Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland

By Graham, Laura | International Journal on World Peace, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland


Graham, Laura, International Journal on World Peace


HUMAN RIGHTS AS WAR BY OTHER MEANS: PEACE POLITICS IN NORTHERN IRELAND Jennifer Curtis University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014 304 pages, $69.95

Jennifer Curtis's Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland examines the ways in which human rights discourse has been used as an instrument of both war and peace amongst Protestants and Catholics during and following the conflict in Northern Ireland. Curtis posits that rights discourse has had a complex relationship between peace and human rights whereby local rights-based activism was just as likely to legitimize violence and provide new avenues for conflict as it was to promote peace and social justice. Her main argument is that rights discourse during the conflict and throughout the peace process has functioned as a war by other means.

The book critically examines rights activism across six periods in Northern Irish history, including struggles for civil rights in the 1960s, the housing rights campaigns of the 1970s, economic and welfare rights debates in the 1980s, freedom of association and assembly as political rights of the 1990s, victims' rights and human rights as per the parity of esteem clause of the Good Friday Agreement in the post-conflict era, and gay rights advocacy. Initially, it was difficult to see the connections between each of these rights battles, but Curtis masterfully links each of these key struggles to the larger context of the conflict and the ways in which Protestants and Catholics used rights discourse to place their community's deprivation of rights at the apex of an ethnopolitical agenda.

The gay rights struggle reveals an exception to this history, which has bridged the two communities to fight homophobia and promote love as a human right. Whereas the parity of esteem logic of the Good Friday Agreement has reinforced identity politics under the guise of human rights, the gay rights struggle advocates for equality for all within a legal framework of human rights. In practice, this battle has developed alliances between the two communities, while rejecting ethnopolitical claims on rights. Curtis contends that by "privileging 'two communities,' post-conflict human rights talk and practice actually limit potential transformations of political subjectivity and action while privileging communal, collective subjects" (p. 212). She concludes that human rights will continue to be used as an instrument of conflict in Northern Ireland, but offers some cause for hope in that local activism has also promoted a more progressive form of politics and social rapprochements.

Curtis reveals two aims for this book: to describe local human rights discourse and activism in Belfast over the course of the Troubles and in post-conflict Northern Ireland, and to analyze local activism and determine what it reveals about rights discourse for theoretical and practical understandings. Curtis achieves both of these aims by combining her research findings with an extensive compilation of Northern Irish history. Indeed, Curtis's critique is apt and offers a refreshing departure from any assumption that human rights discourse has served exclusively to strengthen peace and social justice in Northern Ireland. …

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