“More than Just a Welcome Mat”: Protecting and Promoting Human Rights in Post Conflict Societies

February 10, 2016 OPINION/NEWS


Anant Mishra

“The recognition of victims as individuals and holders of rights is essential in any attempts to redress massive human rights violations and prevent their recurrence.”



Today, there are over 44 Million people experiencing human rights violations especially in conflict zones and disaster struck areas. It is our responsibility to find new innovative ways to prevent human rights violations in post conflict societies. Post conflict societies are simply defined as “populations belonging to countries that have recently emerged from war or large scale violence.” Usually, experts focus on the historical event, which is at the end of any conflict, events such as deposition of a leader or fall of a capital city. However, the time where a city has entered a post conflict period does not necessarily mean that the conflict has ceased; largely, the conflict has escalated on a greater scale, diluting itself both in the society and in everyday life. Thus, it is important to ensure that the work carried out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the mandates of the United Nations Human rights Council (UNHCR) support the post conflict societies and the initiatives led by other UN agencies. Human Rights efforts, particularly in relief, recovery, and reconstruction activities are the key feature to the successful implementation policies and frameworks.

Human rights mainstreaming does not necessarily mean adopting human rights laws and policies, rather it means that discussion of human rights stays active anytime when the topics relating to post-conflict reconstruction as discussed. Human rights should be the first valid point in any political agenda. Also, introducing sound policies in post conflict reconstruction can become a standard in reconstruction of post conflict regions in the future.

While discussing this issue, it is important to understand that some communities are more vulnerable in post conflict situations; these “groups” include: women, children, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and ethnic and regional minorities. Involvement of these groups in post conflict reconstruction is important as it would help the system to avoid marginalization and underrepresentation in development and stabilization in the area. Few more aspects such as: women’s role in political participation, governance and fair elections, economic, social, cultural rights, and transitional justice, play an important role in stabilization of the society.

We describe transnational justice as the “sum of efforts in place to help a post-conflict society come to terms with past large-scale atrocities and to build a state with accountable institutions that fosters a climate for reconciliation.” The most important tasks in the post conflict societies are to defend against mass atrocities and build a state with accountable government institutions and foster a climate of peace and tranquility in the region. It is imperative that the long lost trust in the government is restored and violation of human rights are stopped, however it can only be possible with proper implementation of strategies specific to the country or region. Issues like this, are particularly important for nations such as Afghanistan, who has a history of conflict and is currently in a transition period. Nations such as Afghanistan are in absolute need for a strong human rights framework and protection efforts. Finally, peace building is defined as “the active cessation of conflict and targeted efforts to restore all aspects of society, holds also a vital place in handling human rights in post-conflict societies.”



International and Regional Framework


International Human Rights Framework


The guidelines for protecting human rights in post conflict areas are clearly explained in the “International Bill of Human Rights”. This Charter points out a body of human rights standards, primarily the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1946), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) along with Optional Protocols to the two Covenants. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists all the human rights that should be available to every human in the world. One such example is Article 21. Article 21 states that “everyone has the right to vote, participate in government in his or her country, and do public service.”

Now, let us bring our attention back to Regional Frameworks. Regional frameworks are equally important to the cause of human rights. A regional framework allows the government institutions to understand post conflict behavior of a community. For example, in America, the adoption of the American Convention on Human Rights was taken long before the adoption of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, along with various human rights treaties, such as the Inter-American Convention against torture.

The member nations of the African Union are bounded by the declaration stated in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Additionally, the then Commission of the African Union (now AU) for the first time in history, adopted the Policy on Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development (2006). This policy is a benchmark for nations in transition period. This guide is also helpful for nations under post conflict stress. The guide successfully explains complete reconstruction and restoration of post conflict societies.

Some of the widely discussed topics in post conflict societies include security, women and gender, political governance and transition. With struggling post conflict nations such as Kenya, Uganda, and Côte d’Ivoire, Africa has a variety of challenges to deal with from time to time, the key being “the promotion and protection of human rights.” The Policy on Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development gives these countries a foundation for addressing those challenges.



Role Played by the United Nations Human Rights Council


Speaking of international efforts in post conflict areas, the lead organization, United Nations Human Rights Council, has done a lot of work on human rights in post conflict societies. On 10th April 2013, the Council adopted the resolution 22/16 on the “promotion and protection of human rights in post-conflict and post disaster situations”. As clearly directed by the resolution, the Human Rights Council requested its Advisory Committee to conduct a thorough research and submit a report on the past challenges faced by governmental institutions in the subject of human rights in post-conflict societies. The resolution addresses special attention to the relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts, and promotes “right approaches” towards humanitarian initiatives. The resolution also focuses on principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence and self-sufficiency. As a result, the committee submitted a progress report (A/HRC/27/57) which was published on 11 August 2014. This report highlights the challenges faced by Member Nations on the subject of human rights, especially in post-disaster and post-conflict situations.

The progress report also lists some regional and international frameworks, based on the past challenges faced by member nations. The main challenges outlined here include “the lack of consideration for vulnerable populations, focus on reconstruction efforts and access to water.” This report also speaks about “inadequate funding and programming for the promotion of transitional justice and peace building efforts,” along with “the prevention of domestic and gender-based violence.” Addressing these challenges, the Advisory Committee concluded that the best human rights approaches must have intention, participation, attention and transparency.



The Role of International Institutions


Ensuring that human rights have been respected in all its capacities, “promotion and protection of human rights is one of the main pillars of the UN system” and thus is the heart of the Human Rights Council mandate. As stated in the Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations (1945), “the promotion and protection of human rights is a central purpose of the UN.” Also the biannual report of the Secretary General’s semiannual report stated that “In larger freedom: towards development, security, and human rights for all” (A/59/2005) it also gave a broad vision on how the UN could fulfill its main objectives, including the realization of human rights.

Additionally, to create a stronger foundation on human rights, democracy and role of law, the Secretary General delegated the task of creating a plan of action to the the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The plan of action is to strengthen the strategy of the UN system, making it better equipped for the future.


The OHCHR Plan of Action:


Stage 1 is the Protection and Empowerment. It further comprises six challenges to human rights:

  1. Poverty and global inequalities

  2. Discrimination

  3. Armed conflict and violence

  4. Impunity

  5. Democracy deficits

  6. Weak institutions


All the challenges mentioned above have an adverse effect on post-conflict societies, opposing stability and opposing security and policing measures of the new regime. It is also important to understand that the OHCHR offers four challenges to the policies of the new regime: knowledge, capacity, commitment and security. Understanding how these challenges affect the promotion and protection of human rights in post-conflict societies is crucial to making progress and being successful.

Protection and Empowerment provides enormous information as to how an institution such as the OHCHR should interact with other UN human rights organizations, external partners, non-governmental organizations, agencies, and most importantly the civil society. Engaging wide cooperation with international and regional agencies will give OHCHR enormous confidence to handle human rights issues, provide timely support to the HCR and other bodies, making them effective in handling the issues of human rights in civil societies. Today, OHCHR is the Secretariat for HRC and also works with a number of UN and other government organizations to promote and protect human rights worldwide.

This discussion remains incomplete if we do not introduce the role of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society in restoring human rights to post conflict communities, as they are the key instrument to monitor regional policy. One such nongovernmental organization is Amnesty International; charged with a mission to “campaign to end grave abuses of human rights” it engages volunteers, researching human rights violations, publishing reports and notifying media on the issues of human rights violations in any part of the globe.

With respect to the discussion of post conflict societies, Amnesty International calls for the “termination of impunity and the observation of international humanitarian law and human rights in peacekeeping operations.” Amnesty International also addresses the issues of human rights violations within the system of the UN. Another example is the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) which assists post-conflict governments and regional government institutions in tackling human rights violations and building trust in order to protect human rights in the future.

It operates via research organizations in transnational law and human rights, advising officers at all levels of governments and aiding non-governmental organizations working in conflict zones.



Role of Justice and Rule of Law


Justice plays one of the most important roles in forming a successful democratic government following conflict. A report published by the OHCHR defines justice as, “the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation”. The role of justice simply does not end with the end of a previous regime, it discusses the human rights violations by the fallen regime and measures the policies to prevent any further human rights violations of the new administration.

The history of “post conflict justice” began during the period of post war reconstruction of Eastern Europe and post dictatorship period in Latin America. Some examples of post conflict justice can be easily found in the countries of the regions mentioned above; although diverse customs and diverse ethnic communities play a larger role in the post conflict reconstruction of societies today. Although post conflict justice is not just limited to criminal tribunals, criminal justice plays a larger important role in bringing justice to the region which was once destroyed in blood. One such example is that of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

It is also important to understand that post conflict justice is only possible when it is governed under the rule of law. The United Nations defines law as, “a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.” Law is an integral part of the Charter of the United Nations (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1946). It is a standard for international and national justice. The absence of law is one of the most important factors that has instigated conflict in nations in the first place, thus it plays a significant role in bringing back peace in the region.



The Role of Governance and Elections


The establishment of democratic governance in post conflict societies will help identify whether the current regime is able to adapt itself with the fundamentals of democratic governance and integrate social equality in the region. At times it is forgotten, transparency is the backbone of governance, especially crucial for regions experiencing a transitioning phase.

Elections are one of the key elements of a prosperous democratic governance, especially in post conflict societies; although it is also true that elections are not the only successful democratic political system. Since elections are conducted especially for political control, post conflict societies are the most vulnerable for a conflict especially during the time of elections. This is the reason why political parties should implement stricter norms, so that the candidates are all aware of the consequences and prevent the nation from instability and violence in the region.

Free and fair elections are the building blocks of regional stability and democratic governance, making the nation prosperous and helping citizens normalize. The United Nations has a long history of supervising elections, and so was the elections of Mozambique in 1994; since then, all the elections in this African nation have been free and fair.

Several recommendations on how the UN system should intervene in new and restored democracies have been explored and still the process continues to explore innovative ways to conduct free and fair elections in conflict nations. Some methodologies of the UN include maintaining a democracy database and website and cooperating with regional organizations.



Addressing the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights


The Preambles to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states that “the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights.”

Post conflict nations are the most vulnerable against depleting economy, social conflicts and cultural indifference especially in the regions that have diverse ethnic communities. Implementing various measures to protect their rights have to be discussed and introduced into the system.

Education is one of the most important tools that is vulnerable, especially in post conflict areas. In 2005, the World Bank published a book regarding the relationship between education and conflict. In this book, various aspects of conflict and how they affected education in certain regions is explored. In the book, the World Bank explained a variety of conflicts (like those in Timor-Leste and Kosovo) which had a drastic effect on education in the areas (such as those in Lebanon and Guatemala). Longer conflicts affect the region more intensely, whereas, shorter conflicts spread wider in the region. International agencies have also identified that factors such as racial or religious identity, and political upheaval driving the conflict out of the source, adversely affect the education system in the area.

Now coming on to the issue of improving education systems in post conflict societies, the root cause of the situation has to be understood. International organizations such as Amnesty International, in its report on post conflict societies, suggested that education is hampered because most of the students in these societies belong to one or the two groups involved in the conflict; if these groups are driving the conflict, the schools become part of the already added tension in the conflict. The report also suggested four areas where international organizations such as the UN and the local governments should focus: firm policies and committed country leaders, sufficient capacity for operation and participation, adequate financial resources, and a focus on results.



The Role of Women


In post conflict societies, the relationship between women and the government is one of the most sensitive in nature. Many post conflict societies have yet to see the participation and representation of women in politics, while other societies have involved women in some capacity or the other. Deputy Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, Pregalxmi Govender, once stated that “inclusion of women in political transitions could positively impact universal human rights.”

The role of women in elections and the representation of women in high profile roles are two of the most important agendas that need to be addressed when promoting human rights in post conflict societies.

Women are soft targets to gender based violence (GBV) and are vulnerable to sexual violence in conflict and post conflict regions. Going into more depth women are prone to domestic violence, sex trafficking and forced prostitution. During post conflict rebuilding, GBV offenders and GBV victims are poorly ignored and hardly addressed, which then leads to a cycle of violence and rage against the community.

In order to combat this issue, it is extremely important for the leading international agencies and humanitarian organizations, such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and other working nongovernmental organization, religious leaders of the community, to come together and address the issue unanimously.

Implementing change at this level requires in depth knowledge of the communities involved, followed by the number of stakeholders in the community and the sexual rights and practices which vary differently in the region. Another way to bring change to GBV and sexual violence is to involve men in the dialogue; Overall, there has been a considerable amount of progress in this field, yet there remains a great deal of work to be done. The key areas of focus on this subject include adequate representation of women in public office, women’s equal right to participate in politics, and the pursuit of justice for perpetrators of GBV and domestic violence.





Former High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay once said “conflicts will always be a main concern to human rights, and that impunity must be fought at all levels of governance.” There will always be challenges to human rights, some of which have continued to dominate our communities. Thus it is very important for human rights organizations and UN human rights bodies to prepare themselves for the challenges in the future. This will only happen through cooperation, understanding between the UN system and that with the affected regions and their governments, civil service organizations, and other NGOs. Only with international cooperation and understanding, issues such as impunity, unfair elections, and the underrepresentation of women in politics can be left in the past.





Anant Mishra

Anant Mishra is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations.


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