How does human rights due diligence differ in conflict-affected settings?

Many companies and practitioners have pointed out that the volatility of conflict-affected settings requires a robust, rapid and flexible response in relation to human rights due diligence (HRDD). This is certainly true, and makes HRDD more of a priority. However, ‘more of the same’ is not enough: HRDD in conflict-affected settings also requires different and additional considerations.

Firstly, when conducting HRDD in conflict-affected settings, understanding the conflicts is essential. Conflict-affected setting is a broad concept that can apply to a wide range of settings, from intrastate war to situations of social unrest or instability. Dynamic by nature, with multiple interconnected actors, drivers and motivations, not only are conflicts complex to understand, they develop, evolve and can change rapidly.

And in many of these contexts, the absence of armed conflict is only the illusion of peace. Under the surface, less visible social, political and economic tensions manifest in social unrest or cycles of violence that can destabilise development and bring major economic projects to a standstill.

For example, in South Africa there are cycles of widespread labour unrest linked to workers’ dissatisfaction with wages and rising costs of living. Conflict between unions complicates the situation, generating further hostility between and within communities.

Moreover, when security forces have responded to protests, it has often been with excessive force resulting in clashes, injuries and fatalities; in 2012, 34 mining workers were killed by security forces at a protest over wages in the Marikana region. Instances of xenophobic violence occurred again in 2015, when immigrants were blamed for a lack of employment opportunities.

In some countries in Latin America, such as Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, community-company conflict around extractive projects is closely connected to broader social unrest. Often, conflict stems from perceptions of unfair treatment, misinformation, lack of consultation, political manipulation and irresponsible company practices.

Community leaders sometimes bypass the government and approach companies directly, creating a space in which state actors can avoid what is under their responsibility or jurisdiction in a regulating environment that is, in some instances, contradictory to international human rights standards, as there are limited ways for communities to air their grievances and access remedy. In these circumstances, resorting to violent confrontation is common.

As the World Development Report 2011 notes, while civil wars are still relevant to some areas, over the past 20 years, conventional forms of armed conflict have been in decline.

21st-century violence does not fit the 20th-century mould (…) because of the successes in reducing interstate war, the remaining forms of conflict and violence do not fit neatly either into ‘war’ or ‘peace’, or into ‘criminal violence’ or ‘political violence’. Many countries and subnational areas now face cycles of repeated violence, weak governance, and instability.

Violence and conflict have not been banished: one in four people on the planet – more than 1.5 billion – live in fragile and conflict-affected states or in countries with very high levels of criminal violence.

Therefore, conflict-affected settings include a much wider range of contexts than might initially be assumed. In our guidance, Human rights due diligence in conflict-affected settings, we use four main categories (see figure below).

Four types of conflict

In addition to the contexts of social unrest explored above, conflict-affected settings can include nominally peaceful yet conflict-prone countries such as Brazil or Kyrgyzstan.

Other conflict contexts are those in which armed violence is present, such as in parts of Mali or Pakistan.Countries with high levels of armed violence relating to criminal organisations or networks, such as those in Central America’s northern triangle, also fall within this group.

A third category includes post-conflict countries such as Myanmar or Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are undergoing the long and difficult process of transition out of armed conflict and also require specific considerations.

These situations present different challenges to those of our fourth category, the more conventional armed conflict, where protracted confrontations occur between government armed forces and the forces of one or more armed groups, or between such groups, such as in Colombia, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria or the Central African Republic, or between states.

For details of some of the characteristics of these four types of conflict, follow the link below.

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