European Union needs dialogue with civil society in conflict zones

Respect for democracy and human rights are necessary cornerstones of EU's foreign policy aimed at promoting peace, security and prosperity in international affairs. However the most appropriate way to promote democracy and human rights in situations of conflict close to Europe has been contested. The work of a research network called Human Rights in Conflicts: The Role of Civil Society (SHUR) suggests that Europe should not draw back from involvement with civil society organisations (CSOs) in conflict zones. Rather, the EU should keep emphasising the rule of law – namely international law - while continuing contact with CSOs in three ways – dialogue, training and (in some cases) funding.

‘Civil society’ is defined by the project as encompassing all voluntary civic and social organisations and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society, as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state or the commercial institutions of the market.

SHUR’s overall objective was to analyse the human rights impacts of civil society actions in ethno-political conflicts, and to identify ways of strengthening complementary actions of civil society and EU actors.

The network aimed to:

  • Understand and analyse the link between human rights and conflict in successive phases of conflict (pre, during, post).
  • Understand and analyse the role of civil society in the prevention/generation, amelioration/worsening and resolution/continuation of conflicts through its focus on human rights.
  • Draw lessons on how the actions of CSOs can be made more effective in human rights protection in fragmented multi-ethnic political communities.
  • Draw lessons on possible complementarity between the actions and strategies of governmental and non-governmental actors in conflict situations.
  • Draw lessons on how the impact of civil society in reducing human rights violations could be improved through greater synergies with official European institutions.

As part of its research SHUR analysed four conflict situations close to Europe - Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Turkey-Kurds, and Israel-Palestine. In Cyprus SHUR assessed the actions of 22 CSOs between 1989 and 2007. In Bosnia and Herzegovina it looked at the actions of 19 CSOs between 1993 and 2007. In Turkey it covered the activities of 23 CSOs from the beginning of the 1990s to the present time. In Israel-Palestine it analysed the actions of 35 CSOs between 1995 and 2009. These case studies were analysed using qualitative comparative techniques to determine the principal factors which shape the civil society-human rights conflict nexus. Comparisons were made both within and across the four case studies. For each case study, three sets of evidence were consulted: official documents produced by governments, local and international CSOs; semi-structured interviews (150 across all case studies) and analysis of scholarly studies.

The analyses suggested that EU and international donor activity is important but at times risks producing a multiplication of poorly connected projects with negligible impact on the resolution of conflict and on human rights protection There is a need to foster intra-CSO relations and avoid giving prominence to technical organisations at the expense of grassroots ones. Conflict resolution was found to be most strongly linked to the presence of CSOs which invoke inclusive individual rights (i.e. extended to all communities) and are multicultural in nature, particularly in culture and education. In future, EU programmes might focus on longer term projects and capacity building aimed at strengthening the collective impact of civil society activities seeking similar goals.

SHUR recommends that EU activity should emphasise the promotion of the rule of law. It could do this via contractual relations in a wide variety of policy areas and institutions, which would act as a basis for home-grown democracy to emerge and flourish in countries within the European Neighbourhood.

The EU should also engage in dialogue and training with as wide a range of CSOs as possible, including those with 'ethnicist' identities, rather than boycott these. This would allow EU actors to gain a deeper understanding of conflict and socialise CSOs into adopting different views and activities. For example, rather than rely almost exclusively on input from liberal westernised groups in the Middle East and other regions, dialogue with grassroots groups would provide information to help formulate foreign policy more accurately and effectively.

According to the network, the EU finds problems in selecting CSOs suitable for funding, and in reconciling its internal need for transparency and accountability with the external demands of an effective policy towards CSOs. In funding CSOs, the EU should select organisations whose activities contribute to rooting out conflict through respect for human rights. In selecting them, factors to take into account are:

  • Conflict context.
  • Identity of CSOs.
  • Their specific activities
  • Whether they invoke human rights
  • Their framework of action.
  • The political structure in which their actions unfold.

In conclusion, what is needed is a more organic understanding and evaluation of the civil society-human rights-conflict nexus.


1. Marchetti, R. And Tocci, N. (eds) 2010. Civil Society, Ethnic Conflicts, and the Politicization of Human Rights. Forthcoming. Toykyo: United Nations University Press.

SHUR - Human Rights in Conflicts: The Role of Civil Society (duration: 1/7/2006 – 31/11/2009) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.


Contact: Raffaele Marchetti,