Report of the Conference on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Acute Crisis

Conference on The Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Acute Crisis

London, 11-13 February 1998

Edited by
Co-Directors: Dr Mukesh Kapila (DFID) and
Professor Nigel S Rodley (University of Essex)
Rapporteurs: Professor Kevin Boyle (University of Essex)
and Ms Aisling Reidy (University of Essex)

Report links: website home page
Table of Contents - Search - Introduction - Recommendations - Opening Address - Papers Presented - Acknowledgements - Appendices

Opening Address

Opening Address by the Rt Hon Clare Short MP
Secretary of State for International Development
UK Department for International Development

I am grateful to Vice Chancellor Crewe for hosting this event, and delighted that the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex were able to respond to my request to organise this conference. The Centre has a well-deserved world-wide reputation for radical thinking, and its work inspires all who work in the cause of human rights. May I add my own welcome to all participants here. I know that many of you have taken the trouble to come from far and wide, and the range of expertise and institutions you represent is impressive. But, above all, we are here because we are united in the common resolve to try to do more - to protect and promote the rights of people who are the daily victims of systematised violence and oppression.

Last week I was in Bosnia. Last October I visited Rwanda. Both countries - and many situations elsewhere - bear testimony to the shameful failures of the international community in doing too little too late. They remind us, first, of the need to do more to prevent violent conflict; second, of the responsibility, when conflict erupts, to prevent civilians from being subjected to ethnic cleansing, rape, genocide and other war crimes; and third, of the need, when conflict subsides, to build lasting peace which no longer contains the seeds of future violence.

As this audience is well aware, the British Government has declared its intention to place human rights at the centre of its international development and foreign policies. Most people identify "human rights" with liberty and physical security - rights, for example, which Professor Nigel Rodley, the co-director of this conference, defends so robustly as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. But, too often, people are unaware that "human rights" include the economic and social rights necessary for dignified living - the right to adequate health, food, water, education and work. Both sets of rights are given equal priority in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the fiftieth anniversary of which we celebrate this year. The entire work of my Department which we have defined in the White Paper as "eliminating poverty" through sustainable development, is work for the realisation of human rights. It is not true as some would argue that the alternatives are full bellies or human rights. The right to food, work, healthcare and the expression of views and needs are all human rights. These describe the fundamental rights of every human being on the planet. Nowhere are they fully realised. Governments have a duty to seek to secure them for all their citizens. Too often human rights are treated as issues over which governments of industrialised countries hector those of developing countries. Instead they should be seen as work in progress and we should be willing to constructively engage wherever rights are not realised.

Poverty elimination is a moral imperative but also essential to the world’s security because conflicts are both a cause and a consequence of poverty. In all societies, competition over access to essential resources and differences over political, religious or other beliefs are common. These can generate conflict, but do not inevitably lead to violence. There are many examples - from north and south - where communities have drawn on both deep-rooted traditions as well as modern systems of democracy, justice and security, to find constructive and peaceful ways to settle their quarrels. We must make more of this because though a quarrelsome disposition is undoubtedly part of the human condition, so is the aspiration for peace and stability. The Government committed itself in our development White Paper to expanding our efforts to prevent or resolve conflicts in ways that respect the interests of the poor and powerless, and particularly those that are excluded or marginalised.

I share the disappointment of many who believe that the international community has been too slow to grasp the opportunities provided by the end of the cold war. The pattern of today’s warfare is that it is concentrated within poor countries and the outbreak of armed conflict impoverishes the poor further. This conflict threatens civilians as never before. Women, children and other non-combatants are ten times more likely to be the victims of modern conflicts than soldiers. The risks include death and injury but also the risk of being uprooted from their homes or subjected to barbaric abuse, the legacy of which can haunt and bitterly divide generations to come. To them it is scant consolation that the cold war is over. For them there has been no peace dividend. On the contrary.

The challenge is daunting - but we can do better. We do have diplomatic, trade, development and military instruments at our disposal that could be used to better effect. As I said to the Defence select committee of the House of Commons this morning, it is within our capability to deploy them with the energy required to find durable solutions to long-standing crises. In doing so, I would like to give particular emphasis to two key strands of policy which will be major determinants of success or failure.

First, is the security sector in developing countries. In many countries, their security forces themselves are a major cause of conflict and violation of human rights. We have all seen how badly trained and managed armed groups outside proper democratic control spread destruction, hold their own communities and countries to ransom, and assert corrupt influence farther afield. Thus security sector reform is a key development issue that needs to be tackled with greater determination than has been the case so far.

Sierra Leone is the most recent example of the consequences of failure to restructure the security forces.

Second, is the requirement to limit the means to wage war. Excessive and inappropriate military expenditure in poor countries is wasteful and destabilising. The OECD is pressing arms exporting countries not to promote sales which undermine the public finances and economy of recipient countries or where purchasers might use the arms for internal repression or external aggression. The Government has led initiatives to develop an EU Code of Conduct for arms sales, and we strongly support the EU Programme for Preventing and Combatting Illicit Trafficking in Conventional Weapons. Gordon Brown’s Mauritius Mandate aimed at speeding up debt relief for the most highly indebted countries also committed us to refuse export credits for unproductive expenditure - which is often military. The commitment was given for two years and we invited other countries to join us in this commitment.

Let me now turn to the major focus of this conference, how best to protect human rights during conflict. This is, of course, crucial to reducing the suffering of those caught-up in ongoing conflicts. But I also believe that this is of wider importance because the success of human rights protection during today’s conflicts has a direct bearing on the quality and sustainability of tomorrow’s peace. Giving determined effect - as best as we can amidst the chaos of violent conflict - to a fundamental and universal set of human values, sends an uncompromising signal to all those who may be contemplating future violence. Maintaining some humanity amidst the prevailing brutality is also a route - tenuous perhaps but all the more precious - for reconciliation and healing.

The leading international role in crisis management, including the human rights dimension, must be that of the United Nations, although there is also an important role for regional arrangements such as the OSCE and the OAU. The British Government strongly supports Kofi Annan’s efforts to modernise the UN, including a more proactive conflict prevention capacity. There is some way to go before this can become a reality, and it will require not just administrative reforms but a more significant change of mind-set than has been evident so far. It will mean member states - in their dealings with and through the United Nations - understanding that their real interests in stability go beyond the short term promotion of their national interests. It will mean working more co-operatively rather than vying for, or seeking to buy influence in UN bodies. It will mean breaking out of entrenched caucuses of donors or G77, and reaching out to form new alliances united by a common interest to build a more stable and just international order.

The UN has a global legitimacy but, in the minds of the world’s citizens, this derives not only from legal treaties signed by their governments, but also from what they perceive as the UN’s moral relevance, and its practical engagement in the problems that matter. This includes the way in which the UN is seen to approach its central role in promoting peace and security. It implies a greater inclusiveness than has been usual to date. It means diplomats and community representatives working in mutually respectful partnership, and recognising that ‘top down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches are both necessary. As so many cases have illustrated the quick-fix of a "political peace" unravels quickly unless it is accompanied by a wider "social peace".

Protecting human rights in crisis situations includes the option to deploy military forces when all else has failed subject, of course, to authorisation by the Security Council. But experience of imposing protection by military means is mixed, as indicated by the experience of Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, and the pre-Dayton phase of operations in Bosnia. The establishment of ‘safe areas’ in Bosnia had laudable aims, but the practical implications - how the UN was to ensure their safety - were never fully thought through. The tragic events of Srebrenica in July 1995 - which shame us all - spelled the end of that flawed policy, and catalysed the decision to deploy a NATO-led multinational force with robust rules of engagement, which succeeded in stopping the fighting in Bosnia. The obvious lesson is that, when military intervention occurs, the forces must have the equipment, training, mandate and rules of engagement that they need to live up to the responsibilities the international community has placed on them. But obtaining the necessary international change of mind and creating consensus for this will often be difficult.

For many of the world’s crises today, non-military options for the creation of a neutral space where civilians’ rights will be protected, may be a better way forward. The basis for protecting human rights in crisis situations is well-established through the array of international humanitarian, human rights, refugees, and child protection laws and conventions. No doubt, there is scope to refine available instruments and fill gaps, notably with respect to protection for the internally displaced. But we must not leave experts to debate legal points such the precise conventions to be applied in particular cases leaving the public marginalised and befuddled. Human rights abusers thrive amidst such confusion. That is why I feel that much more could be done to communicate the essential simplicity of the human rights protection message. The best chance of protecting individuals is through an irresistible global climate of public and political opinion and action that sends a single message of ‘zero tolerance’ to all current and aspiring tyrants. My own view is that the public would strongly support such an approach. The problem is not compassion fatigue but despondency and pessimism.

Along with this new message must go the capability to bring to book the perpetrators of human rights crimes. Lasting peace is not possible without open acknowledgement of wrongs that have been done, and justice that is real as well as visible. Justice does not mean retribution, and South Africa and other countries have shown innovative ways in which society can try to come to terms with past abuse. It is essential to a stable future that those who perpetrate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity must not be allowed to do so with impunity. At the global level, I am pleased with the progress being made on setting up the International Criminal Court. But such exalted institutions can appear remote. As the procedures for the ICC are decided, we must make sure that they are accessible to those who have suffered most and are least capable of articulating their hurt.

It is right that human rights violations should be publicly condemned, but rights promotion requires more than monitoring and denouncing from afar. It requires engagement and partnership on the ground. I therefore welcome the trend in UN human rights work towards a field presence, and the appointment of Mary Robinson as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We are committed to giving her all the support we can to develop the effectiveness of her Office in mounting human rights field operations.

I know that there is a point of view that seeks to keep human rights work at arm’s length from what is perceived as the all-important political work to negotiate the end of a conflict. I am also aware that some traditional humanitarians are still wary of too close an association with human rights operations because of the uncomfortable tensions that this might generate. I do not think that these fears should paralyse the search for new working arrangements. For example, I am glad to see that there is now a fuller recognition that a lasting peace will not be possible in Afghanistan unless international political negotiators take fully on board the gender and other human rights issues which activists have been championing for some time.

Finally, I would like to touch specifically on the subject of humanitarian assistance. The past decade has seen humanitarian programmes of a magnitude unprecedented since the end of the second World War. But, at the same time, this extraordinary expression of global solidarity has been accompanied by a serious deterioration of "humanitarian space" which poses a fundamental threat to humanitarianism itself. The reason, I believe, is that the international community has chosen to forget the basic principles and standards of humanitarian conduct exemplified, for example, by the founders of the Red Cross movement. In the pragmatic world of inter-agency competition and media glare, principles are perceived to get in the way of "getting the aid convoy through" at almost any cost.

We have seen humanitarian assistance sustaining a genocidal leadership and its fighters in the refugee camps in former Zaire, and it is alleged that humanitarian assistance was used to lure refugees forcibly dispersed from those camps out of hiding and to their deaths. Humanitarian care is often said to have protection value for people caught-up in conflicts, but in circumstances like this, the opposite is the case. It is therefore not surprising that, in the eyes of many people, humanitarian aid has lost its moral currency, and is often vilified as getting into the wrong hands: feeding fighters, creating new war economies, and fuelling conflicts. I understand that some agencies accept that up to 30% of humanitarian assistance may go astray. Clearly this is not acceptable. It is a duty of humanitarian assistance providers not to undermine protection and human rights. There is no instant solution but we need a re-dedication to uphold humanitarian norms and standards, so as to recover the ground that has been lost. For our own part, DFID is committed to working with our partners in the European Union and beyond to develop an ethical code of conduct for humanitarian intervention in conflict situations.

In conclusion, let me summarise what I see as a broad framework for the protection of human rights in acute crisis. Foremost must be to prevent violent conflicts through sustainable development to tackle poverty and related causes of instability, and also to create democratic institutions for the peaceful resolution of differences in society. Reforming the security sector of developing countries, and reducing military expenditure and arms proliferation must be priorities. The principal responsibility for crisis management must be with the United Nations which, while deserving our full support, also needs stronger encouragement to strengthen its capacity to grasp the opportunities of the post cold war world. It must be more efficient and build more inclusive partnerships if it is to maintain its legitimacy and moral leadership in the eyes of the world’s citizens. And finally, in the actual arenas of violent conflict, practical human rights protection operations, ethically-based humanitarian programmes, and political mediation efforts must work in synergy as part of an overall strategic approach to find durable solutions to conflicts.

Your conference will, no doubt, debate these and related issues. Our policy intent is clear, and our course firmly set. But we shall need all the advice, support and constructive scrutiny we can get from groups and experts outside government as we implement our commitments. I am sure that your deliberations will influence our thinking. I ask you to help us develop our thinking and capacity to implement the aspirations outlined in our White Paper. This work is not easy but I am certain that we have it within our grasp to make considerable progress.


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Report links: website home page
Table of Contents - Search - Introduction - Recommendations - Opening Address - Papers Presented - Acknowledgements  - Appendices
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