Discussions round a table.

The relationship between human rights and peacebuilding has been increasingly recognised by international organisations in recent years. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development explicitly combines the promotion of peaceful, just and inclusive societies in Goal 16, and the United Nations Human Rights Council acknowledged the crucial relationship between human rights and peacebuilding specifically for the first time in 2017.

But despite this recognition, practitioners working in the two fields are sometimes oblivious to, and may occasionally be disdainful of, each others’ work. This is problematic because their work so often touches on one another, given that the link between human rights violations and conflict is strong. Human rights violations repeatedly occur during conflicts, and a continued denial of rights can be a trigger for conflict. But in these high pressured environments, practitioners are inclined to act quickly according to what they think is right, and not collaboratively. 

Problems faced by people, communities and societies can usually not be reduced to only a ‘human rights’ problem or a ‘peacebuilding’ problem. Consider for example repeated xenophobic violence in South Africa. A human rights view on the violence may highlight things like the police’s failure to provide refugees and migrants with protection or the state’s failure to prosecute cases of violence and looting. A peacebuilding view might stress other aspects of the situation, including limited trust between South Africans and refugees, and or a historic reliance on violence to settle grievances.

People working on devising solutions to these issues usually operate with a specific analytical frame in mind and use approaches they are familiar with. In doing so, they may overlook important features of the situation at hand and don’t necessarily consider the wider implications of their efforts. By being blind to the work and analysis of the other group, their initiatives might hinder rather than support the work of other practitioners. That is why a wider view needs to be taken by both human rights practitioners and peacebuilders.

Conciliation Resources is already applying some of these lessons to their work. In the Democratic Republic of Congo mistrust between local populations and the Congolese armed forces is high, and this has undermined peace and security efforts. This mistrust is driven by ongoing human rights violations and a lack of guaranteed protection for the civilian population amidst persistent attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army. By forming civil-military committees, Conciliation Resources has created space for dialogue between communities and army commanders. This has increased state accountability, and is also having a positive impact on peacebuilding efforts. Before these committees were established, most community groups rarely shared security information with the military. Nowadays there is a better connection between local early warning information provided by communities and rapid response by security forces.

In northeast Nigeria, Conciliation Resources is working with young people who are largely excluded from political, social and economic decision-making and as a result have become increasingly disengaged from society. This disillusionment has made them ideal targets for mobilisation by Boko Haram and other armed non-state actors. Conciliation Resources are currently supporting 12 Youth Peace Platforms. With over 1,000 members, these physical and digital networks mean young people have a safe space to talk, to listen and to learn with other young people who have had similar experiences. These spaces enable youth to raise their voice in engagement with elders and public officials and also develop their skills to handle conflict within their communities. This is relevant for redress and access to justice. 

It is crucial that peacebuilders and human rights practitioners continue to examine how they can better work together, including sharing analysis of the challenging situations in which they interact. It is no longer sufficient to work in silos, as responses planned using tunnel vision are unlikely to fully resolve complex situations of human rights violations and violent conflict.

This Insight article is based on research originally published in the Journal of Human Rights Practice, 'Human Rights and Peacebuilding: Complementary and Contradictory, Complex and Contingent'.