights advocates. Some conflict resolvers even take the view that the substance of any agreement reached is irrelevant so long as it satisfies the parties’ needs. Human rights advocates also make claims to neutrality. Yet there is another camp of both conflict resolvers and human rights advocates that questions whether it is morally permissible to be outcome-neutral when massive human rights abuses have occurred. Like Ambassador de Soto, they recognize the importance of raising human rights issues with the participants during the negotiation process and helping them to recognize that sustainable peace and the protection of human rights are intertwined.

Our Negotiating Self-Determination project is an example of a project designed to facilitate communication between the two fields concerning one of the underlying causes of violent conflict and human rights abuses and to develop more effective responses on the part of both human rights advocates and conflict resolvers. This project explores whether self-determination claims are more likely than other claims to lead to violence and whether the resultant conflicts are more difficult to resolve. It looks at how the international community should respond to demands by minority groups within states for greater political and economic power; when, if ever, the international community should intervene to defend existing borders or facilitate their reconfiguration; and under what conditions it might be preferable to redraw borders. A better understanding of the relationship between self-determination claims and violent conflict can help in developing better preventive intervention strategies for addressing the two fields’ respective concerns in divided societies.

CHRCR also emphasizes research that evaluates the practical value of intergovernmental and nongovernmental intervention initiatives. For example, our Imagine Coexistence Project is evaluating efforts by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and refugee resettlement groups in Bosnia and Rwanda to promote the coexistence of people returning to communities that have been deeply divided by international conflict and mass violence. Our aim is to uncover what has worked and what has not as a means of increasing the effectiveness of efforts to help people in communities previously divided by conflict successfully build a single viable community.

To stress the urgent need to build bridges between practitioners in the human rights and conflict resolution fields is not to argue that they should merge. To the contrary, the strength of the individual fields is that each approaches the problems underlying violent conflict, the suffering it causes, and its aftermath from different but synergistic perspectives. The challenge these two fields face is to strengthen their communication and cooperation so that together they can come closer to achieving their shared goal of peace.

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