Dividing lines between human rights advocats and conflict resolvers

Third parties dealing with violent conflict through non-violent means has produced two types of people out there: human rights activists and conflict resolvers. From the outside it appears to be obvious that human rights advocates and conflict resolution practitioners would closely cooperate, or in fact are the same type of people because they work in very similar environments. However, they are not the same people and they can speak very different languages.

For sure, both groups are needed to actually halt massacres and massive human rights violations. There are numerous similar goals in common between human rights activists and conflict resolvers, including the aim to end violence, limit the loss of lives and stop suffering.

The problem is starting though from the background of those being involved to end violence and stop human rights violations. Human rights folks often have a background in legal studies, thus it is logical that they focus on legal issues. Conflict resolvers, in contrast, have often a diverse background – like psychology, anthropology, sociology or international relations.

Practitioners of conflict resolution are usually programmed to make peace and not being scared to shake hands with those who have blood on their hands because they have the intrinsic motivation to bring conflict to an end.

However, there are a lot of differences on the ground that can lead to severe contradictions in action. Among those is the criticism of human rights advocates that a negotiated settlement usually does not give sufficient emphasis on human rights.

Conflict resolution folks feel that human rights advocates do not consider the extreme pressures of mediators that primarily want to end the violence. That may include amnesties, because otherwise a peace deal might not be worked out successfully. Human rights activists want to see judicial sentences for criminals and perpetrators as a sheer necessity. Otherwise there is no sense of justice for the victims. One thing is clear: both want to see sustainable peace with justice. Yet, it is unclear whether peace or justice should come first.

The universe of human rights…

Since the end of WWII, a strong set of human rights mechanisms has been developed. Organizations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International stand up for victims and try to lobby other governments or regional and international organizations to get active. This is done through shaming, thus through activist means which often compromises cultural sensitivity.

Over time, humanitarian law became more important because it became clear for human rights defenders that it would be necessary in conflict to rely on law that predates human rights law. Most importantly became the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. It were legal norms that were relied upon, not least genocide or crime against humanity – now two of the four major crimes enshrined in the ICC to be brought to an end.

After conflict, human rights activists want to discover the “truth,” to document all the violations with the intent that they cannot reoccur in the future. This should come along with the punishment of perpetrators. Therefore, human rights actors want to apply objective standards to determine issues of justice and punish those that violated the standards.

… based on principles

Human rights folks are focused on principles, on the legal protection of rights. This is very much related to their role they have during this process, like a lawyer, an advocate or a monitor. Per se, this role requires an adversarial position towards the perpetrator; these people need to speak out against injustice and human rights violations.

For human rights activists, perpetrators rather should be excluded from peace talks. Human rights abuses should be highlighted during negotiations because it should influence the negotiation process and ultimately the settlement as well. Any compromise is often deemed as illegitimate or non-negotiable because victims would continuously be under threat and their suffering would not be addressed adequately.

The world of conflict resolution…

In contrast to human rights activists, people of conflict resolution frame their practice very differently. It is all about bringing all conflict actors together and allow for space for conversations. The power of words and communication is taken as a given. It is seen important that all parties involved can air their grievances, including those that are perceived by many as perpetrators.

Usually also they have experienced personal loss and suffering. Providing the possibility to voice their sorrow can help to humanize the other and establish vital relationships across the lines of the conflict actors. It can be the first, although small, step towards reconciliation in the long run.

The people of conflict resolution will also talk to those that might disrupt the process, potential spoilers. This is done purposefully, because otherwise the likelihood of failure is even bigger. Therefore, conflict resolution practitioners want to reconcile needs, interests and concerns of the conflict actors.

… based on flexibility

It is not necessary to decide who is right and who is wrong, because conflict resolvers do not want to blame the conflict parties because they believe in a constructive problem-solving approach. There is no normative thinking that would lead to the need of judging the conflict parties, with the implicit assumption that it will allow for more flexibility during a negotiation.

There is a focus on reconciliation between the actors, whereby this should be achieved thanks to the facilitation of the talks that are participatory and develop trust between the conflict parties. All of that is related to the role of conflict resolvers, usually being a facilitator, mediator or reconciler.

Over the past 30 years, conflict resolution NGOs have emerged that fill out the role to also bring in non-state actors in conflict resolution. Others are involved in peace education or in training critical stakeholders in conflict resolution skills. Conflict resolvers try to reach a settlement and decrease the level of violence.

Thanks to the improved relationships, conflict resolvers aim to resolve or prevent an outbreak of violence. They work on the assumption that conflict is normal, and actually a necessary phenomenon to bring about change. However, their aim is to direct the energy of conflict from violent means towards constructive ends.

Overcoming the divide?

There is a growing understanding that human rights advocates and conflict resolvers can be mutually reinforcing instead of being exclusive. Enduring and long-term peace is much more than the immediate goal of ending a conflict and relies on justice and accountability to ensure sustainability. Also, justice does not need to be perceived as retributive justice but rather develop restorative justice systems that allow going beyond the typical prosecution mechanisms.

Peace and justice seldom walk alone but are intrinsically linked. Everyone will agree that any durable peace needs to address the underlying causes and roots of violent conflict. With the surge of transitional justice, there have been a lot of mechanisms put in place that bring conflict resolvers and human rights folks closer together. However, there is still an ideological divide out there that yet needs to be overcome.

Picture: (c) http://www.languageofconflict.com

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