OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

usiplogo.gif (1499 bytes)

International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Human Rights/War Crime Problem

Opening Page | Glossary | Menu Shortcut Page

Many violent conflicts are associated with grotesque and terrible violations of human rights. War crimes and acts of genocide violate the most fundamental and broadly accepted principles of human conduct. These crimes present two basic challenges.

Stopping Ongoing War Crimes

First, there is the question of how one stops ongoing war crimes and violations of human rights. War crimes and genocide are usually the result of extreme escalation, polarization, and dehumanization.  Opponents' images of the enemy can become so distorted that they do not see the other side as human at all, only as villains whose very existence is a threat to one's own way of life.  Once people are seen in this way, their destruction becomes not only acceptable, but apparently essential for one's own group.  Traditional social norms and mores that would prevent extreme acts of violence and destruction aimed toward one's own group dissolve when the victim is a member of the opposing group.  Such acts of violence can even be viewed as heroic by one's own people, who see them as valiant efforts to preserve their own identity and way of life. 

Several factors make such situations very difficult to deal with.  First is the traditional concept of sovereignty.  This concept is generally taken to mean that nation states control their own internal affairs, including decisions about appropriate ways of defining and dealing with crimes, and ways of treating minority populations. Because the concept of sovereignty has long been recognized as legitimate in the international system, individual nations (and the United Nations) have often been reluctant to intervene in conflicts which are internal to one state, even when terrible human rights abuses are being committed.  This means that victims often are largely helpless, because the international community feels that it cannot or should not intervene in a country's "internal affairs."

Another factor that makes such situations difficult is that both sides may be guilty of war crimes or human rights violations, and hence consider themselves to be "victims." When this occurs, conflicts can escalate and reach a stalemate even more quickly, as both sides feel (rightfully) that they have been severely wronged, and that the other side should make amends and/or be punished severely for its behavior.   When both sides feel this way, it can become very difficult to redefine the conflict or re-frame it in a more positive way, or to start building up trust and mutual understandings between the groups.

Addressing Past War Crimes

The second challenge arises once the war has ended or the perpetrator of the human rights abuses has been removed from power and societies are struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.  Torture, killings, genocide are not quickly forgotten or forgiven--making a return to "normal" a very slow and difficult process.   New regimes are faced with a difficult decision about whether to prosecute criminals for their acts or to grant amnesty in an effort to forgive, forget, and move on. As the attached readings illustrate, there are costs and benefits to both approaches, and the decision about which way to go is seldom clear.  . On the one hand, victims of these terrible crimes, understandably find it impossible to simply forget about the crimes and live in a society with the perpetrators as if nothing happened. For them some measure of justice is likely to be an essential part of the healing process. On the other hand, if the victims of such crimes insist on severe punishments for everyone associated with these crimes  (including those who   played only a minor role),  They run the risk of an all-out fight to the death rather than reconciliation and healing.

Links to Examples:

John Prendergast -- The Time Dimension in Peacebuilding: The Case of Rwanda
This article describes the genocide that took place in the Rwandan war and discusses ways to reconcile the parties now that the war is over.
David Brubaker -- Reconciliation in Rwanda: The Art of the Possible
This is a second article about the Rwandan situation and approaches to it.
Craig Kauffman -- Reflecting on Nicaragua
Kauffman observes that Nicaragua can be described as a "conflict habituated system" where human rights violations continue to occur even after the war has ended. He analyzes why this has occurred and what is being done to address the problem.
Adam Curle -- Another Way: Positive response to contemporary violence
Before exploring potential solutions, Curle discusses causes of contemporary violence.

Links to Outside Sources of Information about War Crimes

Note:  United States Institute of Peace Highlights can be searched for human rights and war crimes articles.  The search for human rights articles alone yielded over 300 citations.  A few of these are given below.   Readers are urged to link to the main USIP site and search for more that interest them.
Rwanda:  Accountability for War Crimes and Genocide - United States Institute of Peace - Special Report
Roundtable on Justice and Reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina:  USIP Bosnia in the Balkans

Dayton Implementation:   The Apprehension and Prosecution of Indicted War Criminals - US Institute of Peace Special Report

IGC ConflictNet
ConflictNet is a network of people concerned about conflict and its resolution.   The site has news articles and commentary about many of the current serious conflict situations around the world, including problems of war crimes and human rights violations.
Religious Nationalism and Human Rights - USIP   
This article discusses the impact of religious nationalism on human rights.   Nationalistic fervor has frequently led to serious human rights violations.   This article reviews the problem as well as potential solutions.

United States Institute of Peace - Special Report


Links to Possible Treatments for this Problem:


Non-Violent Struggle

Collective Security

Human and Civil Rights Organizations

Criminal Prosecution

Apology and Forgiveness

Truth Commissions

Links to Related Problems:

Tyranny of the Powerful/Disempowerment

Illegitimate and Excessive Use of Force

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu