Human Rights and Peace: An Operational Nexus


If they want peace, nations must avoid the pin-pricks that precede canon shots – Napoleon Bonaparte

This piece examines the correlation between the concepts of Human Rights and Peace; a juxtaposition of two key terms that have formed the fulcrums of most contemporary discourses on the causes, courses and solutions to violent conflicts; a synthesis of two of the major drivers of individual, group, organizational, national and international interactions. It answers the following questions: What are human rights? What is peace? How are human rights and peace related? How do they determine the outcomes of human cum societal relations?


Human rights can be defined as the universal, equitable, and indispensable claims of civil and political liberties which are legally recognized internationally for individuals and collectivities as enshrined by the United Nations General Assembly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. The rights of individuals can be divided into: those in defense of nation-states, and claims on nation-states. the former are those rights generally associated with traditional Western conceptions of rights in the Greco-Roman tradition, and include freedom of movement, thought, religion, opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; equal access before the law to legal institution, public services, and cultural life; freedom from slavery, torture, and inhuman treatment.

Peace, from a technical standpoint, can be defined as a political condition that ensures justice and social stability through formal and informal institutions, practices, and norms. Several conditions must be met for peace to reign: a balance of political power among the various groups within a society, region, or, most ambitiously, the globe; legitimacy for decision makers in the eyes of the local populace and those of external parties; recognized and valued interdependent relationships among groups fostering long-term cooperation during periods of agreement, disagreement, normality, and crisis.

Derived from the Latin “Pax”, Peace connotes more than a mere absence of war or hostilities – for an absence of conflict is a utopia. Again, the state of peace should be distinguished from strategies that simply avoid conflicts or employ violent or coercive approaches to engage in, manage, or resolve them.

Now, to the main thrust of this discourse: establishing the correlation between human rights and peace. The nexus between human rights and peace cannot be overemphasized. Any society where there is no armed conflict, but where the fundamental freedoms of the people are suppressed, lives in a state of “hot peace” – a negative “peace of the graveyard”. Delivering a speech at the UN, the late pontiff, Pope John Paul II (1979) succinctly espoused the symbolic relationship between the concepts of human rights and peace in these indelible words: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has struck a real blow against the many deep roots of war, since the spirit of war in all its basic meaning springs up when the inalienable rights of man are violated. This is a new and deeply relevant vision of the cause of peace; one that goes deeper and is more radical”. This view of the Pope cut across socio-economic and civil-political rights.

Speaking in similar mien, the Nordic peace researcher, Asbjorn Eide (1977) posited that: “Whether a child dies in infancy due to poverty and consequent malnutrition and lack of hygiene, or if it grows up and at a later stage is executed as a political opponent, the society in which this happens must be considered hostile to human rights”; and if I may add, to peace as well.

Peace cannot be divorced from a corresponding respect for the ethos of people’s rights. The symbiosis between these two cannot be contested as cases from antiquity to modern times have shown. Crimes of genocide, slavery, racism, rape, torture, enforced sterilization or experimentation (human Guinea-pigging), forced relocation of large populations, economic manipulation, deliberate starvation, colonialism etc, are classic examples of human rights violations. Abuses like these have, in some instances, resulted in insurgencies, rebellions, and, in extreme cases, revolutions. This is because the pursuit of human rights often results in violence, since human rights are mostly secured by struggle and confrontation, especially in totalitarian states.

Human right abuses can also lead to high intensity violence when concerned states obligatorily decide to intervene in the internal problems of other countries. This kind of intervention may be legal: writings in Classical International Law support this position. Vatell (1883) in his classic “The Law of Nations” posits that: “Nations have obligations to produce welfare and happiness in other states. In the event of civil war, for example, states must aid the party that appears to have justice on its side, or protect an unfortunate people from an unjust tyrant”. The intervention of great Britain, France, Russia, in 1827, to check Turkish high handedness against Greek aspirations, for independence, and the US intervention in the Cuban Civil War of 1898, where on moral grounds.

However, it should be noted that most super power interventions in the affairs of smaller countries are often based on ideological and strategic considerations, and not necessarily on humanitarian grounds. For instance, disrespect for Kuwaiti territorial integrity by Iraq was given as a good reason for America’s involvement in Gulf War I. But the real reason was to protect its Kuwaiti oil interests. Likewise, its several unlicensed peace keeping operations – outright invasions of sovereign countries – both during and after the Cold War years, which were meant to consolidate on its military strategic superiority, and secure assured sources of raw materials for its home industries.

It must be stressed that humanitarian intervention has sadly become a caveat for the outright invasion of smaller nations by the more powerful ones. The “Good Neighbor Policy” of the U.S in the Americas is a classic case in point. According to Noam Chomsky (1992) in his classic ““What Uncle Sam Really Wants”: “throughout the better part of the 20th century, the US turned Latin America into a Pandora Box, perpetrating gross human rights abuses against the local populace by backing dictatorships that toed their policy lines, instigating insurgent uprisings against governments that attempted to set the “good example” that they could survive without US aid. The crucifixion of El Salvador, leeching of Nicaragua, instigation of civil war in Guatemala, and the invasion of Panama, are some few examples of the US infringing on the rights and liberties of the citizens of other sovereign nations” (emphasis added).

But a point to ponder at this point is: if the world system, controlled by the big powers, as arrow headed by the US, premises the reasons for intervening in countries where the people are victims of human rights abuses on humanitarian grounds, why didn’t they do anything to stop the confirmed cases of genocide in Rwanda and Sudan’s Darfur Region? What about other tragedies in smaller countries where they had no strategic interests at stake? Why the double standards?

The revolution of American colonies against British rule in1763, was backed up with the concept of natural law and natural rights. John Locke’s version of the social contract doctrine was used as justification for the general uprising against British colonial overlord ship. They based their chief reason for revolting on the levying of taxes by King George III, without the consent of the colonies, an action that was perceived as violation of the people’s natural rights, which was against the Mayflower Contract of 1620.

In similar fashion, the French revolution was occasioned by the socio-economic injustices of the ancient regime, which had become unbearably harsh as at mid-18th century. The evil dispositions of the French Monarchy received the full brunt of the intellectual fire power of the philosophers of those times. The writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau were quite influential during this period, contributing immensely in mobilizing the populace against a decadent, corrupt, and despotic government that had made them the wretched of the earth. Finally, the people were roused up to topple the persisting system of absolute monarchy, replacing it with a constitutional arrangement that was premised on the respect for the natural rights of man.

Coming to the home front, colonialism was a major institution that perpetrated gross human rights abuses against Africans. Since it was an institution established by force, it was also oiled by force. It was not a Christmas jamboree, but a tyrannical arrangement that was committed to the exploitation of the labour, resources, and markets of the colonized natives. To achieve the imperial mandate of the Pharaohs of Europe, a state of law and order driven by massive employment of naked force was put in place. Thus, African countries were unwillingly forced into slavish relationships with foreign powers with rabid hatred of anything coloured. Denied of most of their basic rights, the citizens of some these colonized countries took up arms against their foreign oppressors in their quests for independence. Countries like Guinea Bissau, Algeria et al, gained their freedom by force of arms. Other countries – like Nigeria, Ghana, etal – which did not take up arms against their foreign oppressors, engaged in other forms of (non-violent struggle) before they could be freed from the apron strings of their task masters.

The post-colonial years have not fared better. On gaining independence, most African states continued with the same oppressive administrative systems they fought, in some cases, to overthrow. Africa’s colonial patrimony gave birth to the several dictatorial regimes that thrived on the continent for many years after independence, breeding the lack of a democratic culture that has been compounded by the multiple challenges of corruption, ethnicity, religious bigotry, nepotism, gross abuse of human rights, etc – issues that have been at the fore of most violent conflicts in the continent. African dictators like Emperor Bokasa of the Central African Republic, Idi-Amin Dada of Uganda, Mobutu Sesekou of Zaire – now Congo Democratic Republic – General Sanni Abacha of Nigeria, etc perpetrated gross human rights abuses against their people, albeit with back lashing consequences in the form of: Civil Wars as occurred in Mobutu’s Zaire, Idi-Amin’s Uganda, Gadhafi’s Libya; and Civil Disobedience as occurred in Nigeria during the Abacha years, and in the Arab world during the spring uprisings.

One widely recognized human right (specified in Article I of both 1966: Human Rights Conventions) is that of national self-determination. Abuses of this right often lead directly to war, which makes this issue a very difficult one. A familiar case in point was the Niger Delta Crisis, which could be said to have been a fallout of perceived abuse of the people’s right to self-determination by the Nigerian State. The grouse of the Delta people bothered on the devastating effects of the exploitative oil exploration activities of the transnational oil companies in that area on their environment and sources of livelihood, and the lackadaisical attitude of the Nigerian state and the oil companies to their complaints for a redress of these anomalies. The penchant for confrontation by the Nigerian State to peaceful agitations by the Delta people, elicited a violent response from the people, especially from the mid-1990s, before the Amnesty Program brokered by the late Yaradua administration put a lid on the conflict.

Even the Nigerian Civil War could be said to have resulted from the mass murder of the Igbos living in the Northern half of the country during the months, prelude to the outbreak of hostilities between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the break-away Republic of Biafra. The grouse of the Biafrans was that they no longer had a place in the Nigerian State system, due to the manner people of Igbo stock were being mercilessly butchered – or denied their rights to life – and alienated in a country they called their own. The thinking among the leaders of the secession bid was that the national aspirations of the Ibos could only be accommodated and projected in a separate Igbo state; that Igbos had a right to self-determination, and that this right could only be exercised and expressed in a sovereign state of Biafra. This idea of a self-governing, liberated political entity drove the struggle for a Biafran Republic throughout the three years the war lasted.

In all, positive peace is possible only in a well ordered world where the rights of man are respected; a world constructed on the interlocking marbles of liberty and justice. Whether within national borders or on the international front; whether within smaller groups – ethnic, tribal, clan, family etc – respect for the inviolable rights and liberties of fellow human beings is the only prerequisite for positive peace to truly begin to reign in a world erected on the faulty foundations of avarice, hatred and man’s inhumanity to man.

God save the world!

Written by
Jude Obuseh
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