By Bonny Ibhawoh,

Intregrating Human Rights and Peace Work
(First Published in Human Rights Dialogue, Winter 2002)

Human rights advocates and conflict resolution specialists share a common aim – building stable societies based on mutual respect and the rule of law – and often work on the same conflicts, addressing closely related issues. Despite the substantive overlap in their work, however, they often talk past each other. At a recent meeting between peace workers and human rights advocates, a rights activist made it clear that her organization “does not do peace.” At the same workshop, a peace worker bemoaned the fact that the conflict resolution field has no guiding regime of laws and institutions comparable to that available to human rights advocates, implying that human rights principles were not a resource she could usefully apply to her own work.
This issue of Human Rights Dialogue is the seventh in a series exploring ways to dismantle the “human rights box,” to find creative ways to increase participation in the human rights movement, and to expand access to the benefits of a human rights framework. By exploring the relationship between human rights groups and peace groups in different settings, this issue seeks to shed light on the barriers to the integration of human rights into peace work and on the means to overcome those barriers. Contributors provide insights into the interaction between human rights and peace groups in the countries where they work or have conducted research: Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and South Africa.

The unfortunate fact is that both in the field and in the offices of international organizations, human rights groups and peace groups often work on separate tracks and even at cross purposes. Mutual stereotyping by group members is common: Conflict resolvers are characterized as willing to compromise rights or avoid sensitive discussions of abuses altogether to satisfy the interests of the parties and secure a political deal; human rights advocates are seen as idealistic and uncompromising in seeking redress for individual violations, even at the cost of prolonging conflict. In at least some cases, these stereotypes are expressions of a fundamental clash between the human rights groups’ principled, legalistic, rights-based approach to resolving conflict and the more pragmatic and cooperative interest-based approach taken by peace groups.

In general, contributors agree that there needs to be better coordination between peace groups and human rights groups. Peace workers have to be willing and able to design intervention strategies that ultimately promote human rights standards. Human rights workers need to learn conflict management skills in order to address community demands and communicate effectively the relevance of human rights to the parties in conflict.

These needs have not gone entirely unnoticed. In the fall of 2000, major donors funded an institute devoted solely to addressing the problem—the Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution (CHRCR) at Tufts University. Executive director Ellen Lutz describes the CHRCR’s work in developing training and education programs that give peace workers and human rights advocates a better grounding in each other’s concerns and strategies.
Michelle Parlevliet and Ivana Vuco demonstrate that an approach that integrates human rights and conflict-prevention strategies can be both pragmatic and principled. The effective response of the South African Center for Conflict Resolution to an instance of conflict in Cape Town shows that a principled, rights-based stance can be the pragmatic response, according to Parlevliet. Vuco’s study of human rights and peace work in Nigeria describes how some human rights groups are taking a less adversarial approach to their work in a new, more open political environment.

In societies divided by ethnic, religious, political, or other intergroup tensions—Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, for example—this integration of approaches is harder. In these conflicts, as Jehan Perera and Christine Bell explain, differences in the emphasis each community places on human rights have had the unfortunate effect of dividing them along the lines of the parties in conflict. Comments by Alan Keenan and Jeevan Thiagarajah on the Sri Lankan conflict stress the role of politically powerful actors in perpetuating Tamil-Sinhalese divisions, which makes it difficult for an independent movement to unify peace and human rights groups. In response to Bell, Mari Fitzduff explains that in Ireland rights-based approaches were effective in making claims against the state but did not adequately address nonstate actors, such as paramilitary groups.

The clash between human rights advocates and peace workers is most visible during formal efforts to resolve conflict, when the need for redressing abuses is most pressing. The typical human rights organization’s position is that there can be no peace without justice, in the form of criminal prosecutions for past abuses, and that impunity cannot be tolerated, even if the pursuit of justice prolongs the conflict. Peace groups, especially those oriented toward conflict resolution, are often more forgiving, tending to support reconciliatory approaches and nonpunitive measures, such as amnesty, as a means of ending conflict as quickly as possible.
Richard Wilson, Bonny Ibhawoh, and Vasuki Nesiah and Paul van Zyl offer insights into this debate by discussing different notions of justice—retributive versus restorative, punitive versus nonpunitive—and linking these notions to the cultural sources and legitimacy of the human rights framework. Wilson calls for a vigilant watch over activities conducted in the name of human rights; his concern stems from his observation that political elites in South Africa conflated human rights with “nation building,” which he argues undermined human rights and the rule of law in that country. In contrast, drawing on the case of Nigeria, Vuco and Ibhawoh argue that it is valid to use human rights language in serving the greater goal of social stability. The authors of the two commentaries on Wilson’s essay argue for expanding the notion of justice beyond legal prosecutions and for developing creative ways to achieve accountability that are suited to local capabilities and culture.

International policy makers are also debating what it would mean to incorporate a human rights perspective into conflict prevention and resolution. Looking beyone the question of appropriating human rights strategies (e.g., litigation, maning and shaming, and the like), actors at this level are considering whether human rights can function as a broad framework in which in which to carry out peace. In an interview with Dialogue, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Danilo Türk says that the human rights framework functions best at the level of norm-setting and that the desire for peace should serve as a further motivation for insistence on those standards. In the view of United States Agency for International Development (USAID), according to special advisor for conflict resolution Dayton Maxwell, a “human security” framework that is broader than a “human rights” framework can provide the basis for a more successful collaborative approach.