Conflict Resolution and Human Rights in Peacebuilding Exploring the Tensions

By Babbitt, Eileen F. | UN Chronicle, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Conflict Resolution and Human Rights in Peacebuilding Exploring the Tensions


Babbitt, Eileen F., UN Chronicle


Preventing wars and massive human rights violations, and rebuilding societies in their aftermath, requires an approach that incorporates the perspectives of both human rights advocates and conflict resolution practitioners. This is easier to assert than to achieve. These two groups make different assumptions, apply different methodologies, and have different institutional constraints. As a result, they tend to be wary of one another.

In the short run, both seek to end violence, loss of life, and other suffering as quickly as possible. In the long run, both human rights and conflict resolution practitioners try to assist societies in taking steps to ensure that the violence does not recur and that the rights of every human being are respected. Yet the methods each uses to achieve these goals, as well as their underlying assumptions, are different. As a result, at times they adopt contradictory or even mutually exclusive approaches to the same problem. For example, conflict resolvers, eager to achieve a negotiated settlement to a conflict with minimum loss of life, may insufficiently factor in the relevance of human rights to the long-term success of their work and to the protagonists they seek to bring together. Human rights advocates, by limiting their activities to shaming, negative publicity, and judicial condemnation of responsible individuals, may miss opportunities for human rights improvements that could be achieved through the use of negotiation and diplomatic techniques upon which conflict resolvers rely.

In order to explore these apparent differences more explicitly, I worked with a human rights colleague, the late Ellen Lutz, to commission a set of case studies of conflicts in which both human rights and conflict resolution professionals have worked extensively: Colombia, Sierra Leone, and Northern Ireland. Our purpose was to see how these two agendas proceeded in each case, and whether constructive interaction between their activities was achieved. Our case studies uncovered two crucial dilemmas that must be addressed if we are to see better understanding and synergy between human rights and conflict resolution in peacebuilding practice. One is the tension between establishing sustainable non-violent relations between contending groups within a country, and prosecuting the members of such groups for human rights abuses and/or war crimes. The second is the significant role that the international community plays in supporting or undermining norms that would help to integrate human rights and conflict resolution practices.

One of the most challenging issues in the period after a peace agreement has been reached is how to deal with war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the previous Government. While human rights advocates push for accountability for crimes committed and punishment to deter further abuses, conflict resolution advocates worry that punishing the perpetrators might further splinter the society, making the healing process more difficult.

One of the interesting findings in our case studies is that this disagreement about whether perpetrators should be punished or rehabilitated occurs not only after an agreement has been reached, but also at every other conflict phase. In Colombia, where violence is still occurring and no agreement has been reached, this tension manifests itself in the Government's response to the guerillas, particularly the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). One of our case writers claims that while there is a real yearning on the part of FARC leaders for inclusion and dignity, they have come to see violence as the only way they can participate in a Government from which they have been alienated for generations by the Liberals and Conservatives. However, over the years these same guerillas have turned to illegal activities, including war crimes and drug trafficking, to support themselves. This creates a real challenge: to recognize the legitimate interests of the guerillas to establish that politics, as opposed to violence, is the way to resolve differences (the conflict resolution perspective), while at the same time to strengthen the rule of law by prosecuting criminals for their drug activities and kidnappings (the human rights perspective). …

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