A User Guide for the Beyond Intractability Website, Designed Specifically for Human Rights Workers

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Compiled by 
YatMan Cheng

Human rights are rights to which each individual is entitled by the virtue of being a human being. Examples include the right to life, liberty, and security and the right to an adequate standard of living. It is believed that the protection of human rights contributes to human dignity and provides an environment in which full realization of human potential is possible. The absence of human rights protection, on the other hand, creates the conditions for oppression, enslavement, torture, and killing.

In this respect, there is an integral relation between human rights on the one hand and issues of peace and conflict on the other. In recognition of this relationship, members of the United Nations (UN) drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which articulates these rights. The UDHR in turn was made into two more concrete Covenants, one on civil and political rights and the other on social, cultural and economic rights, both legally binding. Together, the three documents are called the International Bill of Rights. In addition, a number of other treaties and legally-binding documents have been created to extend the idea of human rights to, for example, protecting the rights of vulnerable groups such as women, children, and refugees. (Click here for a list of international human rights instruments.)

International human rights instruments are also translated into regional and national human rights protection mechanisms, instruments and legislation. Advances in human rights norms and practices can also be attributed to the advocacy work of numerous international and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have documented and publicized human rights violations around the world.

Beyond Intractability contains a wealth of information concerning human rights, conflicts and peacebuilding. This User Guide is designed to help human rights workers to situate their efforts in the wider context of peacebuilding. It is divided into the following sections:

Introductory Essays on Intractable Conflicts

  • What are Intractable Conflicts? This essay explains the concept of intractable conflicts, their characteristics, causes and consequences and the Beyond Intractability website's approach to tackling such conflicts.
  • Underlying Causes of Intractable Conflict This essay explores a diverse range of causes which make conflicts intractable, including moral differences, injustice, rights violations, unmet human needs, identity and disagreement over the distribution of resources.
  • Factors Shaping the Course of Intractable Conflict A conflict might take different courses depending on the actions of internal and external actors, relationships between adversarial groups, its context and the structure within which the conflict occurs.
  • Conflict Stages Conflict is commonly conceived as undergoing several stages. However, such conceptions might be oversimplified in the case of intractable conflicts.

Introductory Essays on Peacebuilding

Peace Processes is an umbrella term used by the Beyond Intractability website to embrace a range of activities including conflict preventionpeacekeepingpeacemaking and peacebuilding activities. Human rights workers must understand these processes in order to situate their effort within the larger context of building a just and sustainable stable peace.

Human Rights, Conflicts, and Peace

  • Human Rights Protection explains the concept of human rights and ways to protect them during various stages of conflict.
  • Human Rights Violations discusses types of violations and the relationship between violations and intractable conflicts.
  • Both of the above essays, as well as Military Intervention, examine the debate over humanitarian intervention (whether or not the use of military force can be justified in stopping human rights violations).

There are specific laws, institutions, and organizations to protect human rights during times of conflicts:

  • International Humanitarian Law (that is to say, human rights law during armed conflict) is designed to protect the rights and dignity of individuals who are no longer — or never have been — involved in combat. International NGOs, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have worked to develop norms and programs to uphold these laws.
  • A number of formal international courts have been established to punish international human rights violations during conflicts (see International Law). These include the International Criminal Court and other International War Crimes Tribunals.
  • During conflicts, safe havens can be set up to provide areas where refugees and victims of war are protected.

Beyond Intractability also contains essays on the violation of particular rights (such as the right to self-determination) and of the rights of particular groups (such as women) during conflicts. Read more about:

Human Rights in Relation to Other Concepts

  • Dehumanization - What makes people engage in degrading and inhumane treatment? Dehumanization might be a psychological pre-condition for human rights violations to occur.
  • Humiliation - As people become aware of the human rights abuses committed against them, they feel humiliated. This essay discusses the relationship between human rights, humiliation, conflict, and peace.
  • Sovereignty - This essay discusses the concept of sovereignty, and the tension between protecting a state's sovereignty and protecting the rights of individuals within the state.
  • Effects of Colonization examines human rights violations during colonial — as well as post-colonial — periods.
  • A summary of the book, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation, briefly discusses the relationship between human rights and religion.

Human Rights and Culture

As each individual is entitled to human rights by the virtue of being a human being, human rights, by definition, must be universal. However, the idea of human rights has been criticized as a Western concept which is not necessarily applicable to people from non-Western cultures. One commonly-cited criticism is that there is an overemphasis on individual rights, and a neglect of the group and community rights central to Asian and African cultures. Another criticism is of an overemphasis on rights and a neglect of corresponding responsibilities.

On the other hand, human rights advocates argue that international human rights law embraces community and group rights, as illustrated by its focus on the right of self-determination. Also, human responsibility is also implicit in Article 28 of the UDHR. The broadness of the UDHR gives enough room for flexibility for human rights activists from diverse cultures to interpret and prioritize human rights values in accordance with their culture. Some also argue that UDHR was drafted with input from philosophers, as well as political and religious leaders of diverse cultures. For more discussion of universal human rights and cultural relativism, see:

Even though human rights workers might consider human rights universal, it is still important to be sensitive toward cultural differences when working in different countries. Beyond Intractability provides information on culture and conflict:

More essays on culture and conflict can be found here.

Human Rights and Peace Work

In the broad field of peace work, which includes sub-fields such as conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and transformation, the underlying assumption is that parties in conflict can restore non-violent relationships through the use of mediationnegotiation and dialogue. Peace workers try to decrease violence and increase trust and understanding between parties in conflict.

The peace work community can, at times, be at odds with the human rights community. The latter believes that as injustice and human rights violations are causes of conflict, justice and human rights accountability are necessary for stable peace. Human rights workers believe that the failure to deal with human rights violations leads to impunity, renewed violence and, at best, unstable peace.

However, the pursuit of human rights accountability is difficult in conflict situations. Peace workers believe that negotiation with human rights violators is necessary, and restoration of relationships needs to involve all parties to the conflict, including those who have violated human rights. Insistence on human rights accountability can deter leaders of warring parties from coming to the negotiating table, thus prolonging violence and suffering. The question is: Should we prioritize human rights accountability or peace work? As John Paul Lederach has suggested, we should conceptualize this tension not in either-or terms, but in both-and terms: How can we achieve both human rights accountability and peace at the same time?

Beyond Intractability offers perspectives from both the human rights and justice community and the peace community:

Resources that integrate human rights and peace approaches:

Transitional Justice

Where do human rights and peace work meet? Although currently there is not abundant research on that topic, there is a wealth of literature on a sub-topic, transitional justice. Transitional justice refers to human rights accountability during the period of political transition from illiberal and authoritarian regime to democratic regime.

Transitional justice includes a range of mechanisms that can be combined in various ways. It can be punitive and judicial, such as the establishment of international war crimes tribunals. It also encompasses a number of non-judicial responses, such as:

The goal of many of these mechanisms is to facilitate apology and forgivenesstrauma healingreconciliation, and institutional reform to prevent similar abuses from occuring in the future.

Beyond Intractability contains several summaries of books and articles on transitional justice:

Beyond Intractability also contains summaries and case studies dealing with transitional justice in specific countries:

For more information, the Beyond Intractability website contains a User Guide on Transitional Justice, as well as a User Guide for Peacebuilding and Post-Conflict Reconstruction. Human rights workers might also want to consult the Peacebuilding and Post-Conflict Reconstruction Checklist (for intermediaries and adversaries) to understand the roles of others involved in post-conflict efforts.

Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid

Examining the Work of Human Rights NGOs

Human Rights Activists: Profiles and Interviews

  • Profile and interview of Aloysius Toe, Liberian human rights activist;
  • Profile of Micaela Cayton Garrido, former member of the Ateneo Human Rights Center, former judicial clerk for the Philippines Supreme Court;
  • Profile of Charm Tong, an advocacy team member of the Shan Women's Action Network in Burma, and recipient of the 2005 Reebok Human Rights Award;
  • Interview with Pat Coy, professor of political science at Kent State University, who provided protective accompaniment to threatened people with Peace Brigades International, and
  • Interview with Lowell Ewert, director of peace studies at the University of Waterloo.

More Resources on Beyond Intractability

For more resources on conflict transformation and peace work, all the essays on Beyond Intractability can be browsed by category, and by category with descriptions. Conflict case studies can be browsed, as well as practitioner interviews and profiles. A number of User Guides for a variety of topics and audiences are also available.