Rights for Peace is a human rights organisation working to prevent mass atrocity crimes in fragile states, by supporting and collaborating with local organisations. In times of conflict or transition, human rights organisations overwhelmingly report violations and seek accountability, with little attention on preventing or mitigating patterns of violations. A new approach is needed.
The inspiration for Rights for Peace came in the wake of the 20th Anniversary of the International Criminal Court. A small gathering of Human Rights actors met at the House of Commons to take stock of the Preventive Impact of International Justice over the past 20 years. As put by Rupert Skilbeck, Director of REDRESS Trust, "20 years ago there was no chance you would be arrested for war crimes. Today, you just might be." While this is progress, mass atrocities are still being committed on a vast and alarming scale from Myanmar to South Sudan. To what extent is the promised deterrent effect of international justice preventing mass atrocities? What conditions make international justice more or less effective at deterring crimes or strengthening peace?
Human rights work is generally premised on the idea that if we work for justice, peace will follow. But this is not a given. Conflicts are complex and evidence about what works is in its infancy. There are many gaps along the way and linkages that need to be made. There is far too much talk in conference rooms, and too little action in support of the local actors on the front lines. What is more, there seems to be a global intensification of identity-based violence enabling mass atrocities perpetrated by both State and non-State actors.
By identity-based violence we mean violence based on prejudice, demonisation and dehumanisation of "other" groups based on ethnic, religious or other identity grounds. The steps to genocide are now well documented and understood, and are also deemed preventable. Stanton and others have have set out progressions of dehumanisation starting with prejudice and heightened differentiation of self-identity and "otherness" that typify the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or more recent the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. These stages involve a change in moral frameworks, whereby the "other" becomes increasingly vilified and dehumanised to the point that eliminating this group seems to be the only solution. However, these stages can be halted before they become mass atrocities.
As put by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres:
“We spend far more time and resources responding to crises rather than preventing them. We need a whole new approach... For me, prevention is not merely a priority, but the priority." (Security Council address, Jan 2017)
Can we look at human rights work differently, and create synergies with peace building efforts?
The policy framework at the United Nations is increasingly pointing to the need for new approaches by International Institutions, State actors and civil society (including NGOs) that address trigger points and build resilience to violence.
Rights for Peace was established with these gaps in mind: there is a lack of focus on prevention of mass atrocities including the human rights sector. International justice institutions like the ICC seem to be blind to prevention in their strategies and operations often deepening local cleavages because of prosecutions are perceived to be biased in favour of one group over another. An over-emphasis in top down understandings of local contexts by international actors is also not helpful - hence Rights for Peace's commitment to strengthening local capacity.
There is a clear opportunity to work on identity-based violence as the evidence-base on how to prevent genocide moves from theory to practice. Human rights work has traditionally been reactive, focusing on reporting of past facts and seeking accountability. While at the same time, human rights language supposes prevention - the genocide itself convention speaks of commitments to "prevent and punish". Human rights violations are both the cause and manifestation of conflicts, but we overwhelmingly focus on the later. Human rights also provides unifying language, useful normative frameworks and intervention tools able to address root causes of conflicts.