Despite ongoing calls from academics, activists, and peacebuilders globally, United Nations and other international peace operations remain largely top-down, directed by the interests of funders rather than based on the needs and knowledge of conflict-affected communities. Yet, while often significantly overlooked, there is ample evidence of substantial local mobilization and agency for peace in many of the most protracted conflicts globally. Some examples of these local peacebuilders include the Pole Institute in North Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the Syrian White Helmets; and the Ecumenical Voice for Peace and Justice in the Philippines (EcuVoice).
Local peacebuilding often intersects with local human rights advocacy, creating a nexus between the two that offer the UN the possibility of better engagement and support of these peacebuilding actors. This human rights and peacebuilding nexus allows for collaboration between local peacebuilding actors and the UN Human Rights architecture, as opposed to the peacebuilding architecture.
In 2016 the UN General Assembly and Security Council adopted joint resolutions reviewing the UN peacebuilding architecture. The resolutions recognize that peace, security, and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing, and underline the need for greater cooperation and coherence between peacebuilding and human rights policies and mechanisms. Some of the key themes emerging from this nexus include the role of human rights in addressing grievance, the creation of free and safe civic space, links between peace education and human rights education, conflict prevention, psychosocial support, accountability and justice and reconciliation processes.
This is article is part of a four-part symposium on the Action for Peacekeeping? Middle Powers, Liberal Internationalism, and the Future of UN Peace Operations
Although human rights and peacebuilding have historically been engaged individually by international actors, these silos at the international level of peacebuilding and human rights do not reflect practice within the nexus at the local level where peacebuilders and human rights defenders regularly undertake complementary work. Although the policy on the inclusion of national civil society in peacebuilding processes has significantly evolved over the last decade, a lack of structure exists to support the inclusion of important local actors in peacekeeping missions or peace operations more broadly. For example, the Peacebuilding Commission published guidelines on the inclusion of civil society organizations in its meetings in 2007, however, the website of the office still does not include a list of meeting times or locations nor instructions for how civil society organizations might apply to participate.
In contrast, the UN Human Rights architecture is well designed to incorporate the voices of local human rights defenders into their work. For example, local human rights defenders and civil society organizations regularly contribute reports for the Universal Periodic Review and present at the Human Rights Council to support regular reporting and to contribute to the work of special procedures, such as in the case of EcuVoice in the Philippines.
While international actors have treated peacebuilding and human rights realms as separate, local engagement has distinctly emerged, suggesting that the international architectures could be merged to support better engagement with local peacebuilding and human rights actors. Further, despite being considered within the peacebuilding architecture, local peacebuilders actually fit within the definition of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) provided by UN General Assembly Resolution 53/144.
Given that in practice many local peacebuilders also identify as human rights defenders and there is a significant overlap in their work, the emergence of the human rights and peacebuilding nexus formally through the UN system could provide new opportunities for local peacebuilders to be integrated into peace operations. For example, more specialized attention could be paid to the efforts of local peacebuilders through the existing human rights architecture described above. Moreover, the UN Peacebuilding Support Office could work to develop complementary architecture to integrate local voices into their policies, meetings, and activities on the ground.
The emergence of this nexus also offers new opportunities for donor countries like Canada to increase their support for local peacebuilders through their work with local human rights defenders. While Canada continues to struggle to follow through on repeated promises to increase troop commitments to support UN peacekeeping missions, the government’s shift towards supporting peacebuilding through human rights and development programming may offer new avenues for engaging local peacebuilders.
One route might be through Voices at Risk: Canada’s Guidelines on Supporting Human Rights Defenders in 2017, updated in 2019. It outlines Canada’s approach to protecting human rights defenders as including re-engagement with multilateral institutions, engagement through bilateral diplomacy, leveraging partnerships with key stakeholders, and promoting responsible business conduct. The document also provides extensive guidelines related to how human rights defenders might be supported through Canadian diplomatic missions. These broadly include monitoring and building connections with, publicly raising the profiles of defenders, observing legal processes for detained, and providing emergency and other financial assistance to HRDs. Voices at Risk also provides best practices working for specific groups including women HRDs, journalists, persons with disabilities, and land Indigenous peoples. Although they do not specifically consider the needs of HRDs in situations of armed conflict they do acknowledge the additional risks posed to women HRDs and journalists in such settings.
Voices at Risk lists collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as a key avenue through which to strengthen human rights and rules-based international order. As noted above the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently produced a policy paper outlining the potential contributions of human rights protection to peacebuilding. Thus, from an international standpoint, and in the context of a broader commitment on the part of Global Affairs Canada to working with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights there should be an opportunity to orient the implementation of Voices at Risk in part to supporting peacebuilders. This is especially important if the Canadian government is committed to re-engaging peace operations and peacebuilding more broadly. In order for this to be meaningfully implemented, new funding must be allocated specifically for the implementation of the guidelines, a monitoring and evaluation framework should be set up and consideration for human rights defenders working in conflict-affected settings would need to be integrated throughout the policy.