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1. Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies


Kumar Rupesinghe


Kumar Rupesinghe


1 Governance, ethnicity, and conflict resolution
2 The role of the state
3 The concept of self-determination
4 Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies
5 International responses and mechanisms


The search for forms of governance in multi-ethnic societies is an important issue which needs to be addressed in the transition from one world order to another. It will require fundamental changes in our perceptions of global security, sovereignty, and multi-ethnic societies.

Global society is changing. We are moving towards a single world order, a single civilization. The collapse of the Berlin Wall was symbolic in that it drew attention to the fact that boundaries are tumbling and systems are becoming more open. The Wall's collapse also came at a time when apartheid, the most outstanding example of institutional racism, was being challenged and new forms of governance actively pursued in South Africa.

The end of the Cold War has led to new issues being placed on the political agenda, including the questions of self-determination and the pursuit of a truly multi-ethnic global order. At the highest level of abstraction, humanity is evolving towards a global system which is more complex and more varied, and where the concept of state sovereignty may assume new meanings. Global society is moving toward recognition of a multicultural, multi-ethnic, pluralistic global system.

But old ideas take a long time to disappear, particularly when these ideas have been trapped in institutions and attitudes.

In this paper I take as my starting point the idea that ethnicity is dynamic concept which has acquired a new and important historical significance. The revival of ethnicity and the search for identity is itself an aspect of modernity and leads to the democratization of structures. In this sense, the revival is positive and may not lead to violence and war if institutions are created for a multi-ethnic plural order.

My second point is that, unlike the old nations which had completed state formation projects, i.e. the so-called democratic zone, many states are still in the process of nation-building. The old historical process of achieving nation building through a highly centralized state structure is not possible. State- and nation-building is therefore problematic. It requires policies which are not merely assimilationist and integrationist but which truly recognize a multiethnic plurality.

The third point is that the right to self-determination after decolonization has become an unresolved and largely unreflected domain of contention. These issues need to be addressed if the new world order is to have any universal significance. Should the right to self-determination be judged on a case-by-case basis, where the protagonists have to engage in a protracted civil war to obtain the status of a sovereign nation? Or should there be alternative arrangements, where people without states may enjoy a sense of nationhood and identity securely with a sense of participation? Given a new international climate favourable for democracy and human rights, should there be international bodies and mechanisms that could provide a framework wherein minorities' issues and cases of self-determination and independence are properly addressed?

My fourth contention is that the notion of governance requires a more expanded notion of conflict transformation. This is needed in order to take into account the various phases and evaluations of the conflict process and determine where timely interventions can be made to resolve and prevent the outbreak of violence and war. Changes in the global order need to be managed by transnational agencies, and a renewed United Nations must finally address the issue of self-determination and develop frameworks and mechanisms for the resolution of these problems.

A contingency approach to conflicts and their prevention is needed, which in turn suggests the need for an expanded role for regional and international bodies. Governance of multi-ethnic societies requires the active participation of civil society, and the development of a culture of negotiation and tolerance. Institutional mechanisms and frameworks must take into account the positive achievements of many societies which have lived and worked together for centuries.

1 Governance, ethnicity, and conflict resolution

Governance, at both the international and the national levels, refers to the objective of producing orderly, just, and peaceful relations to deal with the problems encountered in a complex and rapidly changing world. The essence of governance is that it is a process of continuing creativity in the search for adjustment and accommodation in the midst of uncertainty. Although we are moving towards a "new world order," the global order is still based on the old political order. The old political order was governed by the hegemonic domination of the two superpowers. Its thinking and practices on statehood, sovereignty, and security need to be examined.

There is a growing recognition that many global problems, such as ecological security, disarmament, and the escalation of internal wars and refugee flows, require global institutions to manage them. Some global institutions have already emerged, such as the United Nations, and global economic organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These institutions sometimes impose on the sovereignty of states, through both rewards and sanctions. It is obvious, however, that no global institution has yet emerged to manage and prevent violent conflicts, protect minorities, or regulate and decide on the rights of peoples.

What is indeed paradoxical in the current global system is that while the United Nations has a clear mandate to deal with international conflicts, its mandate to deal with internal strife and the norms for intervention is still evolving. Today, inter-state conflicts are relatively rare, but the numbers of internal wars within a given state are increasing. Most of these wars are due to problems of state formation and ethnicity. According to the SIPRI Yearbook 1992, there were over 32 internal wars the previous year and the prospects for the increase in the numbers of these wars was highly likely. If we reduce the threshold of the definition of an armed conflict to less than 1,000 casualties, then the number of armed conflicts in the world would be over 150.

Internal war is no longer restricted to the South, however, as the war in former Yugoslavia demonstrates. Potential civil wars in the Commonwealth of Independent States may make the figures even higher. More than 40 million refugees (including refugees outside the borders of a given country and internally displaced people) in the world today are victims of armed conflicts. It is likely that the figure will go up to 100 million by the year 2000.

1.1 Ethnicity and identity

"Ethnicity" is itself full of ambiguity in the Anglo-Saxon world, and perhaps it is this ambiguity which provides for its constant recurrence. But ask anybody to define ethnicity and the problem begins. We are left with a host of interpretations. The difficulty in defining ethnicity is that it is a dynamic concept encompassing both subjective and objective elements. It is the mixture of perception and external contextual reality which provides it with meaning. In political theory, "ethnicity" describes a group possessing some degree of coherence and solidarity, composed of people who are aware, perhaps only latently, of having common origins and interests. Thus, an ethnic group is not a mere aggregate of people but a self-conscious collection of people united, or closely related, by shared experiences and a common history. It is difficult to find a satisfactory definition of multi-ethnicity or multiethnic society. But the implication is that there is more than one group possessing some degree of coherence and solidarity, whose members have common origins and interests which they do not share with other groups. In this sense, few states are ethnically homogeneous and many are polytechnic in composition.

Much has been written about ethnic revival and there is no need to summarize the discussion. What is significant and important in the discussion is that there are particular factors that not only lead to the revival of identity but also to violence. Conditions of modernity give rise to ethnicity and make identity a powerful symbol of meaning and worth. Present-day ethnic conflicts have a scope and intensity that did not exist earlier. Anthony D. Smith even argues that "we are fully justified in isolating a broad historical trend in the modern era, and designating it as an 'ethnic revival'. [But]... such a revival of ethnicity is also a transformation, and... it possesses a unique character, shared by no previous ethnic revival" (Smith, 1983).

Those who perhaps are not patient with current terminology have decided that the concept of ethnicity should be replaced instead by the notion of identity. They define this as a continuous and dynamic development encompassing both existential and social components.

The search for identity is a powerful psychological driving force which has propelled human civilization. Identity is evocative: we are after all dealing with a myth or an imagined community which has all the power necessary for political mobilization. Identity has also been defined as an abiding sense of selfhood, the core of which makes life predictable to an individual (Northrop, 1989: 55). To have no ability to anticipate events is essentially to experience terror.

Identity can be conceived of as more than a psychological sense of self; it encompasses a sense that one is safe in the world physically, psychologically, socially, even spiritually. Events that threaten to invalidate the core sense of identity will elicit defensive responses aimed at avoiding psychic and/or physical annihilation.

The conditions for ethnicity have been the subject of great intellectual inquiry in recent times. What seems to be the unanimous view is that ethnicity and identity conflicts will be the dominant form of violence and war in the coming years. Ethnicity itself can be enhanced and reformulated under conditions of modernization. Myths of origin, enemy images, demonizing the other, are old and traditional myths of long historical duration. Most ethnic groups do have a myth of origin, a history of the group, chosen enemies, and stories of traumas. But what is it that gives these symbolic elements meaning and, in certain contexts, a possibility of actualization? When do self fulfilling prophecies become actualized? It is at this point that the intersection between modernity and the revival of myth and ritual is of interest.

Most ethnic or minority conflicts today have a substantial international or transnational component, for various reasons. This may be because members of the minority community in one state form part of the majority community in a neighbouring state, such as the Tamils in Sri Lanka or Catholics in Northern Ireland, or because a minority or ethnic community cuts across borders and thus involves more than one state (e.g. Basques, Saamis, Kurds). At least 80 potential contemporary border and territorial disputes between states have been identified. Transborder conflicts may seem latent, but they have a tendency to flare up and escalate rapidly. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf conflict (1990-1991) illustrated the potential for such conflagrations.

The problem is that many states have denied the existence of ethnic conflicts. Barsh (1988) evaluates the extent to which international bodies responsible for the protection of human rights have recognized the significance of ethnic conflict as a destabilizing force in both developing and industrialized countries. The study concludes that a surprisingly large number of states refuses to acknowledge the possibility of ethnic divisions. Examples of such denial can be found in all regions, but most frequently in Asia and Africa, where evidence suggests that the contemporary threat from ethnic conflict is also the greatest.

1.2 Conditions for ethnic conflicts

The multiplicity of ethnic groups does not by itself lead to violence and conflict. The stages in the process between mobilization and civil war can be long and protracted and it is only under certain conditions that separatist or secessionist movements will emerge. There have been several suggestive attempts to delineate models of ethnic stratification. These can provide useful typologies which raise issues of relevance to conflict resolution. Joseph Rothschild suggests:

Societies may stratify their ethnic groups according to models of vertical hierarchy, of parallel segmentation or of cross-patterned reticulation. Only in the first of these, the vertical hierarchical model, is there a categorical correspondence among all dimensions - political, social, economic and cultural - of ethnic super-ordination and subordination. (Rothschild, 1981: 7980)

To take one example, South Africa's apartheid system would easily fit this model.

In models of parallel ethnic segmentation, each ethnic community is internally stratified by socio-economic criteria and each has a political elite to represent its interest vis-Ó-vis the corresponding Úlites of the other ethnic segments. In the reticulate model, ethnic groups and social classes cross populate each other but the system is not random, symmetrical, or egalitarian. Each ethnic group pursues a wide range of economic functions and occupations, and each economic class or sector organically incorporates members of several ethnic categories.

Rothschild suggests that the reticulate model provides the best conditions for the gradual and peaceful resolution of ethnic conflicts. Similarly, Donald L. Horowitz (1981) makes a distinction between ranked and unranked ethnic groups. He sees the distinction as resting upon the coincidence of social class with ethnic group. When the two coincide it is possible to speak of ranked ethnic groups. Where groups are cross-class, it is possible to speak of unranked ethnic groups.

Both Rothschild and Horowitz point to a major distinction in ethnic stratification. If ethnic groups are ordered in a hierarchy, with one group super-ordinate and another subordinate, ethnic conflict moves in one direction. But if groups are parallel, with neither subordinate to the other, conflict takes a different course. Stratification in ranked systems is synonymous with ethnic membership. Mobility opportunities are restricted by group identity.

In unranked systems, on the other hand, parallel ethnic groups coexist, each group internally stratified. Horowitz suggests that ethnic and class conflict coincide when ethnicity and class coincide in ranked systems. Ethnic conflict, however, impedes or obscures class conflict when ethnic groups are cross class, as they are in unranked systems. It is obvious that this model describes two pure types which may not be so clear-cut in reality. It is crucial in the distinction to note that what we are mostly discussing with regard to modern ethnic conflicts are unranked systems, so characteristic of many multi-ethnic societies in the third world.

In distinguishing between types of ethnic conflict and stratification, important work has also been undertaken which could provide a fruitful basis for empirical research. The mobilization processes for political autonomy or secession would depend on certain conditions. Certain basic structures determine the course of the conflict and possibilities for resolving it. Rothschild suggests seven different outcomes of stratification from a conflict-resolution perspective:

1. Dominating majority;

2. Dominating minority;

3. Balanced relation with nation-building people and several ethnic groups or nationalities;

4. Division of power between territorially based and functional groups;

5. Oppressed but economically strong minority; 6. Many small groups in balance;

7. Multiplicity of ethnic groups of varying sizes and levels of politicization, manoeuvring within a relatively cohesive political system.

This can provide us with a useful typology for speculating on the types of conflicts each model can generate. With regard to secessionist movements, the worst possible situation is where both the majority and the minority have strong perceptions of being engulfed and dominated. In the dominant majority/minority model, the minority may have cross-border affiliations with a neighbouring country. The conflicts in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland are examples.

The dominant minority model reflects the apartheid system in South Africa. Here the ethnic stratification system and class are coterminous, with a tendency to polarize the conflict. In both these cases there is a danger that complex issues and a range of conflicts may be reduced to a single win/lose conflict with strong potential for violence.

The third type represents typically large geographic units with multi-ethnic configurations, many nations, languages, and minorities. The Indian case, where the Hindu majority is surrounded by many nations and linguistic minorities, has given rise to a federal structure. In the former Soviet Union the nation-building people also expanded across their own border, and the entire commonwealth has today inherited a complex ethnic stratification system. In such instances conflicts are always multiple in character and the complexity cannot be reduced to a single conflict. The state has more room for maneuver and requires a strong management style.

Another interesting stratification system occurs when one group retains economic power and the other geographic control and political power. Examples include Malaysia, Fiji, and Guyana. In such instances there is a tendency towards intractability if political power is not shared by both communities.

The mobilization processes for political autonomy or secession depend on certain conditions. To understand the dynamics of mobilization aiming at political autonomy and secessionist solutions, we must analyse the ethnic balance of power. This reflects not only demographic conditions but also differences between the resource bases of the various ethnic groups, their economic power and organizational propensities. Certain basic structures may determine the course of the conflict and possibilities for resolving it.

Typologies can be created to specify the types of conflict that could be generated. These specifications help us to discuss more clearly the types of conflict reduction mechanism possible within each given structure. Some structures have a potential for direct violence, while others have a potential for mediation and reconciliation. This suggests that the propensity for violent conflict exists in some societies but not in all.

To develop models of ethnic stratification and types of conflict represents a welcome corrective to those who would suggest psychological approaches, which merely prescribe changes in attitudes. In many cases changes in structure and the unit of devolution are crucial variables in determining whether conflicts will be generated. A significant variable is the politicization of ethnicity by political parties and political leaders of all shades. It is to be noted that so-called majoritarian democracies which require political power to be based on arithmetical majorities may be more prone to inter-ethnic mobilization. In such democracies political Úlites can appeal to ethnic loyalties as a base for political power.

2 The role of the state

The modernization project, as it were, has been accompanied by a highly centralized and standardized bureaucratic system. Its apotheosis has been the development and articulation of a centralized state, a concept which captured the imagination of many opinion leaders and decision makers throughout the world as the best vehicle for the evolution of human civilization. The evolution of the state has been the vehicle upon which violence has been mediated between itself and the people through the evolution of a technocratic bureaucratic structure that has taken upon itself the sole monopoly of violence.

The evolution of the state and the process of standardization meant that cultures and languages were either absorbed, eliminated, or incorporated into the modern project, and this continues. The state-building project is still not completed and there are many new nations which are demanding state sovereignty. The concept of "one nation, one state" continues to evoke passions and mobilize people.

What is new is that the process of centralization and state-building has been challenged by a variety of social and ethnic movements. The consolidation of state power in the future is problematic for a variety of reasons.

1. The concept of sovereignty is being gradually eroded;

2. The unitary state as a powerful centralizing agency is under challenge by sub-nationalist forces;

3. The monopoly of violence is no longer the sole monopoly of the state, and various transnational forces are able to arm, equip, and deliver lethal weapons of terror.

2.1 The concept of sovereignty

The modern state system has European origins. Beginning with a small number of states, it has today expanded to a proliferation of states, which itself constitutes a major global project of universal dimensions. The state-building project assumed new vigor after the Cold War, with a series of new states emerging. However, there has also been, under modern conditions, an erosion of the concepts of sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs. The prerogative of the state has been challenged by many institutions, and the metaphor of the global village and modern communications have helped to serve this purpose. Further, international institutions which began as complementary to state-building projects have assumed their own autonomy, which enables them to impose their will on individual states. In the domain of human rights and humanitarian intervention, norms have been developed where states are scrutinized for their human rights performance.

2.2 The unitary state

The process of state-building was characterized by strong centralization and bureaucratic management. Often unitary state structures are controlled by hegemonic Úlites who marginalize the periphery and other identities. This process of the unitary state often means one language, one principal nation. State formations are in different phases of evolution. Some formations have achieved a high degree of integration, such as the European Union, where border controls for those within the community are all but abolished. But the majority of states are in different phases of evolution. There are variations of this pattern found in almost all decolonized societies, including the former Soviet Union and parts of Eastern Europe.

Often states are dominated not only by bureaucratic centralization, but by hegemonic Úlites with wide patron/client networks which exclude other nationalities. Some of these states may evolve into truly multi-ethnic societies. (The idea of the melting-pot as a paradigm for social integration may not be relevant to all segmented and deeply divided societies.) The uneven development of state formations means that there are highly developed states (often called the democratic zone), states in formation, and states yet to be born. Reform of the international system means recognizing this fact. While some developed states may transfer sovereignty to higher bodies, others may cling to a narrow definition of sovereignty.

Most emerging conflicts are about the nature of the state and its formation. Whether the conflicts are over the devolution of power, federalism, governance, or how resources are distributed, generally they concern the way the state manages its business. Several states are themselves products of violence and bloodshed. Some states are hegemonic states in that they are based on communal/ethnic or religious loyalties, where patterns of recruitment to the army or the bureaucracy are based on ethnic affiliations. Some states can be called defective states, in that they continue to foster their own retardation, but all states are confronted with similar challenges. The most significant challenge is the requirement for modernizing their economies within an accelerated, frenetic, shrinking world. Internal threats come from the military and from ethnic and religious fundamentalist forces, constituting twin challenges to democratic development. Unfortunately, the state, in dealing with these issues, has often become an agent of arbitrary violence, perpetuating force and militarism as a way of resolving conflicts. There is also another significant reason why conflicts are becoming increasingly difficult to manage. This is the proliferation of weapons and the diffusion of the technology of weapons. New armed actors tend to determine the direction of conflicts. There is a growing transnational network which trades in small weapons and this network is linked to the drugs trade.

3 The concept of self-determination

The right to self-determination remains one of the most intractable and difficult problems to be addressed by the international community. Many legal formulas have sought to define the existence of the right to self-determination, to define who constitutes a people and who has a right to a separate existence. The subject has been the basis for contention and war.

In a comprehensive analysis of the right to self-determination, Aureliu Cristescu wrote:

It is clear that the relevant provisions of the Charter have been interpreted in an increasingly progressive spirit over the years. Today, it is generally recognized that the concept of self-determination entails legal rights and obligations and that a right of self-determination definitely exists. (Special Rapporteur..., 1981)

With two exceptions, South Africa and Palestine, colonial and alien domination was treated as a phenomenon that applied only where the dominator was European. There is nothing in the Charter or the Covenants, however, that restricts the definition to colonial and subject peoples. The Charter refers in general terms to the development of "friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples." The Covenants assert that "all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. "

Some of the problems associated with the current state of affairs have been identified as follows:

1. The United Nations has not established any formal procedures for adjudicating claims to self-determination. The Committee of 24, the Decolonisation Committee, entertains representations only on behalf of peoples whose territories they have listed, all of which are dependencies or former dependencies of European powers. But the Committee has no mechanism for examining claims from persons or organizations claiming to represent peoples aspiring to the right of self-determination, let alone of assessing them according to a set of agreed criteria.

2. A distinction is made in practice between so-called "salt-sea" imperialism, where the dominating and the dominated are separated by hundreds of miles, and "local" imperialism, where the two peoples are immediate neighbours. It has been assumed until very recently that peoples locked together within a state must remain so linked indefinitely. This means that many cases of "internal colonialism" do not come under the purview of any international body.

3. The right to self-determination is treated essentially as a political right, rather than one of international law.

The current discussion is taking place in the context of a new situation. The disintegration of the Soviet Union provides new impetus to the debate, in that within the Commonwealth of Independent States the right to self-determination has not only been exercised by republics but is also a point of contention within the republics themselves. It is highly probable that current experiences associated with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia will have ramifications beyond their borders. There is no shortage of other empires or quasi-empires which have imposed internal colonialism and subjected peoples to national oppression.

In the debate on the right to self-determination, useful distinctions have been attempted between peoples who have the right to secession and minorities who have the right to protection within a given state. The protection of minorities has been a subject of great contention and debate, but attempts are being made to monitor states' performance. Standards are being established, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted on 18 December 1992. Regional organizations such as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) have also developed their own standards and principles governing minority protection. However, there is still a long way to go between declaration and practice, and mechanisms need to be developed for monitoring and obtaining compliance by states.

The question which has not been answered is: how will it be determined exactly what constitutes a minority and what constitutes a people? Is this to be determined solely by the individual state and only internationalized after gross violations have been committed or when refugee flows become unacceptable to neighboring countries? Or should there be bodies which can adjudicate and make decisions on this vexing question? Those who argue for an international body to adjudicate self-determination would say that there needs to be a framework for making such decisions. Subject peoples need not have to undergo violence and bloodshed before their case is heard.

Recently there has been a proposal for the appointment of a High Commissioner for Self-Determination, whose function would be to look at claims and report on them in the light of factors which might include the following:

- previous history of statehood or existence as a separate territorial entity;

- ethnicity, language, religion, culture;

- existence of special institutions;

- manifestations of the will to a separate identity.

The High Commissioner could refer cases to a Committee on Self Determination. The Decolonisation Committee that was set up to adjudicate on former colonies could be given the mandate to address new claims. Such a body may be able to adjudicate and give fair and evenhanded judgments based on the establishment of clear principles and norms.

On the other hand, some argue for a case-by-case approach. They are apprehensive of creating an epidemic, where fresh claims are made for secession without considering alternative arrangements such as internal autonomy, federalism, confederation, and minority protection. It may well be that the complexity of the situation requires a case-by-case approach. The weakness of this argument, however, is that it does not offer an institutional arrangement by which this can be achieved. Whatever the merits of these approaches, it is clear that today the issue of who constitutes a people and who has the right to independence is one of the most important to be addressed by the world community.

3.1 Democratization and self-determination

The paradox is that democratization creates the space for ethnic revival and religious fundamentalism. Only under conditions of democracy do such movements become public issues. The resurgence of ethnic and nationality claims may expand the basis for democracy by providing for adequate representation and devolution, but it seems that centralized unitary states are not prepared to give an inch, except through confrontation and violence. In this sense the resurgence of ethnicity and religious extremism pose a major challenge to the global expansion of democracy. Both these visions still have the capability to challenge democracy from below, but they may be counterbalanced by other factors, such as a large middle class or a diffused professional cadre committed to stability and secularism.


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