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Some thoughts on Human rights and non state forces

Upholding human rights in a situation of armed conflict raises many issues. International humanitarian laws have provided some guidelines to 'humanize' the conflict by laying down basic norms for the warring parties. Although these guidelines are often applicable to internal conflicts, the implementation of these principles to the state which is involved in internal conflict is itself problematic, leave alone the non state forces. It poses many unanswered questions and dilemmas to the human rights community. Further, internal armed conflicts are invariably having a massive impact on civilians that includes death, destruction of properties and massive internal displacements.

In intra-national conflicts, which are becoming widespread, the civilians tend to become the targets more than the combatants themselves. Further, such conflicts attract the attention of the international community only when there is a major tragedy, owing to the present dynamics of the media which is dominanted by market competitiveness rather than ethics. This has in turn led to an intrinsic dynamism which pushes the non-state actors to manipulate situations to ensure that more people are massacred by the adversary. They thus engage in "spectacular " attacks without any concern for civilian life.

Further, the spread of small arms, child soldiers, and the use of land mines, are all increasingly widespread. Although the human rights discourse is becoming important in the international arena, on the ground itself, growing alienation and marginalization of communities is leading to further uses of ethnic and religious ideologies as a tool to galvanize populations by the ruling elites of all sides. The resulting upsurge of ethnic and religious nationalism is in turn leading to demands for redefining the boundaries of states or even transformation towards theocratic states.

Most intra-national conflicts challenge the legitimacy of the so called "national states" which grew out of a colonial past and " right of self determination " is being deployed to challenge the status quo. On the other hand the states fall back on the concept of "sovereignty' to ward off any criticism of their treatment of minorities.

These vulnerable states also highlight the hypocrisy and double standards of others who criticize them so as to avoid being accountable for their behavior. But all these do not happen in an abstract 'state' vs 'minority' context alone. The state's actions against an ethnic or religious segment of its population is governed by an ideological milieu, in which the state is determined by the dominant ideology - that of the majority community. Hence there are more and more ethnic or religious currents dominating the political discourse and social life in electoral democracies. The state may consciously or by its acts of omission and commission influence this political evolution.

The rise in political demands, based on the right of self determination has its inherent political imperative as well as ideological connotation. The question is whether the ideological content will potentially lead to the negation of the same right to the other segments (religious and ethnic minorities) in the same community as well impair other democratic norms. We could argue at the outset that the political imperative is to deal with the political aspect of the problem and find ways and means to restructure the state in a more meaningful way to accommodate the aspirations of the 'others'. But the aspirations also could be very much determined by the content of the ideology and the nature of the movements who are spearheading the struggle for the 'right to self determination', and the extent of their hold on the society.

In many instances, armed opposition groups were aiming either at capturing power or forming a new secessionist state. Whether they succeed in their objectives or not, they are in essence, states in making. Their, achieving their objective may depend on various factors that are internal as well as external. States which are facing an internal threat to their authority, tend to counter the opposition by authoritarian means, which leads to further alienation of a section of the population. Further brutalisation of the state and hence of society leads to a vicious circle, which traps the people in an unresolvable conundrum.

With our historical experience of the last 100 years, it is time to re-evaluate and develop criteria and means to constrain resorts to arbitrary violence and to minimise human rights violations, so as to preserve human dignity. This would ensure that degeneration and dehumanisation are minimised. All the political formations, which are involved in struggles claim to articulate the interest of the people whom they supposedly represent. It is in the name of people alone, that these organisations justify their actions and their aims. The ideals and aims which they profess, may in general, have legitimacy but the strategies and tactics, which largely determine that process, will be the deciding factor influencing future of the community.

The following are key questions which arise in any given conflict situation: Are the people, whom the protagonists claim to represent, free to determine the course of events? How much are these groups accountable to the people? What type of role do the people have in the process of struggle? Is there any way we can make sure, that there are concrete forces which guarantee a corrective influence on the movement's value judgements and constrain them? Are the people themselves becoming trapped in a vicious and destructive political game while their ability to escape is physically or otherwise impeded? These are serious questions which need urgent answers in order to evaluate the character of a given struggle and its probable outcome.

The experience of the Nazi Germany and "post-totalitarian systems" of the East European states as Vaclav Havel called them, brings out the possibility of social manipulation some could exercise at a crude level.

We are thus led to ask, what are the minimal conditions a society must maintain in order to provide space for people to make evaluations and express their opinions in an environment of armed conflict? How do we evaluate tendencies which would in all likelihood lead to a more authoritarian regime or impose more oppressive structures? Can international organisations develop general criteria to make these groups accountable?

Hence the challenge for the human rights community is two-fold. One is to examine from the normative level, the question of right of self-determination and to see what will be the outcome of its logic in the present nation-state paradigm. We must moreover identify clearly and define various stages of achieving that right which would in essence guarantees security and create space for full political participation to defend a community's identity in its fuller sense. The second task is to identify the criteria and strategies we could use to ensure that the rhetorical articulation of the right to self-determination does not undermine all other basic human and democratic rights that the community has already gained in significant measure. That must necessarily lead to monitoring not only the state but also non-state actors and the dispositions of the society. When the society has already entered the phase of armed conflict the monitoring of the armed groups and the residual civil society becomes paramount.

This also leads to the question how the tenets of UDHR, which claimed to be universal, could become meaningful to different societies with different cultural, socio economic and historical backgrounds. Combining the UDHR with concepts of liberal democracy and free market economics and other cultural norms from western experience has led to the allegation that the imposition of human rights is an extension of the (neo) colonial project. Trying to extract the basic tenets of human rights to understand what kind of political structure will enhance and defend it for the populace at large in a specific context is itself a task that needs to be pursued vigorously. We further need to examine the possible alternative political formations, which will not negate the tenets of UDHR and at the same time preserve the cohesiveness of the society so as to enhance positively its economic and social development.

The International Council on Human Rights Policy based in Geneva initiated a study on the accountablity on Armed Groups. The countries, which were considered, were Colombia, El Salvador, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, Uganda, Northern Ireland. The Synthesis of these reports and the outcome of the conference were published by the Institute in Septermber 2000, which are Ends and means: human rights approaches to armed groups (Report, Full Text (.pdf 325k),( Summary, Full text (.pdf 583k)). This was the first comprhensive study undertaken by the human rights community regading the issues related to armed groups.


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