Protecting Human Rights and Building Peace in Post-violence Societies by Nasia Hadjigeorgiou

In our latest article in the New Publication series for Rights! Nasia Hadjigeorgiou discusses her latest publication – Protecting Human Rights and Building Peace in Post-violence Societies (Hart Publishing, 2020).

Overarching premise

The book is concerned with the relationship between the protection of human rights and the building of peace in post-violence societies. Post-violence societies refer to those settings that have experienced communal violence emanating from an intra-state conflict, whose effects they are currently recovering from. Four examples of these societies are explored in detail in the book, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and South Africa.

The book starts by pointing out that most academics and virtually all UN reports on the matter view human rights as an effective peacebuilding tool, yet even societies that have taken the need to protect human rights seriously, have not always developed into what their peacebuilding architects expected. With this in mind, it seeks to understand what distinguishes success stories from the rest and identify the factors that make them so.

Human rights contribution

The book is important and necessary both because of its contribution to the theoretical literature on the protection of human rights in post-violence societies and its practical impact. In terms of theoretical insights, it bridges two different disciplines that are making similar points, but are often talking past each other. Specifically, it connects critiques of human rights – usually articulated by legal and political science scholars – with critiques of liberal peacebuilding – most often found in peace studies writings. Bringing the two together, it engages in an interdisciplinary analysis of the potential and limitations of human rights in the specific context of post-violence societies that was, until now, missing from the literature. Developing this analysis, the book argues that human rights can act as powerful and effective peacebuilding tools in two ways: first, by making available guidance when resolving divisive disputes in the courtroom and second, by providing the vocabulary to lobby for amendments in the law. In terms of its practical impact, the book relies on an analysis of the law and secondary literature to make specific and concrete recommendations on how peacebuilders can ensure that the protection of human rights has positive consequences in post-violence societies. These recommendations, which relate to legislative amendments, institutional changes and broader social reforms, are discussed in more detail below.

Key findings

The main finding of the book is that the relationship between human rights and the building of peace is positive, but also subject to several conditions that must be in place in the post-violence society. Among these conditions, are the requirements that human rights are used in the courtroom to help resolve fairly minor, rather than fundamental, conflicts and that the timing of when they are utilised is considered carefully. Further, the wording of particular types of laws and policies is important, as are the powers of the institutions that have been tasked with their implementation. Finally, the book contends that how specific human rights initiatives are perceived by the populations they are trying to help is a key, yet often overlooked, factor for the success of a peacebuilding strategy.

Method and geographical scope

The book explores the relationship between human rights and peace in practice through a comparative analysis of four case studies: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and South Africa. In doing so, it engages in a ‘practical reasoning’ methodological approach, which seeks to derive general conclusions from particular instances and to appreciate a complex reality. Like a pendulum, it does this by oscillating between theory and practice: it reaches theoretical conclusions through an inductive analysis of specific human rights initiatives in the four case studies, while at the same time, it assesses these initiatives in light of the developing theoretical framework.

Conclusions and recommendations

An assessment of the peacebuilding potential of human rights in the four case studies suggests that they can almost always have positive effects, whether these are symbolic, result in institutional and legal amendments or, most ambitiously, induce social and psychological changes among the population. All of these changes are essential in post-violence societies: if institutional and legal amendments are adopted in the absence of broader social initiatives (for instance, if positive discrimination measures are put in place in the employment sphere without also providing the necessary skills training to address gaps in the workforce), then only a superficial type of peace is likely to be built. Alternatively, if attempts are made to induce social, but not legal change (for example, through information campaigns but no actual change in the law), then the results of peacebuilding efforts are likely to be ephemeral. In practice, human rights have made positive contributions in all four societies, but at the same time, more could be done in all the case studies that the book examines.

In terms of recommendations, on the most abstract level, peacebuilders must be clear from the outset about what they are working towards rather than merely having a vague idea of what peace looks like. In particular, in post-violence societies, peace consists of striking a balance between three complementary, but also potentially contradicting elements, namely security, justice and reconciliation. More practically, when using human rights in the courtroom, peacebuilders should acknowledge the strengths of the judiciary in resolving minor conflicts and its limitations in addressing more fundamental disputes. With these in mind, they must seek to resolve as many zero-sum conflicts as possible during the negotiation of the comprehensive peace agreement and take advantage of the peace momentum, instead of pushing differences under the carpet by opting for constructive ambiguity. At the same time, since minor disagreements are often successfully resolved in the courtroom, the judiciary should be strengthened through the training of legal actors, the creation of specialised courts, the simplification of legal procedures and the better cooperation between domestic and international institutions.

When using human rights with the expectation that they will result in the adoption and implementation of peacebuilding policies, the political willingness of the decision makers to induce change must be a primary consideration. However, even when this is present, challenges might arise in relation to the drafting of the relevant legislation, or when it is being implemented by a body that lacks the capacity, expertise, institutional independence or resources to undertake the task successfully. These considerations are particularly important in post-violence societies, where both political willingness for change and institutional capacity for human rights protection are often in short supply. These hurdles can be overcome by involving, where needed, international actors and civil society organisations. Such involvement can give rise to political pressure to build peace or to the provision of technical expertise that will address the two challenges. Further, the composition of the peacebuilding team should be reconsidered and shifted along two axes: from international to also domestic actors and from legal to non-legal experts as well. This will provide the team with the local knowledge and multidisciplinary perspectives needed to induce socio-economic and psychological changes within the post-violence society. Finally, since peace must not only be built, but must also be seen to be built, it is important that any initiatives are accompanied by a comprehensive communication strategy that speaks to and also receives information from the local population about its needs and concerns.

Nasia Hadjigeorgiou is an Assistant Professor of Transitional Justice and Human Rights at the Cyprus Campus of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan Cyprus). She has published on the protection of human rights in post-violence and frozen conflict societies in the Cambridge Yearbook of European Legal Studies and the International Journal of Human Rights. Her complete research profile and a full list of her publications can be found here. More information about the book, including the table of contents and free sample chapters, is available here.

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