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


From 11-13 February 1998 a conference on "The Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Acute Crisis" was held in London, organised by the UK Department for International Development and the University of Essex Human Rights Centre. The purpose of the conference was to examine, in depth, the need for, and the implications of, a human rights-based response by the international community to situations of internal conflict and political instability. Recommendations arising from the conference are set out in the following section.

Participants, of which a list is contained in Appendix A of this report, came from offices of the main intergovernmental agencies carrying out peacekeeping, human rights and humanitarian operations; leading non-governmental organisations working in the area of human rights and humanitarian assistance; representatives of several donor governments, as well as academic authorities on various aspects of the field. Discussions were based on a working paper prepared by Ms Kate Mackintosh for the University of Essex Human Rights Centre and papers presented by various participants. The agenda, with chairs and presenters, is contained in Appendix B and their biographies in Appendix C. All participants were asked to speak in their personal capacities, without commitment on behalf of their organisations.

While the focus of the conference was on the challenge of protecting human rights in the midst of acute conflict and violence, in opening it the Secretary of State for International Development, the Rt Hon Clare Short MP, placed the subject within a broader framework of conflict prevention and post-conflict peace-building.

Conflict within society, over resources or its direction is based on many factors, but frequently includes ethnic and religious division. Such conflicts are neither unusual nor inevitably a problem. It is the failure to manage such conflicts, without resort to violence and social breakdown, that is the main concern. The international community has an interest in and a responsibility to contribute towards the prevention of destructive conflict in all societies. Prevention will require many different approaches, but all should be based on the linkage between respect for all human rights, the rule of law, development, democracy and peace. The conference valued the important final report of the Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Deadly Conflict.1 This offers to states and the international community as a whole, a range of proposals for action that would reduce the number and duration of acute crises in the world.

Nevertheless, situations of intense internal conflict within states continue to proliferate, posing many dilemmas for the international community, for individual donor countries and international, as well as national, humanitarian organisations. The sheer scale of human victims in such conflicts justifies international concern and engagement in efforts to protect the millions of civilians put at risk. The stark evidence in such conflicts of complete disregard by state and non-state actors of the requirements of human rights and international humanitarian law, equally justifies international action to ensure both the protection of civilians, and the accountability of those responsible for gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law for the building of lasting peace.

Then there is the vital phase of international involvement, after the fighting has stopped, in helping the local society to build a stable peace that does not contain the seeds of renewed violence and conflict. To build enduring peace a coherent policy must inform international engagement, which itself must go beyond the provision of humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance must be seen as an essential component of, rather than as a substitute for, a holistic policy approach. This is all the more vital, as sadly, there will be more cases of acute crisis, such as the examples of Bosnia, Rwanda and the Great Lakes, discussed at the conference. The need for a coherent and principled response (that is, governed by the duty to protect human rights) is recognised, but far from being achieved. The United Nations as a whole, has been moving to lay the basis for such a response to acute crises. Following the adoption of the Secretary-General’s reform strategy for the organisation, four Executive Committees were created in January 1997, in order to create policy and strengthen decision-making processes in the main sectors of the UNs work - Peace and Security, Humanitarian Affairs, Economic and Social Affairs, Development Operations and Human Rights. As a cross-cutting issue in the work of the entire UN system, it was decided that the fifth sector, human rights, should be mainstreamed into all aspects of the organisation’s activities. This has resulted, since April 1997, in the adoption of a "strategic framework" approach for relief and development activities in countries undergoing acute crisis (see Colleen Duggan).

Another factor for the international community to address is the growing trend of regional involvement in peacekeeping operations. While this undoubtedly offers a valuable contribution to crisis management, serious issues of political and legal accountability and of respect for human rights and humanitarian principles have arisen. The primary leadership in peacekeeping must continue to be exercised by the United Nations as the body responsible for international peace and security. To provide that leadership, the United Nations needs the support and political will of all its members.

In the context of acute crises to which the international community is called upon to respond, a human rights focus raises some dilemmas. Identifying and debating these dilemmas was one purpose of the conference and the papers prepared for it. Tension can arise between human rights protection and the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in acute need during conflict. Put directly, should humanitarian agencies be prepared to shelter and feed suspected criminals under international law, such as the ‘génocidaires’ in the Great Lakes region, in order to ensure that the bulk of Rwandan refugees should not die of starvation? There is also sometimes perceived to be a potential conflict between the calls for justice on the one hand, and reconciliation and peace building on the other. The exigencies of securing support from those involved in fighting is sometimes seen to conflict with the duty to document and render accountable those guilty of serious human rights violations during the conflict. This tension, if resolved inappropriately, can lead to the cycle of impunity that may be the breeding ground for future crises.

The general thrust of the discussion in the conference was to the effect that, while the different perspectives and operational approaches of the many international actors working to alleviate or end violent conflict will always be real, a common commitment to a human rights-based approach should ensure that such dilemmas can be resolved in a principled way. Across the range of interventions - military action to protect civilians, peacekeeping operations, human rights field operations and humanitarian assistance - there is need for a greater convergence in the planning and implementation of common goals. Those goals must also be realistic and false expectations of what can be achieved by humanitarian organisations alone should not be promoted by states. Indeed no coherent strategy can be followed in the absence, both of the political will to give effect to it, including by military means if necessary, and the commitment of substantial financial and material resources to ensure that the various components of the strategy are in place. The issue is now no longer whether there should be a human rights-based approach, but on how to give effect to it.

The purpose of the conference then was to generate ideas as to how in a practical sense, effective international responses to the new challenges of internal conflict can be advanced. The recommendations in the following section were been drawn up by the organisers following the conference. While reflecting the organisers’ sense of the general approach of the Conference, they are not necessarily subscribed to by each participant. They are addressed as appropriate to the international community as a whole, the United Nations agencies, other bodies and to donor countries.

The written papers included with this report offer important and concrete suggestions for action from the perspectives of the different agencies and institutions called upon to act in such crises, as well as setting out the international legal framework drawn from human rights, humanitarian law and refugee law. These suggestions informed many of the recommendations and deserve study in their own right.


1 Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report, with Executive Summary (Carnegie Corporation of New York, December 1997). [...back to main text]


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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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