On deepening our collective understanding of human rights, peace and right relations

Published by Brent Patterson on

The United Nations defines human rights as: “Rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.”

Key articulations of human rights can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976).

There are also other significant statements on rights including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

It is generally understood that all humans possess human rights simply by existing and that these rights cannot be taken away from them.

Critiques of the human rights framework

From a progressive viewpoint, the human rights framework has been critiqued because it, to some degree at least, accepts an adversarial relationship to the state and/or private entities that people need to be protected from.

In this view, human rights do not fundamentally change the nature of the state or the economy, rather they provide protections for people from the violence of those structures.

That said, there are writings that suggest (both favourably and with concern) that human rights can be used as a tool to profoundly change the nature of the state and economic relations and to minimize or eliminate structural violence.

And there has been the ‘corporate capture’ critique that the primary forum on human rights – the United Nations – has been increasingly subjected to the growing influence of transnational corporations and corporate-friendly states.

It has also been argued that human rights are based in a European tradition of thought that individuals are separable from their society.

This Ontario Human Rights Commission discussion paper notes: “Centering ‘right relationships’ – with the earth and all orders of being – over merely human ‘rights’, [Aaron Mills, who is Anishnaabe and a member of the Bear Clan from Couchiching First Nation] explained what an Indigenous approach to justice might look like, starting from a place of gratitude and reciprocity, rather than expectation and entitlement.”

With this understanding, it may be that human rights do not adequately reflect a cosmovision that may center more on the earth-spirit grounded concepts articulated by Mayan Q’eqchi’-xinka healer/feminist Lorena Cabnal (who is accompanied by PBI-Guatemala) such as body-land territory, territorial femicide and ancestral memories.

PBI formulations on peace and human rights

When PBI was formed in September 1981 (on unceded Algonquin territory), its founding statement explained: “Peace brigades, fashioned to respond to specific needs and appeals, will undertake nonpartisan missions which may include peacemaking initiatives, peacekeeping under a discipline of nonviolence, and humanitarian service.”

As such, a key role seemingly was to intervene to stop violent conflict. It wasn’t until April 1985 that the practice of accompaniment was introduced into our work through PBI’s early experiences in Guatemala.

By 1992, PBI’s general principles stated: “PBI is convinced that enduring peace and lasting solutions of conflicts between and within nations cannot be achieved by violent means and therefore it rejects violence of any kind and from any source.”

At that time, PBI’s mandate was articulated as: “To create space for peace and to protect human rights.”

By 2000, PBI-Canada explained that formulation as follows: “Through protective accompaniment to organizations and communities, PBI seeks to reduce violence and open up political space for social change.”

And by 2007, PBI-Mexico further explained that theory of change as: “International accompaniment is used as a tool for conflict transformation, fulfilling the dual role of both protecting victims of human rights violations as well as encouraging human rights defenders to continue their activities in the face of threat.”

What does peace mean?

The concept of peace can be as complex as that of human rights.

Quaker peace activist Ursula Franklin has stated: “Peace is not the absence of war but the absence of fear and the presence of justice.”

Arundhati Roy has written: “What does it mean to the millions who are being uprooted from their lands by dams and development projects? What does peace mean to the poor who are being actively robbed of their resources? For them, peace is war.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace. In a passive non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.”

And Kazu Haga has written: “King was arrested 29 times in his short life. Many of those times, he was charged with ‘disturbing the peace’. Think about that for a moment. Let that sink in. This still happens today to many activists. When we use nonviolence to confront violence and injustice, we are not disturbing the peace, we are disturbing complacency. We are disturbing the normalization of violence. When we engage in the hard work of nonviolence and social change, we are not disturbing peace. We are fighting for it.”

Moving forward

When PBI was first formed almost 40 years ago, it sought to bring together: “all who work to preserve human life with dignity, to promote human rights, social justice and self-determination, and to create the conditions of peace.”

This inclusive vision, along with the non-hierarchical and consensus-based decision-making processes integral to the identity of PBI, enables the space for deepening and evolving understandings of peace and human rights.


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