How far does the promotion of human rights help in efforts to address conflict and build peace? This study argues that the transformation of violent conflict to sustainable peace requires insights and strategies from both the human rights and the conflict transformation fields. Considering the two together enhances analysis of the underlying causes, dynamics and manifestations of conflict. A human rights perspective highlights the sociopolitical nature of conflict transformation. It suggests the need to recognise the role and responsibility of the state and the nature and functioning of systems of governance.
The idea that human rights standards may complicate the practical demands of peacemaking has been a recurrent theme in conflict resolution debates. However, it is now largely accepted that human rights protection and promotion are important for the long-term stability and development of societies that have experienced or are experiencing violent conflict. It is recognised that there is no peace without justice and that the absence of justice is frequently the reason for the absence of peace. Differences between the human rights and conflict transformation fields may be better understood as challenges that need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, depending on the context, time frame and developing international standards.
The human rights perspective:
- Highlights human rights violations as both causes and consequences (or causes and symptoms) of violent conflict.
- Emphasises structural conditions, especially the role of the state, systems of governance and issues of power in generating, escalating and transforming violent conflict.
- Enables conflict transformation to be geared towards not just ‘any peace’ but peace of a certain quality.
The conflict transformation perspective, by placing social justice and constructive social change at its core:
- Can provide a more nuanced conceptual space for thinking about human rights, conflict and peace than ‘conflict resolution’ and ‘conflict management’.
- Acknowledges the need for addressing power imbalances and recognises a role for advocacy and the importance of voices that challenge the status quo.
- Complements the human rights perspective in its concern with direct, structural and cultural violence.
Considering human rights and conflict transformation together deepens analysis of what is involved in moving from violence to sustainable peace. Considering human rights in the context of conflict transformation:
- Allows attention to be paid to the process of peacebuilding and to combining a focus on the responsibilities of the state with the responsibilities of citizens.
- Helps to create an environment in which institutions of governance are legitimate, processes exist to manage conflicts effectively and the division of power, resources and opportunities is fair.
- Allows respect for human dignity to be at the core of relationships between state and citizens and among citizens themselves.
- Highlights the need to employ a holistic, multi-dimensional understanding of human rights that does not reduce rights to their legal foundations.
It is important to avoid a narrow legalistic understanding of human rights in efforts to build a sustainable peace, and to consider issues of power in the analysis of conflict and in the design of processes for addressing and transforming conflict. Further, failure to recognise issues of justice, equality and democratisation risks depoliticising conflict transformation, making it a tool for pacification rather than for genuinely peaceful and just relationships.
NB: For further commentary and case studies on these issues, see the full Dialogue. The concluding article discusses the peace/justice debate.