Editorial: Rebuilding Societies Emerging From Conflict: A Shared
By Mary Robinson
The following is excerpted from a statement given
by Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in New
York two days before stepping down from office.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the obvious.
Unfortunately, the full spectrum of human rights violations tends to
be revealed during conflict. Frequently a conflict has its origins in
patterns of discrimination. The conflict itself, with its targeting
of the civilian populations, constitutes an assault on all forms of
human rights. Furthermore, conflict, not least because of the related
destruction of national infrastructure, undermines the capacity of the
State in the future to carry out its responsibilities for the promotion
and protection of the rights of its people.
It would be far better, therefore, if we could learn how to prevent
large-scale deadly conflict rather than pick up the pieces afterwards.
The Secretary-General has pledged to move the United Nations from a
culture of reaction to a culture of prevention. Prevention must be a
priority for all. How many lives would have been saved, how much development
advanced, had even a fraction of the funding needed to bring an end
to deadly conflicts been used in their prevention? How much suffering
could have been avoided if the international community had summoned
the will to act effectively over gross violations of human rights which
so often foretell deadly conflict? It is estimated that at least half
of ongoing conflicts today are in fact relapsed old conflicts. That
sobering figure emphasizes that there is a direct link between building
peace and preventing future conflict.
Given the often causal link between conflict and abuse of rights, it
is clear that effective rebuilding of societies must pay serious attention
to the establishment of strong systems for national human rights protection.
It is also necessary to confront injustices of the past in order to
provide a basis for a future built on justice and reconciliation.
In the first place, it is the State which has the responsibility to
face these challenges. It alone has the legitimacy and the ability to
design a future properly attuned to the needs of its people. Without
this local leadership, efforts are destined to be piecemeal, of limited
effect and unsustainable.
One of the main issues to be addressed in the immediate aftermath of
conflict is protection. With the formal end of hostilities, revenge
attacks often occur. Some previously powerful groups suddenly become
vulnerable. National protection systems are often weak or non-existent
after a protracted conflict. As their rehabilitation takes time, there
is a need to think of solutions for the short and medium term.
Protection in this context can mean the presence of an international
security force. Such presence could deter violence, especially as warring
factions become increasingly keen to establish their legitimacy after
the conflict ends. But international forces are not present in many
The case of Afghanistan comes to mind. Human security remains the most
pressing issue in Afghanistan today. The presence of the International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF) provides relative security in Kabul.
But the rest of the country remains unsafe. I welcome the indications
that the ISAF may now be extended beyond Kabul and urge that this is
imperative, precisely as a measure of prevention.
Protection also means enhancing national capacity. It seems to me that
we allgovernment, civil society and the UNgot it right in
Afghanistan in terms of how to build a strong post-conflict human rights
culture. To enhance national protection, my Office supported the establishment
of the National Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan. This important
institution is part of the Bonn Agreement which was signed by the Afghan
parties on December 5, 2001. Although this institution has enormous
potential, it is still in its infancy. Afghans, especially in the NGO
community, have taken a lead and the human rights teams of my Office
and UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan work in support of them. We
must continue to give priority to assisting the Afghan national NGO
community to further develop its own capacity in the working groups
on womens rights, on human rights education and on transitional
Which leads me to another thorny issue in a post-conflict situation,
the hunger for justice.
Any society emerging from conflict must face the issue of how to address
the human rights violations committed in the recent past. Ignoring these
abuses runs the risk of repetition as impunity continues to reign. Accountability
for these abuses is thus not only a question of seeking justice for
past events, but also a forward-looking strategy for the future.
Let me refer, in this context, to the central role of the International
Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC Statute is based on the principle that
international prosecution complements national efforts. The ICC Statute
encourages the emergence of national legal and judicial systems that
are willing and capable of prosecuting these crimes in accordance with
international standards. Support for the ICC, therefore, means not only
support for international prosecution, but above all a commitment by
those States that are a party to the Statute to establish proper, effective,
and fair legal systems that can conduct trials in accordance with international
standards. It is sad to see some current undermining of the legitimacy
of the ICC, but I believe this is a short-term problem which will not
impede the vital work of this first international institution to tackle
impunity for gross violations of human rights.
Let me turn to the positive experiences of local justice in Sierra Leone
and East Timor where my Office has been involved with NGOs in supporting
the establishment and functioning of truth and reconciliation commissions.
Our efforts were particularly aimed at ensuring that those truth commissions
would be authentic responses to domestic needs, would be established
by law, comply with fundamental principles of human rights, be independent,
and be equipped financially, politically and technically to discharge
In both these countries, the commissions are complemented by the efforts
of courts to prosecute most serious violations. This balance ensures
that there is no impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity and
genocide. It also respects the right of nations to learn the truth about
past events. Full and effective exercise of the right to the truth is
essential if recurrence of violations is to be avoided. In Sierra Leone,
the Special Court has been established to try the most egregious crimes
and it will function in close co-operation with the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission. In East Timor the problem is more complex, and quite worrying.
The Serious Crimes Court in Dili is working well, but there is widespread
anger and frustration at the proceedings of the Ad Hoc Human Rights
Court in Jakarta.
[In August], while visiting East Timor, I was conscious that the whole
population is seething about the lack of justice for the worst crimes
in 1999, while the UN was preparing for the popular referendum that
led to the independence of East Timor. It is hard to have a healing
process in such circumstances, and yet I saw it happening. I had the
privilege of attending the first community reconciliation meeting of
the East Timor Reception Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
We traveled to a small village near Liquica outside Dili. Hundreds
of locals came, headed by their traditional leaders as well as a regional
representative of the Truth Commission. We gathered in a large open-air
thatched hut. At its center was an arrangement of coconuts and other
symbols to be used in the ceremony. After an introduction by the regional
commissioner, three perpetrators of minor crimes during the 1999 violence
came forward and confessed. They spoke frankly; freely admitting both
guilt and remorse. They were listened to respectfullyof course
there were a few heckles but these made even the perpetrators smile.
When they finished speaking, villager after villager stood up and addressed
the gathering. We listened to a woman whose house they had burned down.
Another who had been threatened by them. Remarkably, every speaker
that they be forgiven and, time and time again, the villagers insisted
that these culprits were themselves the victims of a nationwide campaign
of indoctrination and hate.
[While the leaders were considering what symbolic punishment should
accompany the act of forgiveness, we left the ceremony.] But during
the part of the event which I witnessed, I could sense the relief within
the communityit was facing its past and coming to terms with
the dark side. There was a palpable feeling that life could now move
I tell this story not just to record a remarkable and, for me, emotional,
human moment. What is more important is that it is a concrete contemporary
story of forgiveness and reconciliation in practice. People can do it.
It need not take years. And all our efforts to promote processes of
truth and reconciliation are worth the effort.
But Truth and Reconciliation Commissions cannot work in a vacuum. The
entire legal and judicial system of countries emerging from conflict
often requires rehabilitation to ensure that human rights are protected
by law, to be applied by independent and impartial courts and enforced
by a professional police.
The Road Ahead
The day after tomorrow, I will re-join the human rights struggle as
a private citizen. I would like to bring the experience I have gained
over the past five years into two particular areas. I want to reinforce
the point that human rights is not about words and rhetoricthough
we hear a lot of rhetoric!but rather that it is a system of legally
binding rules. I propose to bring that normative framework into the
debate on globalization, and work with others to shape a more ethical
Secondly, I would likein a low-key wayto help fill the
gap which troubles me in human rights at the international level. We
do not put enough emphasis on helping developing countries to build
their own national protection systems for human rights. This requires
resources, both financial and intellectual. Also the building of a
protection system must be country-led, requiring both the political
will of the government and the involvement of civil society. And help
from the outside must be offered in support, so that the approach is
Meanwhile, reflecting on the past five years, it has been an incredible
honor and privilege to serve as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It has brought home to me that this post has a unique position in the
UN system, because it servesmore perhaps than any other postthe
first three words of the Charter: We the peoples.
Mary Robinson served as UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights from 1997 to 2002. She is also former President of Ireland (1990-1997).
This statement was given on September 9, 2002. To read the entire speech,
Reprinted with permission.