Why establish a Center that combines human rights and conflict resolution? Looking around, most academic centers focus on either one or the other. In fact, the two approaches often stand at odds with each other. Despite many similarities between conflict resolution and human rights – both aim to end human suffering and improve individual welfare – conflict resolution and human rights are based on fundamentally different values, principles, and priorities. For example, when the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced in 2008 that the Sudanese President Al Bashir will be indicted by the Court for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur, the international community was split on the question if this was the right move or not. Human rights groups and international lawyers were thrilled. The indictment shows, they said, that nobody is above the law. They pointed out that holding perpetrators accountable for war crimes is not only morally the right choice, but that it also directly promotes peace and deters future human rights violations. Bashir, they argued, will now feel compelled to show credible moves towards peace.
At the same time, however, diplomats, peacekeepers, and conflict resolution experts warned the world about the potential negative effects of the ICC’s announcement for the peace process. Seeking charges against Bashir could endanger the lives of peacekeepers in Darfur and lead to new outbreaks of violence. Why put more oil on the fire?
We cannot deny that there are some differences between human rights and conflict resolution approaches. The main goal of conflict resolution is to end violence by reaching a settlement and by changing the behavior and attitude of the conflicting parties towards each other. Human rights, conversely, are based on the principles of human equality and the preservation of human dignity; principles that are generally seen as universal and indivisible. In the case of violence, conflict resolution focuses on the “conflict”, while human rights approaches focus on the “crime”. The concept of “crime” requires the identification of a “perpetrator” and “victim” side to the conflict, which implies the use of a confrontational approach. Human rights investigations gain credibility if they are public and transparent and are based on international and domestic laws, which are non-negotiable.
By contrast, conflict managers emphasize cooperative approaches that might involve secret negotiations, deals, and letters. All parties, even those who were identified as the perpetrators by the human rights community, should to be included in negotiations of a settlement. Because the two activities – human rights investigations and conflict management approaches – are carried out at the same time in the same situation, human rights activists and conflict managers often collide, just as the example above shows. Human rights violators might be singled out at the exact same time in which parties agree to negotiate a peace agreement, which can have devastating consequences for the peace process. Which leader is willing to negotiate anything with the international community knowing that they will turn around, remove him from power and put him on trial? At the same time, conflict managers tend to accept that gross human rights violations will go unpunished in order to bring the parties to the negotiation table.
So again then, why combine human rights and conflict resolution in one academic center? Because to address peoples’ needs in post-conflict situations, we need both. And many, if not most gross human rights violations happen in times of conflict and turmoil. One approach by itself is not enough to address the needs of the societies affected by conflict. We need to bring the two approaches together to find more holistic approaches and durable solutions for these kinds of situations. Post-conflict situations are always characterized by uncertainty and intangibility; conflict management processes are messy and driven by the context. The universality and “determinateness” of human rights can serve as a constant in these types of situations. The end goal of a peace settlement is not only to end violence and establish new rules and commitments, but to bring about a positive change in the society; a change towards a society governed by rules and values shared by all of its members. Including human rights in peace agreements and other post-conflict documents can be a starting point for establishing these common rules and values.
I believe that human rights and conflict resolution approaches use many similar starting points and are mutually reinforcing. In the end they have similar goals despite their differences, namely to improve the welfare of the people affected by difficult life situations such as conflict and to end or relieve human suffering. Both work towards building stable societies based on respect for human rights and related values. The importance of a combined approach incorporating human rights and conflict resolution cannot be stressed enough. And this is what the Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at Christopher Newport University intends to do.
The Reiff Center at Christopher Newport University is dedicated to:
- Raising awareness of the horrors of genocide, human rights violations and conflict
- Studying ways to overcome these by examining the international and national application of human rights, conflict resolution and peace studies
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.