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Human Rights

Read our key findings on human rights


Human rights are often at the heart of conflict and peace, and the attempts to transition from one to the other. They are also a site of contestation in themselves, and can be difficult to navigate during negotiated settlements. Our research explores how peace agreements address human rights, what institutional approaches they set out, and the challenges of implementing human rights in practice.


Human rights (overview)

Countries emerging from periods of war are often characterised by the disregard for human rights that preceded conflict and the inevitable human rights violations that accompany it. Therefore, it is not surprising that human rights provisions are very common in peace agreements. (Molloy, 2020:2).

International practices of peacemaking and peacebuilding and multilaterally agreed peace processes that support operations such as peacekeeping, in particular, structurally rely on the human rights framework. The claim of the mutually reinforcing character of justice and peace has developed into an internationally acclaimed policy agenda (Pospisil, 2022:427).

Peace agreements consistently refer to human rights across time and context. About 70% of all publicly available peace agreements signed since 1990 refer to human rights or contain human rights-related provisions. (Pospisil, 2022:432; PA-X Peace Agreements Database, 2022).

Human rights can be interpreted as a success story in providing the normative backbone of the indispensable justice-element in post-conflict transitions. At the same time, however, they may be understood as one of the spearheads of the international agenda of liberal peacemaking, which is nowadays widely criticised as having failed to achieve sustainable peace (Pospisil, 2022:428).

Our research on peace agreements confirms that human rights are predominantly applied in settlements either as a general reference for gaining international legitimacy or as a tool to support post-conflict transitions in key areas (such as the reform of the security sector or supporting civil society and free media). Concrete, hands-on topics such as provisions regarding mobility and access, media and communication, or issues regarding protection are among the most used categories (Pospisil, 2022:435).

References to human rights in peace agreements, no matter how weak, can enable stakeholders to put pressure on the state and its agents as well as on armed non-state actors to comply with transitional procedures. Although meaningful implementation of human rights-related stipulations cannot be guaranteed, they provide often crucial opportunities. Implementing human rights in peace accords, therefore, is mainly about opening optional pathways for change (Pospisil, 2022:440).

In peace processes, human rights claims can disturb political bargaining and restrict the political space available in peace deals, but they are there to do so – to cause ‘helpful disruption’. The challenge is how to navigate this disruption and guarantee that implementation of human rights commitments is supported in more politically aware ways. Such a politically aware way needs to reject the dogmatism and the dominance inherent in both peacemaking and human rights and to make the logics of both visions subordinate to a principled pragmatic way of transition (Pospisil, 2022:440).


Human rights institutions and peace processes

As war gives way to a post-conflict transformation process, human rights can support the political and legal institutionalisation of a polity. A human rights commission, even if seen as a non-costly add-on to a peace agreement, may attain a surprisingly important role in the subsequent political process (Pospisil, 2022:440).

Multinational institutions such as the United Nations, organisations with regional scope of membership like the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and national human rights institutions, are all formal institutions with mandates that include human rights promotion and protection. They have played key roles in monitoring and aiding national governments with the implementation of human rights commitments made in peace agreements (Lacatus and Nash, 2020).

However, peace agreements seek to localise human rights implementation after the end of conflict, relying more on national human rights institutions (NHRIs) than international ones to monitor and implement human rights domestically and assist national executives with processes of transition away from conflict and toward liberal democracy (Lacatus and Nash, 2020).

Negotiating parties in peace agreements prioritise the creation of NHRIs over other forms of institutionalisation of human rights protection. Peace agreements therefore provide more formal safeguards for NHRIs, as opposed to regional or global institutions, ultimately highlighting the importance of integrating human rights in peace implementation at the national and local levels to secure monitoring and increase the durability and quality of peace (Lacatus and Nash, 2020).

Even when established, financed, and led by representatives of international or regional bodies, NHRIs are considered the most viable and sustainable institutional solution to securing human rights promotion and protection nationally and locally (Lacatus and Nash, 2020).

The most prevalent mention of NHRIs focuses on the need to establish new domestic bodies in post-conflict settings in which no such institution existed at the time of signing the peace agreement. However, some peace agreements go further and mandate that new or existing NHRIs carry out specific tasks, such as:

  1. Establishment/creation of NHRI
  2. Monitoring and reporting on human rights situation on the ground
  3. Human rights protection (broadly)
  4. Create or implement new legislation
  5. Specialised or local rights protection
  6. Advise government on human rights and peace
  7. Educate and inform communities about human rights
  8. Human rights promotion (broadly)
  9. Contribute to creation of new institutions as part of peace process
  10. Participates in ceasefire (Lacatus and Nash, 2020)

Peace agreements generally grant regional institutions the least prominent role in human rights promotion and protection. In the few instances where regional human rights institutions were formally utilised in peace agreements they were tasked with monitoring human rights, establishing local offices, observing human rights processes, making recommendations, investigating human rights, and/or collaborating with the ceasefire commission (Lacatus and Nash, 2020).


Peace agreements and human rights treaties

One of the functions of NHRIs is to promote adherence to international treaties, and when they have not, to promote their ratification. It is possible therefore, that provision for an NHRI is another peace agreement commitment that helps ensure that international human rights treaties (IHRTs) are ratified, or at least signals a commitment to a domestic human rights infrastructure that means that treaty ratification will be viewed as a logical extension of it (Molloy, 2020:14).

In some cases, ratification of IHRTs occurs within a relatively short period after the signing of an agreement, often 18 months or less. In other cases, the period between ratification and the signing of a peace agreement can take years. Longer periods of time between peace agreement and treaty ratification might be due to a need for broader areas of reform to establish the conditions for ratification (Molloy, 2020:1).

Close sequencing of a peace agreement and treaty ratification suggests that ratification has been the result of peace process attempts to move to protect and institutionalise human rights in the peace agreements and post-conflict constitutional framework (Molloy, 2020:16).

Peace agreements may compel a move to treaty ratification, namely if:

  1. a peace agreement includes express commitments that for the ratification of IHRT whose implementation then follows;
  2. a peace agreement includes general commitments to human rights, which could serve as the basis for subsequent ratification but could take longer;
  3. a peace agreement addresses specific issues (for instance, children) leading to ratification of specific human rights treaties; and
  4. a peace agreement creates avenues for subsequent ratification such as, for example, improving the space for civil society actors to advocate in favour of a state committing to IHRT (Molloy, 2020:1).