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Conflict, Rights and Justice (Module)

Module description

Study units
  • Human rights, international law and war
  • Transitional justice in theory and practice
  • War crimes trials
  • Contending with the past: truth and reconciliation
  • Conflict, rights and justice

The relationship between human rights and conflict is a complex one, fraught with difficulties.  At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that there has been a profound shift toward human security, prioritizing the protection of individuals over the interests of the state, and ensuring accountability prevails over impunity for gross abuses of human rights.  The development of Transitional Justice as a field of study and practice has been built on this assumption, and advocates have sought to make practices of conflict resolution and human rights mutually reinforcing by privileging justice as necessary to sustainable peace.  At the other end of the spectrum, critics argue that security and human rights are fundamentally at odds with one another.  Pragmatic approaches to conflict resolution may not coincide with the normative agenda of human rights.  Moreover, they argue that international law is not up to the task of protecting individuals caught up in protracted contemporary conflicts – either because of shortcomings in the law, or because of political and pragmatic considerations that prevail over normative ones.  Evidence from many of the conflicts underway globally today can be marshaled to support either or both of these claims, so there is no simple answer to the question of who is right.  The aim of this module is to unpack the legal, ethical, political and pragmatic dilemmas at the heart of the relationship between war, law, justice and peace. Should we sacrifice justice for peace?  Does peace require reconciliation?  Does reconciliation require justice?  Whose justice, and for whom?  Is the protection of human rights at odds with the exigencies of contemporary war?  Where does the correct balance lie between the dictates of humanity and those of necessity?  Is the protection of human rights in conflict solely the domain of international humanitarian law? 

We begin in unit 1 with an overview of the ethical and legal framework, focusing on five core approaches that will provide the backbone for our discussions, namely: the human rights framework, international humanitarian law, conflict resolution and peace-building, transitional justice and intervention. We will interrogate key terms and (contested) concepts of security, order, rights and justice, and chart the historical evolution of war crimes, transitional justice and human rights law and practice.

We move on in unit 2 to consider the development of transitional justice as a field of study and practice.  In the aftermath of violent conflict, often involving widespread atrocities and serious violations of human rights, states and societies are faced with what is sometimes presented as a stark choice between the pursuit of peace and the pursuit of justice. Should peace take priority over calls for accountability in the interests of saving lives? Or can there be no real peace without justice? Those responsible for negotiating peace agreements have long struggled with this dilemma but in the 1990s the pendulum appeared to swing toward the interests of justice and a new field of 'transitional justice' emerged.  We ask what are the assumptions that underpin transitional justice advocacy – what is its ‘promise’?  And what are its ‘limits’?

In units 3 and 4, we will conduct more in depth study of the relative merits and drawbacks of a range of approaches, drawing on a series of case studies to explore war crimes trials in international and national courts, and then additional and alternative forms of transitional justice seeking in non-judicial or quasi-judicial mechanisms, including truth commissions, traditional or local justice mechanisms, amnesties, lustration, reparations programmes, memorialisation and arts/education programmes.

We end in unit 5 by returning to the relationship between conflict, rights and justice.   We consider the current status of human rights in conflict, focusing in particular on issues of weapons, targeting and detention.  We also consider the place of human rights and justice in peacemaking and peacebuilding.  Is justice always necessary for peace?  What do we do when tensions arise between conflict resolution and peace negotiations and calls for justice and accountability? We draw on critiques of the liberal peace to ask what is the place of human rights and justice in peacebuilding and what are its limits?

*please note module information is indicative therefore subject to change year to year

Staff information

Not applicable

Teaching pattern

Not applicable

Module assessment - more information

One-term course, 1 x 11 weeks

Key information

Module code 7SSWM225

Credit level 7


Credit value

Semester Full-year

Study abroad module No