Educating Human Rights in Post-conflict Settings

sm-blogSean Molloy is a Principal’s Scholar in Law at the University of Edinburgh, where he is completing his PhD. In this blog, Sean reflects on discussions about Peacebuilding and Education in South Sudan held during the Inclusive Political Settlements Summer School. He goes on to discuss the relationship between human rights and education in post-conflict settings from a critical perspective.

I had the pleasure of attending the Inclusive Political Settlements Summer School at the University of Edinburgh last June. While there in the capacity as a rapporteur for the third day, I found myself becoming increasingly engrossed in the discussions and presentations in what proved to be a highly informative and constructive day. While each individual presentation warranted further discussion, one presentation in particular invoked a series of questions pertaining to the place of education in societies attempting to emerge from the shackles of violent conflict.

In short, Gabrielle Daoust, from the University of Sussex, suggested that the way in which education was providscreen-shot-2016-09-21-at-10-55-54ed in post-conflict settings had the potential to further entrench structural violence, or perhaps more precisely horizontal inequalities. That is, even when, as was suggested in South Sudan, deprivations in education led to the emergence of violence conflict, when addressed in a manner which is not reflective of the inequities across societal groups, even peacebuilding endeavours such as improving education can fuel further unrest. These risks are accentuated when
external interveners engage in the governance of education, particularly when undertaken without, conflict sensitivity- understood here as a contextual appraisal of the realities and inequalities on the ground (See more about Gabrielle’s work with UNICEF here). While highly important and absolutely accurate, the discussion flagged up another interesting perspective which I would like to discuss here.

In responding as discussant, Professor Roger MacGinty, one of the experts present on day three of the summer school, commented that he was particularly pleased (as was I) that the presenter did not revert to the rather ‘corny’ expressions such as ‘the children are the future’ or we must teach children to love their neighbours etc. Such claims are hollow and fail to get to the roots of why conflict emerged. Nevertheless, there is an important question which is often overlooked: – what should education look like in such settings? More precisely, how might education be used as a conflict resolution device in such settings?

I do not intend, nor am I competent to make any recommendations on school curriculums, and acknowledge that even if I could, any suggestions would be devoid of contextual analysis inasmuch as no curriculum should or could be superimposed across conflict divides. However, one approach, I believe and have thought for some time which is particularly important in contested spaces, is the education of human rights- that is, teaching about the proper meaning of human rights as relative entitlements. Prior to getting to this, however, it is worthwhile dwelling on what I see as being some of the dangers of human rights language when not properly informed in such settings.


Human Rights and Peace?

The place of human rights in post-conflict settings has been discussed on a number of levels. In the field of transitional justice, for example, how societies address the legacies of past abuses has been an issue interrogated on multiple legal, social, cultural, anthropological and political levels. A large section of the academic community has highlighted and continues to advance the peace building implications of accountability for rights violations as a means of deterrence, recognising victims’ rights, facilitating national reconciliation and dispensing justice. In peace negotiations themselves, human rights are often seen as conducive to facilitating dialogue between conflicting parties in the hope achieving a political settlement and the negotiation of a new political, constitutional, and perhaps social order. Some involved in such negotiations, for example, may see human rights as future guarantees that the same violations which led to conflict will not be repeated, while others, particularly with the reconfiguration of the political order likely to result from peace negotiations, view human rights as protecting their interests in light of the considerable dilution of any monopoly of political control previously held. Still again, from the perspective of conflict transformation, transformative justice and/or rights-based development, as examples, human rights are perceived as necessary in addressing not only the consequences and symptoms of conflict through transitional justice mechanisms, but also the underlying root causes of conflict which if unaddressed might lead to conflicts re-emergence or at least the next conflagrations of violence. While the difficulties and risks associated with human rights in such contexts are often touched upon, for example, in relation to power-sharing arrangements and the potential undermining effects of prioritising groups rights over individual rights or the adverse consequences of the demands of the international human rights community for justice, they are frequently viewed as both crucial and necessary for transitions from conflict to peace.

5.4.bHowever, the focus is often predominantly top down and process driven. Often overlooked amidst the rigour with which human rights are embraced in transitions from conflict to peace are their potentially destabilising impacts on the ground. In Northern Ireland, for example, one issue which is often particularly visible is how rights language is captured by opposing sides of the community to advance ‘our’ position over ‘theirs’. We frequently hear, for example, about ‘our’ rights to march, ‘our’ rights to fly particular flags, ‘our’ right to ‘our’ own language. This capturing is also evident outside of what might be regarded as political issues. We hear how some sections of the community have rights to religion and freedom of conscience without considering the others right to equality and non-discrimination. Moreover, and perhaps more worryingly, scholars such as Robbie McVeigh are noting the increasing levels of racism in Northern Ireland fuelled by the notions that ‘they’ are taking our homes and our jobs, regardless of the rights which ‘they’ are guaranteed under international human rights law (See his work on Living the peace process in reverse: racist violence and British nationalism in Northern Ireland). The result may even be an institutionalisation of racism when, in defending Pastor McConnell for his condemnation on the Muslim Community, the then First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson made the very generous announcement that he would let a Muslim go to the shop for him (very good of you Peter, thanks). The result is somewhat of a paradox: Human rights are invoked from the top down in the name of facilitating conflict resolution and transformation, yet at the same time are used on the ground as a means of perpetuating societal divides through the language of our rights, not their rights, (and certainly not ‘human rights’) and claiming moral high-ground through our language while displaying complete hypocrisy through our actions (hopefully Peter is still waiting on that shopping).

Educating Human rights?

What relevance, you might ask, is this to the discussion to education? Well, to my mind, while human rights do help in the top down processes necessary to resolve or transform the macro realities in given contexts, if understood properly, they can also help in processes of community reconciliation on the ground. Rights are predominantly relative or limited. That is, with limited exceptions, one cannot demand a right unequivocally. Others have rights too and, therefore, as examples, freedom of expression must be balanced with a right to private and family life, while freedom of conscience cannot be a legal or moral impediment to equality. A proper understanding of rights provides the language to deepen our mutual understandings of each-others sufferings. It connects the human values which we share collectively and helps to elucidate that the difficulties in accessing social justice within the Catholic community is equally felt by the Protestant, or Romanian, or Muslim ‘others’ and vice versa. The language of rights, if properly understood, need not only be a facilitative tool for political elites but a common language for those of us on the ground. It seems to me, therefore, that when considering what should be included in school curriculums, the facilitative nature and possibilities of rights language must be given their place. Aside from the importance of understanding ones rights, human rights also speaks to our notions of civic responsibilities and the realisation that when we claim a right it is because we possess the same characteristics as our seeming adversaries- we are humans living in a contested space where pragmatism, compromise, and harmonious co-existence must prevail.

About the Author: Sean Molloy is Principal’s PhD Scholar in Law and Newsletter Editor of the Global Justice Academy, University of Edimburgh. His doctoral research looks into the “the Business of Peace” through exploring the relationship between business, socio-economic rights, and transitional justice.

Photo Credit: Gabrielle Daoust (University of Sussex) and Bill Rolston (University of Ulster)