Without it, no other human right can be realized
By James C. Simeon
Wise readers of Peace Magazine might challenge the notion that there is a human right to peace. You only need to follow the news stories about wars and protracted armed conflicts, raging in the world today, to surmise that if such a thing exists the daily gross violations make a mockery of it.
However, one should keep in mind that there are many human rights, which are yet to be fully realized. To list only a few, this includes gender equality, access to primary education (to say nothing of secondary or tertiary education), freedom of expression, religious freedom, voting and standing for public office, a fair trial, prohibition of torture and cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.
The struggle to realize the human right to peace spans the centuries. It is hardly new, but it was given new momentum with the establishment of the United Nations and the modern human rights movement starting with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This has been followed by other UN General Assembly declarations.
The advancement of the human right to peace, like any other right, takes time and effort, and above all education and enlightenment on a mass scale and inter-generationally, so that those who come after us can benefit from the experiences of those who came before. The way to realize the human right to peace is first to understand and appreciate it, and then to demand it. Without action, nothing can be achieved.
The global peace movement has been actively pursuing its goal of achieving world peace for centuries. For example, the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) was advocating pacifism as early as 1660. Some of the world’s
most famous leaders, philosophers, and politicians were or are pacifists. Despite the fact that world peace has yet to be achieved, this does not imply that the peace movement per se has not been influential or significant in shaping our world. One only needs to think of Mahatma Gandhi’s contribution to the independence of India from British rule or of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Indeed, a number of non-governmental organizations have advanced the cause of world peace for decades and exerted a significant impact on our world. For instance, there is the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the International Peace Bureau, the German Peace Society, Network for Peace, International Fellowship for Reconciliation, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, American Civil Liberties Union, War Resisters International, and the Peace Pledge Union. In addition, many of those who have led these organizations have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The global peace movement underscores the fundamental point that war is morally wrong because of the deliberate death and destruction that it brings about – often in an indiscriminate manner. And, of course, it runs contrary to the most fundamental human right of all, the right to “life.” Without this absolutely essential right, no other human right can be realized nor can there be any human dignity.
Article 3 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) simply states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” These are the very first substantive human rights that are enumerated in the UDHR. According to article 6 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” The legal basis in international law for the right to life is thus evident in two of the three principal components of the International Bill of Human Rights.
The fundamental human right to life is at the very core of the United Nations’ efforts to eradicate war. The Charter of the United Nations is an international treaty and an instrument of international law that binds all member States of the United Nations. Article 1 of Chapter 1, Purposes and Principles, states that the purposes of the United Nations are:
The point here is that the very purpose of the UN is to maintain international peace and security, to remove threats to peace, and to suppress acts of aggression. To what end are these ideas
the overarching principles of the UN? Very simply, it is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” Ending the “scourge of war” achieves the goal of “maintaining international peace and security” which, in turn, preserves the fundamental right to life, which, in turn, allows for the realization and enjoyment of all other human rights. The primary goal of the UN, then, is to preserve peace. Our modern human rights system is in place to further the supreme end of “maintaining international peace and security.”
One of the first actions of the United Nations after its founding in 1945 was the passage of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is part of the International Bill of Rights. Article 28 of the UDHR states that “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Everyone is thus entitled to a social order in which rights and freedoms are fully realized or, in short, “everyone is entitled to peace” to realize fully all their human rights.
In 1984, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace. It simply and elegantly states, “the maintenance of a peaceful life of peoples is the sacred duty of all States.” The Declaration then goes on to say:
The implications for all member States of the United Nations are utterly profound. Sadly, this most fundamental obligation is not being honoured by many of the world’s States.
It is also significant to note that in 2016 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 71/189, the Declaration on the Right to Peace. Article 1 of this Declaration firmly states, “Everyone has the right to enjoy peace such that all human rights are promoted and protected and development is fully realized.” And, Article 2, declares, “States should respect, implement and promote equality and non-discrimination, justice and the rule of law, and guarantee freedom from fear and want as a means to build peace within and between societies.” The role, obligation, and responsibilities of all States in the world today are emphatically clear.
Is there, then, a human right to peace in international law? The answer is undoubtedly yes! Is it being honoured by all States in the world today? Sadly, it is not. But what are the implications
of a human right to live in peace? Let me give one example. Today, there are presently an unprecedented number of forcibly displaced people in the world. Last year, for the first time, the number exceeded 100 million people. Most of the world’s forcibly displaced people, whether internally within their borders or externally outside their countries of nationality, are from the war-torn countries of the world. This is most evident in the number of people who were forcibly displaced by Russia’s illegal act of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, with some 14 million who were displaced by this crime. This is further reinforced by the fact that a mere five countries in the world, Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar, account for nearly 70 percent of the world’s refugees. All are from war-torn countries, except for Venezuela, which has its own serious economic, social, and political turmoil. The close relationship between war and refugees and other forced migrants is well established and recognized.
For all those people in the world whose fundamental right to live in peace has been violated – often with attendant devastating consequences by being deliberately targeted in an effort to terrorize the population and break their will to resist – could claim refugee protection. The grounds are that their fundamental human right to peace has been breached. Persons caught in the midst of war have had this right violated to a degree that could be deemed persecutory.
To claim refugee protection under the _1951 _Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, one must have a well-founded fear of persecution. The reasons are one or more of the five grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group; be unable or unwilling, owing to such fear, to seek the protection of their State; and be outside their country of nationality or habitual residence. It is reasonable to expect that the breach of their fundamental right to peace could be deemed persecutory in and of itself. All those who are fleeing war or protracted armed conflict have a valid claim to refugee protection because their most fundamental right has been violated. At present, those fleeing a war zone are not generally deemed refugees unless they are deliberately targeted on one of the five grounds of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Violations of one’s right to peace must be asserted in all circumstances with the attendant responsibility of the United Nations and its member States to intervene and end these violations. This is in essence embodied in the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which is premised, one might argue, on an appreciation that there is a fundamental right to peace. The UN’s R2P doctrine calls on States to protect their population from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. The most pertinent paragraphs of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (A/RES/60/1) of the Heads of State and Government affirmed their responsibility to protect against these serious international crimes but also accepted the collective responsibility to encourage each other to uphold this commitment. Paragraph 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document states, in part:
The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the
The close relationship between war and refugees and other forced migrants is well established and recognized
Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
So-called “atrocity crimes” occur most frequently in situations of war and protracted armed conflict. Indeed, war crimes can occur only in a war setting. The United Nations is obligated to address both atrocity crimes and breaches of the right to peace.
Wars and protracted armed conflicts violate the fundamental core principles and purposes of the United Nations and our most elemental and essential human rights, including our right to peace. Inevitably, war and protracted armed conflict can lead to the commission of the most serious international crimes. We must double our efforts not only within the peace movement but also beyond in order to educate everyone on their most basic human right, which is to live in peace. This will lead ultimately to the eradication of war and protracted armed conflict. Being conscious of and knowing your human rights is a necessary first step, in concert with others, to realizing them. Taking collective action is the necessary second step. Without this, we cannot achieve the most elemental human right of all, the right to peace.
James Simeon is Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration, York University.
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