Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
I am grateful for this invitation to speak with so many people who have dedicated their careers to advancing various aspects of human rights. I look forward to discussing with you a topic whose urgency cannot be overstated – how we, together, can help counter violent conflict and polarisation today.
This month, tens of thousands of people may die in wars that are raging across the Middle East; the Sahel, Eastern and Central Africa; Ukraine; Myanmar; and elsewhere. Many more people will be wounded, perhaps permanently – and still more will be forced to flee their homes.
Communities, economies and nations are being torn apart by fighting. Humanitarian needs are exploding, while funding in response does not keep pace. Since the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund was created in 2006, funding needs have increased tenfold – from $5.2 billion in 2006, to assist 32 million people, to nearly $57 billion in 2023, to help 245 million people in need.
Even beyond the war-zones, tensions are rising.
The war in Gaza is having seismic impact across the Middle East and there is a very real danger of spillover.
From the Western Balkans to the Horn of Africa, the threat that simmering conflict will erupt into violence is very real.
Millions of people could be engulfed by these tidal waves of violence and suffering. And they are also eroding the world’s broader capacity to work together to meet other existential challenges, such as our climate disaster.
We need a renewed commitment to work together, to pull the world back from peril –
to forge new paths towards solutions. And to do that on a sure footing, we need to examine and learn from what has worked in the past.
This conference takes place in Belfast, which thirty years ago bristled with steel barriers that reverberated with daily petrol-bomb attacks and shootings. Now glass buildings gleam on prosperous roads: the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, signed almost 26 years ago, are evident in every area of life.
The Good Friday Agreement was described at the time as a political miracle, but it was also a civil society miracle – bringing together representatives of communities that initially refused even to be present in the same room; prominently including women, who are often pushed away from the negotiating table; and forging common goals out of a hatred that seemed intractable. Strikingly, human rights principles were welded into its structure, including the requirement that the European Convention on Human Rights be integrated directly into Northern Ireland law.
The Agreement also include a focus on power sharing; paramilitary disarmament; police reform; ending discrimination, including in employment, with stringent legislation that has had measurable impact on the well-being of Catholics; and some efforts to acknowledge the legacy of the past. And it clearly defined procedural protections to enable social and economic rights.
The Good Friday agreement is not a fairytale: communities remain largely separate in schooling and social housing, and some neighbourhoods are still divided by what are known as "peace walls". More work is still needed to ensure a comprehensive, human rights-centred approach to transitional justice in the UK. But Northern Ireland does bring us many important lessons that I will return to in a moment.
Let me briefly move a little further away, to Nepal, where the Peace Agreement 18 years ago also sets out lessons in how to end long-standing and bitter civil war. Again, civil society had a crucial role, including women, Indigenous Peoples, caste-based and ethnic communities, as well as leaders of trade unions.
My Office helped to ensure that human rights were at the centre of the transition towards democratic, constitutional and federal governance. We supported conflict victims, helping them to demand their rights. Our monitoring highlighted the impact of discrimination; the ways that impunity was fuelling distrust in all government structures; and areas where rising grievances, including economic grievances, were sharpening the risk that conflict might break out again. This contributed to strong advocacy for corrective reforms by the UN and donor community, as well as informing our work to push back impunity, and our support for the National Human Rights Commission and the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms.
Again, this is not a perfect fairytale, and the story isn't over: challenges remain in Nepal, particularly in the areas of caste discrimination, minority rights and the need to revive the stalled transitional justice agenda. It is a work in progress – and we continue to engage with political parties and government leaders regarding the forthcoming transitional justice law.
Let me give you another example: Colombia, where the powerful Peace Agreement of 2016 has helped to end a generations-long armed conflict. My Office contributed very significantly to the strong participation of victims, including women – so that the agreement is anchored in human rights, and recognizes the need to address longstanding discrimination and violence suffered in particular by Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples.
Colombia's Peace Agreement entrusted my Office with the task of monitoring the implementation of all its human rights aspects. This is vitally important, since early alerts to grievances are a crucial tool in building forward the reforms that sustain peace. We have also been instrumental in the establishment of, and support for, transitional justice bodies that contribute to accountability for crimes committed during the armed conflict, including sexual violence. We are working to advance reform of the security sector; new policies on drugs and the dismantlement of criminal structures that were inherited from paramilitary groups; and we have participated in reforms of policing, and historic inequities in access to land.
In the context of today's discussion of how donors can advance peacebuilding, I note that for 7 years – until a Human Rights Council resolution last July – this massive body of peace-related work by my Office in Colombia received no additional funding from the UN regular budget; and the current UN liquidity crisis impedes our ability to recruit staff to implement that resolution. So support and extra-budgetary funding – voluntary funding – from our donors has been a crucial life-line for this work, as well as all our operations, I am deeply grateful for their support.
I want to be clear: Northern Ireland, Nepal and Colombia are three broadly successful examples of peace-building, but there have been many less fruitful attempts – some of them profound failures. This discussion takes place against the backdrop of the horrific war in Gaza – a new paroxysm of violence that has erupted despite repeated attempts to build peace in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel. In Sudan, another catastrophic war is raging despite concerted attempts to build peace and ensure reforms, in the aftermath of the revolution in 2019.
Making peace and sustaining peace requires dedicated work at many levels – including to expand the civic space and ensure robust and effective transitional justice processes. Today, in Ethiopia, as well as in many other regions – including the Western Balkans – considerable efforts are still needed to consolidate peace and prevent new spirals of violence. Work to combat discrimination and hate speech; advance transitional justice; and uphold the full spectrum of human rights needs steady financial support. It also needs to be informed by the lessons of successful efforts to prevent violence and build peace.
What are those lessons?
First: peacemaking is not an effort that should belong to party leaders and the military. It is the people who are the most affected by war; it is the people who have the greatest interest in ending warfare; and the people – the ordinary women and men whom we term 'civil society'– who must be empowered to have a decisive voice in the negotiations that achieve peace.
Second, human rights must be central to all efforts to build peace. They are the strongest possible prevention investment. And within that spectrum of rights, it is vital to emphasise the rights of women. Work by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security indicates that in 2022, about 600 million women – 15 percent of women in the world – lived within 50 kilometers of an armed conflict, more than twice the level in the 1990s. The UN’s experience over decades has clearly demonstrated that when women are able to play decisive roles in making and building peace, that peace will be more likely to endure. You are all familiar with Security Council resolution 1325, which calls for women’s full involvement in peace processes. But in 2022, although some women were integrated into 4 out of 5 peace processes in which the UN was involved, their actual numbers remained low, at barely 16 per cent of participants – and those percentages have been decreasing. It is crucial that we reverse this trend. We know that the exclusion of women from peace processes severely distorts the full narrative of the conflict, and the relevance and justice of any negotiated outcome. It undermines the sustainability of peace – and an obvious example of this, to me, is South Sudan.
Third, accountability is another key factor. This, to me, is among the lessons we must draw from the failure of efforts to sustain peace in both Sudan and Myanmar, for example. The perpetrators of violations must grasp that justice will be done – and that justice must be decisive enough to serve as a deterrent for future violations. Victims must know that the suffering that has been inflicted on them is recognised, that there will be justice, and that violence will not recur. In this respect, a broad vision of accountability can be deeply beneficial, going beyond criminal prosecutions to respond to victims’ concerns, including on prevention, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence.
Fourth, there must also be clarity and honesty about the root causes of the conflict, including from the point of view of age, gender and ethnic, racial and cultural diversity. Often, conflicts arise in a context of subjugation, toxic power dynamics, patriarchy and discrimination. It is always crucial to address discrimination and the inequalities that it generates – including unequal access to justice and to essential services and opportunities. This is evident, for example, in the repeated crises in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Other powerful drivers of conflict include corruption and other forms of poor governance and government malfeasance.
Fifth, building and sustaining the reforms that are the backbone of enduring peace is a long-term effort that requires attentive monitoring, and constant advocacy and support – including financial support. As my Office has experienced in Colombia, it means spotting, and addressing, what may at first glance appear to be remote and limited grievances. Engaging civil society is crucial, to become part of that work of monitoring, and of working towards solutions – whether the focus is on rural reforms, more inclusive development efforts, or addressing discrimination.
This brings me to the second theme of your discussion: polarization. Almost always, the eruption of violence is preceded by deep-seated grievances, fear, anger, and a slow, rising simmer of hatred – expressions of verbal contempt and dehumanization, and then physical attacks, which become widespread and almost normalized, leading up to a crescendo. The Libyan writer Hisham Matar wrote recently that "the opposite of war is cooperation", and I believe this is an important point. To build and sustain peace in a shattered society, we have to build or rebuildsocial connections, empathy, and a sense of shared understanding – a shared interconnectedness and shared destiny.
How do we do that? Community engagement is crucial. Barriers must be nudged aside. Education – human rights education, which emphasises our universal and fully equal rights – can be overt, in schools and public media campaigns, but it can also be more subtle, diffused through inclusive sports teams, local skills training, women-based civil society programmes, religious and community leaders and, perhaps especially, an emphasis on the inclusive participation of young people. In Northern Ireland, it seems obvious that educated, high-achieving youth – who have benefited enormously from 26 years of peace and have grown up amid efforts to bring and bind communities together – constitute a strong constituency for the prevention of new conflict. And crucially, there needs to be decisive action against hate speech and hate crimes, as well as harmful disinformation and a growing trend of genocide denial.
What can donors do to support sustainable peace-building, and shift societies from polarization to cooperation? You can do a lot – and you have done a lot. The donor community is a force for tremendous progress in broadening and nourishing the civic space, so that non-traditional and diverse actors can bring their knowledge and local base into the constituency of people who support peace. This often takes place at the grassroots level, within and between communities, and it is an area where donors can help nourish civic society groups for positive impact.
For example, women’s groups have often played an important role in building bridges and connecting across divisions. When I was at UNHCR I saw this countless times among women’s groups in displaced communities: the positive impact they achieved was often impressive. And notably in Sahel countries, where young people are such a sizeable share of the population, sustaining peace requires the involvement of young people. Jobs in sustainable development projects that combat environmental degradation and exclusion will bring peace dividends too.
Donors can also fund innovative programmes – small projects that test new approaches, for example developing new, data-driven predictive tools that point to areas of potential conflict. This is something my Office is engaged in at the moment, also for the broader UN system. Relatedly, it is crucial to any peacebuilding process that there be well-resourced and attentive monitoring and reporting of conditions on the ground, to put the spotlight on emerging situations that require swift responses
Ideally, those resources need to be flexible, to enable swift reaction when a potential signal of crisis is detected. But they also need to be predictable, and sustained over the long-term. Investing in prevention needs to be viewed as an enduring endeavour – a long-term investment that will always be cheaper than dealing with the outbreak of crisis or conflict.
Despite all the doom and gloom, there is hope. Last December, our Office led a global meeting on human rights to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Almost 800 pledges came in from States, civil society, regional organizations, businesses and others, which I feel bears witness to the urgency of the world's need for human rights action. It shows the huge appetite for making sure that our framework of laws and principles are applied.
We have immense power to right the wrongs of our world.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the work you do to advance human rights and the support you bring to my Office.