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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .


Peace Agreements and Human Rights
Christine Bell

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
416pp. Biblio. Index. Hb.: 45.00; ISBN 0-19-829889-7.



Christine Bell's excellent study sets out to analyse the human rights component of peace agreements in four conflicts with "ethnic dimensions": South Africa, Northern Ireland, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Israel-Palestine. She looks at the bargaining which produces peace agreements, and the human rights contents, particularly in terms of how each has developed in these impacted ethnic conflicts. The result is a really useful dialogue between the points of view of universal norms of human rights and realpolitik bargainers in violent conflicts, which is respectful of both viewpoints and helps them to understand better how their interaction assists societies in transition.

Bell uses the term "meta-conflict" to describe the ongoing disagreement between the sides as to what the conflict itself is about. In situations in which everything is contested, a peace process is, in part, an attempt to begin to resolve this meta-conflict, to begin to agree what the conflict has been about. "Until there is substantial agreement about the causes of the conflict, it is almost impossible to reach agreement on how the divided society can account for the past, because the parties are essentially still waging the conflict." (p.301) For practitioners working in ethnic conflict, it is particularly interesting that she reaches different conclusions about the four cases, which end up in pairs, illustrating opposite points. Her reading of the agreements in South Africa and Northern Ireland is that these were largely internally-motivated agreements, mediated by considerable international attention on the contents and outcomes. "?[T]he application of international law created conditions which both limited the conflict and provided a normative framework, so that when the parties came to negotiate, the legitimate parameters of any solution were relatively clear." (p.116) In the cases of Israel/Palestine and Bosnia Herzegovina, the impetus was largely external, and "the international community's inability to agree on the parameters of the solution hampered attempts to limit the conflict by enforcing human rights provisions and preventing ethnic population shifts. Conversely, the inability of the international community to enforce basic human rights and humanitarian law protections created a fluid numbers game in which parties to the conflict could further their self-determination claims through illegitimate 'fact-creation' on the ground." (Ibid.) The effect, then, is to emphasise the responsibility of the international community in understanding (and perhaps strategising within itself) the role of human rights as norms in ethnic conflict.

This same distinction between internally- and externally-motivated agreements reinforces the responsibility of internal actors to work seriously together, both on a shared understanding of the conflict, and on a negotiation which will produce a better future society. What seems in one context to be creative ambiguity and inventive development of new possibilities, may be seen in another to be cynical manipulation of the language of international law. Bell reaches the sad conclusion that, in some ways, the influence of human rights and international rhetoric and provisions has been to use the words to legitimise or continue violations of human rights. The Dayton Peace Agreement, for example, "illustrates the danger of broad blueprints for ethnic conflict. Although the DPA seems to comply formally with international law and build on its evolutionary trends, the devil is hidden in the detail. That detail reveals deep tensions between individual and group rights and an ongoing failure to resolve a bitter self-determination dispute." (p.180) The parties to the actual conflict have the capacity to engage in meaningful searches for peace, or to manipulate the process as the continuation of war by other means.

A third crucial factor in the human rights outcome of peace agreements is the role played by civic society. "The peace agreements with the most hopeful human rights regimes are ones where civic society was involved in the peace process, and where civic society is given a structural place in the negotiations and/or the deal. [?] Internationally-mediated deals, for different reasons, often exclude civic society from the process of deal-making. In contrast, in more domestically based processes civic society often finds a way of claiming a place in the process. In a divided community civic society plays a crucial role in mediating the positions of political elites. It provides a space for creative thinking. It provides a link with other conflicts and with international institutions [?] It provides an agenda which goes beyond the traditional political divisions, and so enables those traditions to be reconceived. Civic society can supplement an impoverished political sector with a narrow focus." (pp.315-6)

Another key concept is the "jurisprudence of transition," the understanding that "human rights provisions are included in peace agreements precisely because without them peace cannot be achieved or has no content." (p.303) This is not to discount the importance of human rights and international law in upholding more universal standards, for even transitional arrangements may be influenced by and evaluated against norms. Bell looks at the peace agreements terms of how they deal with the future (bills of rights, courts, policing), the suffering as a result of past abuses (issues such as refugees and dispossession of land), and dealing with the past in terms of justice and impunity (prisoners, accountability, truth.)

Peace agreements include certain human rights provisions rather than others, and address or do not address accountability in the ways that they do, for reasons which represent a complex interplay between factors of the particular history and context, estimations of current power balances, and expectations to move in future toward greater integration, the consociational balancing of group interests, or greater separation. If the parties to the conflict aim to continue the conflict by means of the agreement, then they will try to use the language and structures of the agreement to win the war and disadvantage the enemy. It is incumbent upon all of us to become more sophisticated in understanding the nuances and the consequences of these arrangements, and not be lulled by familiar concepts and provisions.


Sue Williams, independent consultant on conflict, based in Derry,



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