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Human Rights and Peace Building – Two Complementary but Sometimes Conflicting Approaches to Addressing Violent Conflicts

Semper Ardens forskningsprojekt | 25/09/2017

Photo: Top Bhahadur

Human rights and peace building have often collided as seemingly incompatible agendas. This research aims to enhance the understanding of the link between human rights and peace building – conflictual and complementary.
By Professor Ole Wæver, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen

The horrors of Syria, South Sudan, and the Sahel are reaching our screens every day. The number of people killed and displaced by armed conflicts around the world was on a positive declining curve until recently, but Syria has brought it back to one of the worst levels in recent history. 

In many conflicts, peace agreements have been signed bringing about fragile peace – as it will eventually happen in Syria, too – and the international task is to support long-term peace processes and help the country address the causes of conflict, many of which are related to human rights violations, such as discrimination, torture, lack of access to justice and livelihood, and lack of participation in political decision making. 

90 % of armed conflicts in the 2000s were ‘old conflicts’ and less than half of peace agreements result in sustainable peace. This insight has elicited a renewed focus on how to sustain peace and prevent renewed violent conflict. 

Policy and reform processes in the UN now emphasize human rights and inclusivity as two main agendas for sustaining peace. But limited knowledge exists of how human rights and peace building interact in contexts affected by conflict, where accountability for past human rights violations and political instability is setting the scene. 

Human rights and peace building have often collided as seemingly incompatible agendas. This research aims to enhance the understanding of the link between human rights and peace building – conflictual and complementary. While focused on producing basic research on societal dynamics, the knowledge will be relevant to policy development and praxis, as well as improving multi-disciplinary thinking on how to address and prevent violent conflicts in the 21st century.

The Relationship Between Human Rights and Peace Building

Despite widespread recognition that the understanding of violent conflict and processes of peace building require a multi-dimensional lens, human rights and conflict resolution fields have frequently been at odds with little effort to ‘reconcile’ contradictory findings and approaches. Scholars generally acknowledge that the two fields operate in relative isolation, often underestimating the relevance of the contributions from the other approach. This goes for the scholarly research communities, for important parts of the body of practitioners, for policy makers in international organisations, and for think tanks.

The book by Michelle Parlevliet, which will be published as part of this project, will provide the state-of-the-art of what we know today about the relationship between human rights and peace building, and why this is critical to our understanding of conflict and peace. The dissertation, upon which the book will be based, was awarded the Max van der Stoel Human Rights Award of 2016 for best PhD dissertation on human rights in the Netherlands, and it brings together Michelle Parlevliet’s practice and writings in this area since the early 2000s.  

International seminars and author’s workshops conducted through this project have brought key international thinkers from practice and research into a joint platform on human rights and peace building, with the result of developing the field further and producing a Special Issue of the Journal of Human Rights Practice (edited by Parlevliet and Roesdahl and published in 2017). 

It would seem obvious that the two fields should be closely integrated. In armed conflicts, the full range of human rights is typically violated – with human rights violations as both cause and consequence of armed conflict. Human rights related causes of armed conflict include discrimination, lack of access to public services and opportunities of certain groups in a society, lack of access to justice, illegitimate political and state institutions that do not allow people to participate and have their voices heard, as well as impunity for violence committed by state institutions in the form of torture, harassment, illegal detentions, etc. 

Human rights related consequences of armed conflict comprise direct violence that undermines the right to life, displacement from peoples’ original home and at times from their families, a culture of impunity that does not provide access to a recognition of harm done or an appropriate remedy, when violations have been committed. Thus, violent conflict causes human rights violations; human rights violations cause violent conflict – and long-term recovery in conflict ridden regions would seem to demand an integrated understanding of human rights and peace. 

Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Edinburgh Christine Bell participated in our international seminar on human rights and peace building in Copenhagen in 2015, and contributes to a Special Issue for the Journal of Human Rights Practice with an article with the title “Peace Settlements and Human Rights – A twenty-five-year circular history”. She shows how the relationship between peace building and human rights is about to enter its fourth phase since 1990.

According to Christine Bell, today, we see reflections of this history. She moreover suggests that the evolving human rights-based peace building approach of today holds human rights not as a set of external normative standards to propel liberal peace building, but as a political practice in which rights are given meaning only when they are ‘negotiated’ into being as part of a peace process. A better understanding of these processes will not only make assistance to peace processes more effective, it may also be possible to invigorate a conflict prevention approach. 

The Carlsberg Foundation granted research project will support the further knowledge development on the relationship between peace-building and human rights, by asking questions such as: How can human rights protection and peace-building be conceptualised and devised as mutually reinforcing processes? What are the factors that impact the dynamic relation between them? And how can the cause-effect relationship be researched in highly complex environments?

The International Policy Agenda – with a Core Focus on Human Rights and Peace Building

Recent policy developments in the United Nations point to a need to focus more on long-term peace building and conflict prevention, and therefore on addressing the structural causes of conflict including human rights violations. The report “The Challenge of Sustaining Peace” prepared by the Advisory Group of Experts (AGE) for the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture concluded that fostering inclusive national ownership, setting realistic timelines as well as addressing root causes is crucial for the success of a peace operation, and for sustaining peace. Also, goal 16 of the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ emphasises peace, stability, human rights and effective governance as keys to delivering on all the other development agendas.

In Denmark, human rights and democratic governance have for several years been at the core of peace building efforts, for example through its governance and peace building programmes in Uganda and Nepal, and as part of the Arab initiative. In this way, Denmark complements the efforts of other Nordic countries such as Norway and Finland, who prioritise support to peace negotiations.


Fighting going on between civilians and the army in Nepal during the armed conflict that ended in 2006 with the signing of a peace agreement. Now, 10 years after the peace agreement, many of the human rights related causes of conflict remains and may feed new patterns of violent conflict (Photo: Mie Roesdahl).

The Project and its Partners

The research project is supported by the Carlsberg Foundation and is embedded in an innovative partnership between two research institutions: The Centre for Resolution of International Conflicts (CRIC) at the Department of Political Science (University of Copenhagen) and the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR). The sub-components of the research project are outlined in the following table:

The project has three main phases: 

  1. Consolidating the state-of-the art
  2. In-depth exploration of critical issues related to the link between human rights and peace building – gaps in existing research
  3. The way forward – new avenues of research and translation of research into action.
Phase 1 is concluded in the first half of 2017, phase 2 spans the entire project period with the individual PhD projects and Postdoc fellowships, and phase 3 will start already in the beginning of 2017. The fact that the project has managed to bring together the most prominent international scholar-practitioners in this area already in the first phase of this project, and has produced several activities including several international seminars and two seminal publications, allows us to focus on the future as a core part of the project. Where does our research take us, and what are our main contributions to developing innovative solutions to the global challenges of the world, of course with a particular focus on armed conflicts and its consequences?

Prior to elections in Nepal in 2013, efforts were made to provide persons from marginalised groups with citizenship certificates allowing them to vote, get access land etc. Such efforts improved the rights of marginalised groups at a time of instability and helped prevent eruption of violence (Photo: Mie Roesdahl).

Scholar-Practitioners and Co-Production of Knowledge

Scholarship on peace building and international conflict resolution are atypical in the social sciences. Abstract theories and generalisations by scholars with little practical experience do not constitute a research core from which derivations are then applied and utilised. In contrast, agenda-setting scholarships typically come from scholars with practical experience. 

Conversely, practitioners often refer to research more consistently than in most other fields. Some might try to generalise this observation as a principled issue and argue over relevance versus detachment in research, but in this project, it is taken as an empirical and practical feature of these particular domains, which we analyse as part of the knowledge dimension of the challenges. And we position ourselves accordingly in that all case studies including PhD projects are conducted by experienced scholar-practitioners. 

Also, the innovative collaboration between the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Institute for Human Rights allows for a more direct collaboration with practitioners and policy-makers in the conflict affected contexts of for example Nepal and Kenya, and for research validation through application of the insights gained through this project into practice.

Ole Wæver about the Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation:

“The Carlsberg Foundation grant has enabled an unconventional co-operation that bridges different academic subcultures and values research by scholar-practitioners in a way that is difficult in much of the Danish funding system. Thereby it has become possible to do research targeted at some of the biggest global challenges. For myself as a scholar who has in recent years mostly worked on theory building, it is extremely rewarding to work with a team with such solid practical insights and a timely sense of the obstacles and opportunities in the current evolution of international conflict dynamics.”

Walter, Barbara F (2010) ”Conflict Relapse and the Sustainability of Post-Conflict Peace”. World Development Report background papers 2011. Washington, DC: World Bank.


Wæver, Ole (2011) “Politics, security, theory“, Security Dialogue, Vol 42, Issue 4-5, pp. 465 - 480  

Wæver, Ole & Sheikh, Mona Kanwal (2012) “Global Conflict and Security” in The Encyclopedia of Global Studies. Juergensmeyer , M. & Anheier , H. (eds.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 645-653 

Buzan, Barry & Wæver, Ole (2003) Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security. Cambridge University Press. 

Bell, Christine (forthcoming) Peace Settlements and Human Rights: A Twenty-five Year Circular History. Journal of Human Rights Practice (in Special Issue co-edited by Michelle Parlevliet and Mie Roesdahl with the support of the Carlsberg Foundation) 

Parlevliet, Michelle (2015) Embracing Concurrent Realities. Revisiting the Relationship between Human Rights and Conflict Resolution. PhD thesis, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands; to be published by Routledge in 2017.  

Roesdahl, Mie (2016) Afvikling af udviklingsbistand betaler sig ikke. Kronik, Politiken (http://politiken.dk/debat/kroniken/article5611196.ece)  

Roesdahl, Mie & Dhakal, Ramesh (2016) Nepal’s Engagement in the UPR process and Recommendations for Improvements of the Mechanism, http://www.universal-rights.org/blog/nepals-engagement-upr-process-recommendations-improvements-mechanism/. Blog post. Universal Rights Group. 

Sriram, Chandra Lekha, Martin-Ortega, Olga & Herman, Johanna (2010) War, Conflict and Human Rights: Theory and Practice. London and New York: Routledge Press.