Human Rights and Social Protest


Conflicts remain a peculiar feature of the current world development. The number of existing oppositions questions the adequacy of the mechanisms that the global community has elaborated. Conflicts throughout the world result in constant human rights abuse that threatens the overall democratic development. The current paper focuses on exploration of the relationship between conflicts and human rights with the emphasis made on the role that human rights play in resolving conflicts.

This relationship is dynamic and complex. The significance of this relationship consists in the fact that it constantly shapes and reshapes the course of peaceful and military development of the world. The current research investigates the relationship between human rights and armed and moral conflicts and demonstrates how human rights are used to resolve them.

The basic points of the research are:

  • Human Rights: Concept, Types, History;
  • The Concept of Conflict;
  • Human Rights and Armed Conflicts;
  • Solving Conflicts by Dissolving Them;
  • Human Rights and Moral Conflicts.

In general, the research seeks to answer the question of how human rights and conflicts are interrelated and how adequate human rights as a framework to understand conflict is.

Human Rights: Concept, Types, History

The simplest and the most obvious definition to the concept of human rights is suggested by Donnelly (1989), the human rights are “the rights one has simply because one is a human being” (9). These are universal rights belonging to individuals and covering civil, social, economic, political and cultural freedoms and rights, based on idea of personal dignity and worth.

The concept of human rights embraces the notions of basic entitlements to freedom – by virtue of birth – to live without persecution, to express oneself, and to have opportunities to develop (such as through education, health care, and basic economic security) (Steen 101).

There are various types of human rights. One of them is termed “integrity of the body and security of the person.” This category includes the rights to be free from torture, arbitrary detention (the one based on some arbitrary element, such as race, ethnicity, country of origin, or religion), and extrajudicial killing (execution without prior judicial review) (Vincent 86). Human rights also include political rights and civil liberties, they are commonly associated with democracies and include voting, protest, and freedom of expression (Donnelly 23).

Human rights also include social and economic rights, such as rights for education, employment, basic subsistence, and health care.

Human rights stand in a close relation and dependence with each other forming a unity that cannot be destroyed. Political and civil, economic and social rights are of equal importance and cannot be compensated through one another.

The human rights history embraces thousands of years. The beginning of human rights movement dates back to ancient times and civilizations that predisposed future conventions, bills and declarations of human rights. Global history treats human rights as derived of natural law theory and firstly traced in the Christian works, later committed to Magna Carta in 1215. Human rights concept establishment is reflected in different documents of the states: British Bill of Rights of 1689, American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789.

The year 1948 was the turning point in the human rights movement for the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights created Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reasserting human rights concept in the context of the World War II consequences. It was the time to declare human rights to be universally espoused though widely neglected concept. Since that time war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide have been regarded as the cruelest cases of human rights violation.

Since early creation of the world human rights movement developed conceptions and organization, thoroughly watching conventions and treaties executions. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are the world organizations to promote human rights and to handle human-rights abuse cases. “Special rapporteurs” are independent investigators appointed by the United Nations Council on Human Rights over the world to rebuke the above mentioned organizations for failures. The United Nations Human Rights Council, in its turn, in 2006 replaced the UN Human Rights Commission, accused of protecting human-rights violation cases.

Indictment and arrest of former Chadian president Hissene Habre in 2000, the case against the Chilean president Augusto Pinochet in 1999 are considered to be prominent steps in human rights international protection.

The Concept of Conflict

From a brief overview of the human rights history we are coming to the analysis of the interrelation between the human rights and resolving conflicts and promoting peace and reconciliation.

We find it necessary to start the analysis with defining conflict. M. Nicholson in his Rationality and the Analysis of International Conflict (1992) claims that a conflict emerges when two people wish to carry out acts that are mutually inconsistent. They may both want to do the same thing or they may want to do different things that are mutually incompatible. A conflict is resolved when some mutually compatible set of actions is worked out. This definition of conflict is applicable both to individuals and to groups (such as states or nations). It is a rather universal as it also works when more than two parties are involved in the conflict. The principles remain the same (Conflict: Definition). Conflicts are the expression of opposing interests, they are characteristic for modern societies and they are endemic (Conflict: Definition).

Human Rights and Armed Conflicts

Conflict can exist at a variety of levels of analysis. Armed conflict is one of the most dangerous types of conflicts at the present day. Armed conflicts remain an unfortunate reality. The conflicts of the type involve one or more armed groups or factions fighting against other and/or the government. The participants of armed conflicts are responsible for a large number and a great variety of human right abuses.

The general character of armed conflicts has changed significantly since the years of the Cold War. It has developed from the conflicts between two opposing conventional forces to noninternational conflicts. The number of cases of abuse of human rights of civilians has enlarged due to the collapse of state institutions and the increased availability of small arms (Poole 232).

Armed opposition groups which violate human rights disregard their legal obligation to respect fundamental rights. The provisions of the four Geneva Conventions, which prohibit torture and ill-treatment, hostage taking, and deliberate and arbitrary killing of persons taking no active part in the hostilities are violated by the armed opposition groups. Therefore, the need to establish appropriate protection of individuals involved in the conflicts increases. The existing human rights groups, like, for example, Amnesty International have informed the international community about abuses by armed opposition groups in Burundi, Kosovo, Algeria, India, etc.

Kosovo might serve a tragic example of human rights abuses, including taking hostages and killing civilians. The Kosovo Liberation Army and other armed opposition groups are responsible for them.

To fight with the human rights abuses the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Amnesty International urge armed groups to ensure forces under their control abide by basic humanitarian principles. They recommend that those in positions of power – such as heads of armed groups, political leaders, and the judiciary – end human rights abuses and use the Geneva Convention Article 3 as a minimum standard to protect civilians during civil war. The International Committee of the Red Cross also works to train combatants and government forces to spare noncombatants by respecting the rules of war (Poole 233).

International organizations like the ones mentioned above unite their efforts to initiate peace processes in countries where armed opposition groups are responsible for severe human rights abuses. Their main concern is peace, disarming and demobilizing combatants as well as urging those involved in armed oppositions to abide by humanitarian law. These are the crucial steps in building the world where human rights are respected.

Some argue that the current international humanitarian law is inadequate to address the challenges in the struggle against conflicts as a whole, and terror as its driving force, in particular. Others state that international law provides a modern framework that is still applicable and adaptable to changing circumstances. The latter claim that the Geneva Conventions and related customary law is universally accepted, but not universally respected (Store).

If we consider for example the problem of the status of combatants and detainees we will see that Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention stipulates that “should any doubt arise” as to whether a person is entitled to Prisoner-of-War status in an international armed conflict, then “such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal.” What is more, Article 75 of the First Additional Protocol to the Conventions contains the rules which are recognized as customary law binding to all States, and provide protections applicable to all detainees in international armed conflict. Moreover, the President of the ICRC, Jacob Kellenberger claims that nobody can be placed above the law or outside the law (Store). This principle is taken as a basis by those who struggle to resolve conflicts and anchor global peace.

The internal type of armed conflict in which warring factions within a state are involved presents a more serious threat to international peace and security than the armed conflicts that arise among nations. The thing is that the peculiar feature of the internal conflict is that internal violence can spill over borders putting in danger other states.

Still, human rights abuses are common for both conflict types. Massacres, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, starvation of entire populations, executions of prisoner cannot go along with respecting basic human rights. Internal conflicts are impossible without measures that restrict people’s freedom of movement. During internal conflicts thousands of people are killed, arbitrarily imprisoned, women are forced to prostitution and men are used to serve as soldiers, official buildings are deliberately destroyed. Armed conflicts cause abuse of human rights in terms of health, employment, food, different spheres of cultural life.

Recognizing the difficulty of the situation with the human rights abuse the global community has been making efforts towards changing it. The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights focused on the crucial connection between international peace and security and the rule of law and human rights (A United Nations Priority).

One of the tasks of primary importance for the United Nations is to prevent or end conflicts with the emphasis made on reducing human rights abuses. The protection of minorities, strengthening democratic institutions, realizing the right to development and securing universal respect are the main objectives to achieve in this field.

The United Nations strives to strengthen its early warning capacity and response to conflicts. Integrating human rights monitoring into peacekeeping operations that will enhance the United Nations’ capacity to deal with allegations of human rights violations is the leading strategy that the United States follows. In the United Nations there exist special departments responsible for peacekeeping and for humanitarian assistance: the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, DPA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is developing close contacts with these departments.

The human rights program elaborated by the United Nations does not only embrace the warning system but covers the issues of post-conflict reconstruction. The latter is aimed at building mutual confidence and helping to re-establish a climate of understanding among nations. All activities of the United Nations in this field are based on the assumption that protecting human rights and transition to peaceful development of nations cannot be isolated one from another. The United Nations’ experience in assisting countries in transition to democratic rule has proved that transitional agreements are impossible without the inclusion of human rights provisions (A United Nations Priority).

As a result, starting from 1990, the time of El Salvador mission, the political operations that the United Nations exercises include a human right component. The peace processes in Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala have demonstrated the respect for human rights. The International Civilian Mission that took place in Haiti was concerned with verifying the respect for human rights since its inception in February 1993. When the constitutional order was returned in October 1994, the Mission continued promoting human rights, civil education and institution-building. International Civilian Mission in Haiti collaborates with the National Truth and Justice Commission enhancing the effectiveness of the Haitian judicial and penal system.

The United Nations’ missions in El Salvador and Guatemala were aimed at restoring human rights after armed conflicts thus rebuilding trust and fostering a climate of reconciliation. The activity of the Human Rights Verification Mission that was deployed in 1994 approached signing the final peace agreement between the Government and the opposition front.

Burundi, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo also experienced the positive results of the work of The High Commission for Human Rights aimed at creating an atmosphere of trust in a post-conflict world. Special attention was given to restoring economic, health and educational infrastructures of the countries that experienced civil conflicts. International development programs are also important as they contribute to solving the psychological problems that the conflict brought.

Solving Conflicts by Dissolving Them

There exist different ways of resolving conflicts involving human rights. A number of philosophers that attempt to resolve conflicts where human rights are violated claim that most affectively it can be done through dissolving them by considering the specifics of the situation. The main argument that the proponents of this approach make is that when all legitimate human rights are properly circumscribed, they will never conflict with other rights (or, under many interpretations, with any other moral consideration) (Rice 539). As far as the problem of this conception is concerned Rice’s research Solving Human Rights Conflicts by Dissolving Them: The Failure of the Dissolution Strategy (2003) becomes important for getting an objective view on it: a viable moral system that includes human rights is likely to have relatively few cases of true rights conflict, that is, cases in which non-rights principles are to be invoked. Whether the limiting of possible conflict is ultimately achieved through limiting the number of rights and the elements admitted in figuring thresholds, a hierarchy of rights, or some combination of moves, it makes sense to try to limit the appearance of conflict by specifying what counts as an actual rights conflict and what is merely disagreement in competing interests. Nonetheless, the strategy that claims that all rights conflicts can be simply dissolved by considering the specifics of the situation does not do justice to the unique protective role of human rights for individuals, and is thus not a contender (542).

Human Rights and Moral Conflicts

The interrelation between the human rights and moral conflicts deserves especial attention. As moral conflict is a conflict type that is rather common in the modern society it cannot touch the problem of human rights. Moral conflict appears when the moral fight of one person(s) violates the fights of another (others). It often happens that the application of the fights of the individuality is detrimental to the welfare of the whole community. The example of a conflict of the type emerged after the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. The need for strict security and law enforcement made the authorities choose between the security of the state and individual freedom: individual freedom at airports was restricted in order to secure the security of the state (Vorster 458).

Another example of how human rights and moral conflicts are interrelated is the situation with AIDS pandemic in South Africa. The right to privacy is claimed to be the fundamental right there. Therefore, no one can be or may be compelled to undergo a test to determine possible HIV/AIDS infection. As a result, it is not possible to get exact data about the disease in this region, and, consequently, it is not known whether a sexual partner is HIV positive or not that threatens the health and wellbeing of the community at large. Other moral conflicts in which human rights are involved include abortion and euthanasia which concern the choice between the lives of two individuals (Vorster 458).

According to Christian ethics, moral directives cannot be regarded as absolute. The same is applicable to human rights. No human right can be considered as absolute and this should be taken into consideration when solving moral conflicts. The limitation of human rights by an authority is acceptable and can contribute to solution of moral conflicts. But this limitation should be the last resort to prevent the abuse of power. And in the most debatable cases the implementation of human rights should be preferred to its limitation.


Everything stated above considered we believe that the concepts of human rights and conflict are interrelated and should be understood in close interconnection with each other. The paper has demonstrated various aspects of this relationship and highlighted the importance of understanding the fact that human rights violation can be stopped only in case when conflicts are ceased. Human rights should be respected by the global community, otherwise conflicts are unavoidable.

Works Cited

“A United Nations Priority.” 2008. Web.

“Conflict: Definition.” 2008. Web.

Donnelly, J. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1989.

Forsythe, David P. Human Rights and Peace: International and National Dimensions. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Poole, H., ed. Human Rights: The Essential Reference. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1999.

Rice, E. “Solving Human Rights Conflicts by Dissolving Them: The Failure of the Dissolution Strategy.” Social Theory and Practice 29.4 (2003): 539.

Steen, J. A. “The Roots of Human Rights Advocacy and a Call to Action.” Social Work 51.2 (2006): 101.

Store, J. G. “The Role of Human Rights in Peace Agreements – Norway’s Facilitation of Peace Processes.” 2008. Web.

Vincent, R. J. Human Rights and International Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Vorster, J.M. “Human Rights and Moral Conflicts.” The Ecumenical Review 54.4 (2002): 458.

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