‘Make love not war’ was the slogan of the 60s. Surely one of the most effective ways to save humans is to ensure peace? Indeed, the United Nations primary purpose is to ensure international peace and security. It is at the heart of the modern system of international law and politics. But how does the pursuit of peace map across into international human rights?
In 1976 the Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution stating that there is a right to peace. Two years later the General Assembly with a Declaration on that same topic. In the same year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation declared that there is a right to peace to which each individual is entitled. But simply declaring a right does not mean that it exists.
There has been a growing trend towards viewing peace as a human right. A group of rather disparate and not necessarily connected academics, NGO activists, practitioners, government delegates and UN staff are setting out more and more evidence to place ‘peace’ within the international human rights framework. The reasoning goes that peace impacts upon the attainment and realisation of all other rights. So – the proponents say – if we develop and enshrine a right to peace then it will have a positive impact on the whole system.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? In an ideal world, we would all live in peace and that would help to ensure that our other rights were more easily realised. But that does not mean that the peace has fully entered the international human rights law system. There are no international or regional legal mechanisms that protect an individual’s right to peace. There is no redress or remedy, at those levels, for a violation of the right to peace. But there have been some positive developments in recent years.
The first case on this subject was brought in 2003 before a court in Costa Rica. Luis Roberto Zamora Bolanos successfully sued the Costa Rican government over its support for the invasion of Iraq and over its plans to extract and process nuclear materials. This led to legislation being annulled within that state. The grounds for the case were that the government was violating the right to peace. In 2006, Zamora brought another case challenging the Arms Decree on the grounds that it threatened the right to peace. The court used this case to discuss the ambit of the right to peace, saying it is more than just a duty to avoid war. The court found that there is a positive duty to actively promote peace and justice. This case formally established Costa Rica as the first country to recognise, legally, the right to peace.
The United Nations Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly have continued to discuss and pass resolutions on the right to peace. There is a growing body of evidence from these political bodies that suggests that many countries around the world recognise that there is a right to peace. Many countries, but not all. Almost every country voting against or abstaining on these resolutions are from the Global North. Most countries who take the floor during discussions support the right to peace, again with Western states being the exception. The ideological divide is clear –and that divide is an obstacle to ‘peace’ being enshrined within international human rights law.
There is merit to the argument that international human rights is expanding far beyond traditional notions and that newer rights, like the one to peace, threaten to dilute the system. That area increasingly includes subjects – such as politics, the environment and economics – that are difficult to protect or promote and that might better be dealt with through other frameworks.
But that expansion has occurred because there is a greater understanding of the overlap between different areas. Peace may be a political ideal, but it is also a fundamental tool for realising other human rights. Where peace is undermined, individuals’ rights cannot adequately be implemented or protected. There seems to be increasing awareness of the need to enshrine, promote and protect the right to peace, despite the right pushing against the boundaries of traditional understandings of human rights.
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