Human Rights vs. Conflict Resolution: Different Perspectives on “Doing Good”

Posts on The Global Present will sometimes focus on international and intranational conflicts that affect the human rights of individuals on the ground.  When these conflicts erupt, a plethora of individuals, groups, NGOs, governments, and intergovernmental organizations sometimes choose to involve themselves one way or another.  Even authors from this blog will, from time to time, offer commentary and suggestions.  There are many lenses with which one can view a given conflict and oftentimes the prescriptions given vary greatly depending on how a conflict is viewed.

Many conflicts are frequently viewed through one of two lenses: human rights or conflict resolution.  While the two fields do overlap in some areas, especially regarding goals of violence mitigation and civilian protection, the means of achieving such goals often vary greatly, as does the vision of the end game.  Outlined below are a few of the points of contention between the fields of human rights and conflict resolution and how they relate to conflicts. These points obviously do not encompass all aspects of the two fields and there are varying opinions within each field.  The below focuses mainly on the practitioners, activists, and policymakers in the two fields and is less on the theories behind it.

Peace vs. Justice:

Human Rights – Those in the human rights field view peace and justice as inextricably linked.  Violators of human rights and humanitarian law should be held accountable for their crimes.  The worst violators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes should be brought to The Hague to stand trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), if a state is unwilling or unable to prosecute the suspects themselves.  In order for peace to be truly achieved, there must be justice.  Leaders who have committed gross violations of human rights should not be allowed to remain in power.  Amnesties are negatively viewed and are often looked at as an affront to the rule of law.   The ultimate goal of human rights activists is the respect of human rights for all.  As such, both a negative and positive peace is emphasized and is of the utmost importance.

Conflict Resolution – In the conflict resolution field the link between justice and peace is a little more fluid.  While justice is sometimes sought after, creating peace is a much more important endeavor. It is much more palatable to forgo justice in order to achieve peace.  In conflict resolution (as the name implies) the ultimate goal is to resolve the conflict but more specifically, end the violence.  This means that many more options are on the table for the field of conflict resolution than human rights including negotiating with violators of human rights and humanitarian law. Conflict resolution recognizes that in order to achieve peace sometimes even génocidaires and others guilty of committing mass atrocities must be negotiated with and allowed to keep their positions of power if it will bring about a negative peace.  Some in the field recognize that this is counterintuitive to achieving positive peace, as it would be impossible to have true positive peace without justice and allowing violators of human rights remain in power.  However, others in the field are willing to make that sacrifice in order to bring about an end to violence.  Amnesties are seen as a means to an end and are useful in order to end violence.

Human rights activists are sometimes derided by policymakers and conflict resolution practitioners as unrealistic (with reference to not dealing with violators of human rights). While those in the conflict resolution field are sometimes criticized for their shortsightedness and focus on getting a peace agreement signed without attempting to solve the deep-seated issues that are driving the conflict (which in many cases can be attributed to: bad governance, lack of resource sharing, and ethnic/racial/cultural/religious inequalities).

Use of Force:

The use of force is very contentious for both fields and there are many factions within each field, some that support the use of force and others that vehemently oppose it.

Human Rights – The use of force is a major point of contention in the human rights field.  On the one hand, there are those who oppose any form of violence as it almost always negatively impacts the lives of civilians.  On the other, there are those who support the use of force for “humanitarian” reasons, especially when the use of force can be used for “good” i.e. to stop the mass killing of innocent civilians (Read: Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, etc.).  Those individuals who support the use of force are sometimes ridiculed for their hawkish nature (with respect to humanitarian intervention).  The use of force is also sometimes seen as a necessary evil in order to initiate regime change when the regime is the main abuser of rights.

Conflict Resolution – The use of force in conflict resolution is often seen as a tool that can provide leverage in order to bring about an end to a conflict.  As such, the use of force can be used as a ripening agent creating a break in the conflict, a shift of power, or a way to overcome a stalemate to help open the door for a negotiated settlement. The called for intervention is usually less severe than that of the human rights hawks and is often limited to military supplies, training, and logistics as opposed to the full-scale humanitarian interventions which some human rights activists call for.

Conflict Ending:

Human Rights – Human rights activists want to see a holistic solution to conflict that includes a transition to a democratic, peaceful, stable society with a government that respects, protects, and defends the human rights of all.  In order for a conflict to evolve in such a way oftentimes there must be a transition of power (especially if the government has committed gross human rights abuses).  This transition often is facilitated through coercive measures.

Conflict Resolution – Bringing an end to violent conflict is often the main goal and the means to achieve that goal are vast.  If a negotiated settlement can be brokered that includes amnesties for the worst perpetrators of violence, it will be seen as a victory.  Track 1 negotiations are seen as necessary and diplomatic communications will be sought even with heads of state and other top level officials who are habitual human rights abusers.

Understanding the differences in how varying fields view conflict formation and resolution is critical.  Being able to view a conflict through the lens of another field will help preempt disagreements and contentious issues and at the very least understand where the prescriptions that are offered.

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About Mike Brand

Mike is a Master’s student at American University’s School of International Service studying International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Mike’s background and areas of interest are: human rights, mass atrocities prevention, conflict, post-conflict, transitional justice, US foreign policy, and Central/East Africa. He has over seven years’ experience working in advocacy, organizing and informal education for NGOs in both the US and Rwanda. Mike holds BAs in History and Political Science from the University of Connecticut.
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