Strengthening the Web of Relationships for Peace
Afro-pessimists tell us that Africa is still the “Dark Continent” beset with problems, dripping in human suffering, incurable disease, blood and corruption. As Dr Adekeye Adebajo of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town pointed out to African National Human Rights Institutions in 2004, “ethnic crocodiles of the genocidal species have been feeding off the carcass that used to be the Democratic Republic of the Congo; leaders who outstay their welcome abound on the continent; more than 50% of the population of the continent survive on less than $1 per day; territorial disputes can be found in every corner of the continent; the abundant natural resources of the continent provide rich fodder for unscrupulous operators who profit and line their pockets with the proceeds of other people’s misery”.
Further afield, a prisoner of war lies curled up naked in a foetal position whilst his tormentor smiles victoriously for the camera; flies feed hungrily off the mouth of a malnourished baby; demonstrators from all around the world square off to grim-faced police officers and water cannon in wealthy and well-developed streets; international election monitors are deported as they touch down ahead of the next “free and fair” elections; an armoured personnel carrier is menaced by a stone-throwing youth.
Far too close to home a towering shadow reaches up with an outstretched hand while a partner huddles cowering in the shadows; we see the stomping barefooted demands for a better standard of living while a fleet of luxury sedans glide past in air-conditioned comfort on their way to an address by the leader on how to reduce poverty.
Pictures such as these assail us daily in print, on the radio and on television. Conflict, and far too often violent conflict, is a feature of our existence as human beings. In spite of how common they are, they still affect us, still perturb us, and still drive us to seek ways to change the situation. More so if you work in the areas of conflict management, human rights, development or humanitarian assistance.
What we do and how we do might differ tremendously, but we would all say that our aim would be the eradication of violent conflict and putting in place the socio-economic conditions for a sustainable peace.
Faced with the human security needs of a post-conflict situation, in the immediate term, “human rights activists might seek to correct wrongs perpetrated against victims; conflict management practitioners might seek to end the physical violence and get the parties talking with each other in order to find a mutually acceptable solution or process; humanitarian actors would want to attend to the humanitarian needs of the displaced and affected.
If asked what their respective vision of a long-term solution would be, using different words perhaps, they are likely to paint a similar picture of conditions allowing people to live out their potential fully, in a society based on justice, equality and dignity. The human rights actor might emphasise the rule of law, a legitimate system of governance and full expression of individual and group rights. The conflict management practitioner might talk of a just peace where conflict is managed without resorting to violence, underlying causes are addressed and parties’ needs and interests are met. The development worker might replace the humanitarian agent in the long-term, and highlight the establishment of socio-economic conditions that allow human development to take place.
Thus, in different ways these various actors may all work towards a long term objective that could be called ‘sustainable peace’. Locked within this notion are the absence of violence, the presence of healthy relationships, mechanisms to manage conflict constructively, socio-economic and political justice, and conditions for long-term development”
However, often in pursuing their respective and converging goals, very often practitioners find themselves in tension with one another.
One of the oft-cited tensions between human rights activists and conflict management practitioners is the one that exists in post-violence necessities of justice versus peace. Human rights activists will prioritise justice as a means to peace, their efforts focused on bringing perpetrators to book, restoring the rule of law and putting in place credible, legitimate and democratic institutions. Conflict management practitioners on the other hand would be more concerned with bringing about peace on the road to justice and reconciliation. Their attention will be drawn to facilitate a cessation of violence and hostilities to create a platform for meaningful dialogue and social reconstruction. This might even mean engaging with perpetrators of human rights abuses in order to work towards national reconciliation for instance.
Human rights activists might be more adversarial in their quest for redress for past human rights abuses asserting legal or international standards against which to measure the breaches and ways to avoid/prevent future abuses. Conflict management practitioners might focus more on facilitating a process wherein everyone participates.
Similarly aid workers might find themselves unwittingly adding to the conflict and even becoming targets of the antagonists in the armed conflict as they provide aid and assistance to the wounded and displaced in the conflict. There is some evidence to suggest that in unstable and violent situations, aid and development programmes can actually escalate the violence and the conflict as new resources come into the situation and potentially change the balance of power.
It is easy to identify the tension that arises when rights have been breached – should the law be upheld (with potentially a hardening of positions and an exacerbation of the conflict) or should a constructive solution that meets both parties’ interests be found. When would one choose one over the other? Does one even have a choice in the matter?
These are just some of the challenges of working in the field, at the confluence of different actors from different disciplines pursuing a similar goal but from different perspectives.