The concepts of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of religious beliefs emerged from the ashes of WWII. Theoretically, we are living in peacetime and the actors involved in conflict zones are supposed to honour and uphold international law and human rights. But in reality, we are neither in peacetime nor are human rights protected as they should be. This analysis could also extend to non- conflict zones. But to remain focused on the point at hand – human rights and international law, which are purportedly a norm of today’s world, are in fact exceptions.
The relationship between peacekeeping, peacemaking and human rights should emerge from the same framework of international law. Peacekeeping – as the name suggests – differs slightly from peacemaking. Keeping the peace requires urgent measures which are needed in a conflict zone ‘now’. Peacemaking on the other hand requires long standing commitments and conflict resolution, as peace can only be made after it has been kept for some time. Peacekeeping requires a flexible approach and the framework of human rights, in my opinion, is somewhat less flexible in this context. As a practitioner of conflict resolution, I feel strongly that this nexus is important to explore.
Syria is a good and topical example where ideals such as human rights meet challenges. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, human rights and freedom of speech have been the key reasons why the West supported the Syrian opposition. It was a simple deduction: Assad’s regime is dictatorial, people stood up against it and wanted democracy, therefore such ideals were supported.
As the Syrian conflict protracted and the hope of a Qaddafi-like change grew dimmer, the actual support to those fighting the regime dwindled. Before the emergence of IS (Islamic State), I remember posing the question to a European diplomat. I asked why there was no support for the Syrian opposition, which at that time was relatively democratic, I was told, “We will have nothing to do in any way or form with the people fighting Assad.”
One year later, IS proclaimed their Caliphate and the story changed dramatically. Human rights and freedom of speech became valuable again to make a case against a military intervention. But looking objectively as a practitioner, it seems clear to me, and it may sound cynical, that human rights are at best a luxury in conflict, which every side employs when they are most useful.
In the particular case of the Syrian conflict, this misuse of human rights could be considered to be due to a lack of enforcement or lack of commitment. The international community can only bring a state into accountability if the realm of international law is stronger and there is a clear diplomatic, economic and military support.
Herein the role of peacekeeping gathers pace. In the Syrian conflict, the many peace processes of Geneva, Moscow and Astana have not had human rights and freedom of speech as prerequisites for negotiations. Instead it was ‘cessation of hostilities’ that took precedence, as described above the focus in peacekeeping is on the ‘now’. Something was needed ‘now’ to stop the horrific bloodshed.
Therefore, it would appear, at least in case of Syria, that:
- Peacekeeping only starts when the conflict pours over from its original boundaries and threaten the interests of the others
- Peacekeeping is further away from peacemaking and is at best temporary
- Peacekeeping does not necessarily accommodate universal values of human rights and freedom of speech
- Human rights, Freedom of speech and Freedom of Religion and Belief (FORB) are not prerequisites for negotiations in modern conflicts. They remain at best inspirations but not tools as they should be.
If such is the sad reality of modern conflict, then should we stop pursuing values like human rights and freedom of speech? The answer is an obvious and resounding no. Human rights NGOs and organisations such as IOHR, have a much tougher job to do now than ever before. Based on my experience in dealing with modern conflicts, the following is a brief toolkit that maybe useful:
- Understand that human rights, despite the huge body of work to-date, is not a universally held concept.
i) Governments certainly do not uphold them consistently when dealing with local or global issues. Human rights can mean many different things in many different regions and we must understand and appreciate that diversity, without losing sight of what human rights actually are.
- The interplay between security and universal values must be addressed.
i) Often states will do everything to wriggle out of their responsibilities to protect human rights in the name of security.
ii) Non-state actors are perhaps now the best protectors of universal values. Again, understanding the diversity of those values requires a flexible approach.
iii) Human rights organisations must understand the complexity of a conflict, recognise what human rights mean to which actors, identify the loopholes and the opportunity, and then with a clear strategy tactfully lobby in the conflict zone, in the home countries, and on the regional and global stage.
- Peacekeeping can often relegate human rights – as the case of Syria suggests – but it does not have to be so.
i) There was a clear lack of lobbying in Europe for a human rights-based approach in the Syrian conflict. All the peacekeeping processes were designed to stop the bloodshed (and rightly so) but human rights activists and organisations at best played the card of a critique.
ii) What is needed is a mobilised machinery that reminds the negotiating states and their backers that human rights and such values have to be a prerequisite for any negotiations.
- Dissemination of information and knowledge must be improved.
i) Projection of the human rights violations on social and other form of media is not a sufficient tool in and of itself, such as in Syria. Using social media as a tactic might be a better strategy.
ii) There are clear lessons to be learned from other organisations. Having worked closely with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), I admire how their bureaucracy does an almost impossible job of reminding each of its 57 member-states of their obligation towards human rights.
- Coordination and cohesion with other organisations and agencies across different fields is essential, i.e. humanitarian, development, security. In my personal experience there is very little coordination between human rights organisations and the rest.
Finally, the international community unequivocally need innovative, feasible and practical human rights policies and practices in conflict zones, as the challenges will continue to evolve and grow. In the case of Syria, during recent talks in Geneva the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution,
“to urge all parties to the conflict to comply with their respective obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
However, as we have seen, human rights need urgent protection in modern conflict as they often become expendable in the face of war.