Readers' Responses: Integrating Human Rights and Peacework

December 30, 2002

An Unavoidable Love–Hate Relationship

The Winter 2002 issue of Human Rights Dialogue, “Integrating Human Rights and Peace Work,” has contributed greatly to the debate on the relationship between human rights and conflict resolution. The articles by Ivana Vuco and Ellen Lutz, both from Tufts University’s Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution (CHRCR), reflect the new position adopted largely by academics: in order to address successfully the causes of conflict and its resolution, it is imperative to use a multidisciplinary strategy that encompasses human rights and conflict resolution approaches.

Despite Vuco’s account of human rights organizations in Nigeria taking a more conciliatory stance on human rights abuses for the sake of upholding the fragile democracy, not many practitioners operate at the nexus of human rights and peace work. The reasons for this stem from the tensions between the two fields that Vuco and Lutz cite: reconciliation versus justice, advocacy versus neutrality, cooperation versus adversariality, competing analyses of the causes of conflict, etc.

As a conflict resolution professional based in Angola, I would like to support Vuco’s and Lutz’s argument that each field has its own strengths and that victims of conflicts and human rights abuses will be better off if human rights advocates and peace workers join these strengths while keeping their unique identities. In Angola the Center for Common Ground (CCG), an international conflict resolution organization, has been working in the field of peacemaking since 1996. It has become clear for CCG that focusing only on conflict resolution work without addressing human rights violations is an untenable position—and also possibly a hypocritical one. Conflict resolution practitioners in Angola cannot for the sake of neutrality and nonadversariality ignore the fact that the Angolan conflict engenders many gross human rights abuses, just as human rights violations of a structural nature engender conflicts and violence. Along with short-term peacemaking activities, it is imperative to focus on long-term peace-building work that strives for social justice and, ultimately, the alleviation of social, economic, and political inequities. With the goal of working toward a more equitable system, the human rights approach is an integral part of peace building and reconciliation.

It is important, however, to adopt a nonthreatening method if the goal is to achieve both justice and reconciliation, and also not to ostracize any of the parties to the conflict—even those responsible for inequities, which are usually the authorities. CCG’s experience with Angolan internally displaced people has shown that disseminating human rights principles is not enough. A more fruitful strategy has proved to be the capacity-building of internally displaced people through the development of conflict resolution skills—such as inclusive dialogue with authorities—in order to help them defend their rights, and request protection of their rights, in a nonadversarial way from the government.

Experiences from Angola, Nigeria, and other places studied by CHRCR demonstrate that the growing relationship between human rights and conflict resolution work is a necessary one.

Steve Utterwulghe
Angola Country Director
Center for Common Ground

A Skeptical Viewpoint

As Ivana Vuco notes in her essay, “Taking the Reconciliatory Route,” in the Winter 2002 issue of Human Rights Dialogue, “Human rights groups [in Nigeria] have been reassessing their mode of operation. They hope to establish themselves as a constructive element in the consolidation of democracy.”

The human rights movement was not enthusiastic about the presidential candidacy of General Obasanjo in late 1998 following the unlamented demise of General Abacha. It was concerned with Obasanjo’s notorious contempt for democracy and his poor human rights record when he ruled Nigeria from 1976–79. However, a number of human rights groups realized that ending military rule should be a priority and thus chose to support the regime as a transitional government that would eventually lead to genuine democracy. Other groups, such as the National Conscience Party/JACON and the Democratic Alternative, rejected the transition program completely and refused to cooperate with either the military regime or the Obasanjo government.

Fierce controversy raged over the question of whether the human rights movement should expose and condemn the human rights violations perpetrated under the new quasi-civilian government. Ultimately, human rights groups agreed to work toward the common goal of democratic consolidation by adopting the individual strategies and tactics of their choice. They established an umbrella coalition called the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) to coordinate civil society participation in the transition. Within the framework of the TMG, human rights groups organized voter education and electoral observation activities. Following the inauguration of the Obasanjo government, human rights groups tried to work with several government agencies, with varying degrees of success, on issues including electoral, police, legal, and judicial reform and transparency.

As Vuco correctly points out, some human rights groups have tried to apply techniques traditionally associated with the conflict resolution community in their work. In my assessment, the success of these efforts was limited. Conflict resolution techniques cannot be the only solution when the conflicts are driven by Nigeria’s political elite fighting over land and resources, who mobilize the people on the basis of ethnic, religious, and communal affiliations.

Vuco’s observations that conventional approaches of human rights organizations, such as constitutional litigation, may not immediately address the problem of resolving conflicts is accurate. But other human rights approaches, such as advocacy for legal and judicial reform, can have a positive effect on conflict and need to be pursued. One reason why many communal land disputes degenerate into violent conflict is that the Nigerian people have essentially lost confidence in the formal, Westernized judicial system as a means of dispute resolution. The Obasanjo government must resolve these issues before the human rights community can have a significant impact on the public.

Ndubisi Obiorah
Senior Legal Officer
Human Rights Law Service

Community Advocates and Educators Weigh In

At its third annual peace and human rights summer education program for community advocates and educators in June 2002, the University of Hawaii explored the theme, “Deepening the Discourse of Human Rights: Developing Nonviolent Strategies for Direct Action and Diplomacy.” The global, grassroots perspectives from contributors to the Winter 2002 issue of Human Rights Dialogue, “Integrating Human Rights and Peace Work,” proved to be a valuable tool for the course.

The publication was debated during our class session and also used in our community caucuses, where seminar participants went into local communities to discuss and create plans for community action. Photocopies of specific articles were circulated to participants from the community, leading to creative conversations that challenged the positions of the Dialogue contributors and helped us to formulate peaceful, positive solutions to local conflicts. The mission of the Tufts Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, as described by Ellen Lutz in her article, “Troubleshooting Differences,” resonated with the theme of peaceful resistance and compassionate reconciliation of our training course. Participants found Lutz’s prescription for better-coordinated action among groups and their respective borrowing of strategies especially insightful. According to Lutz:

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. (p. 23)

Participants agreed that a holistic perspective is critical if the human rights movement is to guarantee fundamental freedoms. They concluded that a three-part approach of peace, ecology, and human rights could provide the tools necessary for global peace and human security.

Joshua Cooper
University of Hawaii at Manoa
United States