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4 Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies

The application of theories on conflict and their relation to ethnic strife and future disputes remains one of the central challenges for scholars and practitioners. The subject matter of conflicts we are dealing with is largely based on visions of just societies and strong conceptions of identity.

4.1 Rationality and conflict resolution

A large and growing body of literature on conflicts and conflict resolution has consisted of theoretical reflection coming from the United States and Europe. This approach generally presupposes a domain of "rationality," where all the parties more or less share certain basic values based on rational argument. However, certain assumptions within this conventional theoretical conflict paradigm are largely unseated and need to be deconstructed. Failure to do this leaves un addressed many crucial questions relating to the causes of endemic violence in third world societies, the undemocratic nature of many of these societies and their inability to resolve conflicts in a more humane and peaceful manner. Conflict resolution theory, fixed within a rationalist framework, marginalises many of these dimensions, making the theory a limited tool in resolving violent disputes. It is therefore important to identify some of the stated assumptions behind the approach to conflict resolution mentioned above.

In Western approaches to conflict resolution it is assumed that the problem is getting the parties to the conference table through negotiations and that it is possible to get a win/win solution agreeable to both sides. The environment within which these conflicts occur is generally imbued with a strong ideological imperative of equality and recognition of the rule of law. The modern division of labour in Western societies assumes that their members are tied to multiple roles and are attached to a variety of interests which result in conflict. In recognition of this complexity, society develops institutions and mechanisms to resolve conflicts in a specified way. Gradually, a culture of negotiations emerges and a complex network of arbitration and dispute resolution becomes increasingly professionalized. Conflicts are amongst like-minded actors who speak a common language, denoting a shared universe of meaning. Normally, disputes are defined within a fairly developed regime of law, based on individual rights, which has had a specific historical evolution in the West. In this approach a high priority is given to getting all the parties to reach an understanding of their specific interest and how those interests can be satisfied using problem-solving approaches and negotiations.

4.2 Conflict theory as applied to protracted conflict

How relevant are these approaches to the protracted violent conflicts we are now experiencing? These conflicts are not based merely on interest but involve many social dimensions involving identity and security. Social conflicts involving groups within a society are taken as severe when they result in political violence (war, massacres, executions, disappearances, torture), or serious political repression (imprisonment, censorship, discrimination) on a large scale.

Conflicts which involve a core sense of identity between or among parties tend to be intractable: the intractability is generated by the dynamics of the conflict rather than by a rational reasoning process. Conflict resolution here means changing the conditions of this intractability. These conflicts are not single-issue disputes, but multiple conflicts being waged simultaneously.

In the most general terms, I would suggest that we see conflicts as collisions between projects. Projects are sequences of actions directed towards a goal. Conflicts occur when the projects of different actors start impinging on each other. Take missions, for example. Missions are projects of the largest historical scale: their space is the world, their time measured in millennia. Among the world's religions, two stand out as missionary creeds: Christianity and Islam. The collision of ideologies in this century - between concepts of capitalism, Marxism, nationalism, or the idea of progress - can also be seen as clashes between projects.

4.3 Governance and conflict transformation

In reviewing conflict resolution stratagems I think I have made it clear that those which have emanated from the discourse of rationality are only partially applicable to protracted social conflicts.

Research on past conflicts provides us with quite a few clues to address this issue. Conflicts have a beginning and an end. While some recent wars have lasted 30 years, inter-state wars are getting shorter and more random. On the other hand, internal wars are getting longer and more consistent. It is also apparent that the most difficult conflicts to resolve are ethnic conflicts, and they also seem to be the most violent, involving the highest number of civilian casualties. Third parties seldom intervene until the violence reaches a high level and casualties are very high. The United Nations is rarely involved in these conflicts and the cases are rarely brought to the Security Council. Intervention, third-party mediation, or negotiations usually come years too late, after the conflict has become intractable. It is therefore necessary to identify gaps in the conflict process and find ways of strengthening and building competence in these areas.

In recent years it has become abundantly clear that we must abandon linear approaches that seek single causes of conflicts and adopt multiple approaches to reduce the sources of intractability. Conflicts can only be resolved within a political process. Such an approach requires recognition that many actors and many institutions need to be involved, and that a division of labour needs to evolve which engages the United Nations, the international community, and the non-governmental world.

A conflict may be broken down into several phases: formation; escalation; endurance; improvement; and transformation. Each phase may require a different type of intervention:

1. formation - early warning;

2. escalation - crisis intervention;

3. endurance empowerment and mediation;

4. improvement - negotiation/problem-solving;

5. transformation - new institutions and projects.

4.3.1 When conflicts begin: Conflict formation

The conflict formation phase is when there is a perceived disjuncture between actors in a given social system. Conflict prevention means controlling a situation where conflicting goals exist, in order to avoid the development of violence. Institution-building for conflict regulation is one form of conflict prevention.

The political institutions which will be discussed later fall into this category. There is very little recognition of early warning indicators that can lead to conflict management or resolution. Except for national intelligence services notorious for their bias and lack of credibility - there is no agency to monitor potential conflicts. Similarly, there is no public agency which can work towards conflict prevention. Few societies have ombudsmen or other governmental bodies to facilitate preventive action.

Generally, the international system has been geared for the protection of victims and intervention only after a conflict has developed into pathological proportions. Only very recently have serious discussions started on the development of an early warning capability and the need for preventive diplomacy.

4.3.2 Conflict escalation and crisis intervention

Conflict escalation occurs when conflicting parties have gone into the phase of attrition, both verbal and military, and when a dispute enters into a spiral of violence and counter-violence. Very little is done to intervene when a conflict escalates into bloodshed. Far too often, states are dearly implicated in fomenting or tolerating riots and pogroms. The same is true when it comes to the investigation of crimes committed against civilians and when little is done to hold law enforcement agencies accountable.

Non-governmental and humanitarian organizations and citizen bodies may play a role in providing relief to the victims. This is when peace-keeping forces may be brought into play. The United Nations has developed competence in peace-keeping and this may be used increasingly in internal armed conflicts.

4.3.3 Conflict endurance: Empowerment and mediation

Conflict endurance refers to a phase in which the parties to a conflict have entered a state of war and the reproduction of violence becomes pathological. Civilian institutions are weakened and the civilian community is passive. Eventually, concessions for mediation may be made, due to war-weariness or when the conflict has reached sufficient maturity and one side has been able to press its claims through either violence or mass pressure. Generally, as far as the state is concerned, concessions are expressed through accords, roundtable conferences, pacts, and agreements.

Recent accords, however, do not provide for any optimism. Rather than resolve conflicts, some accords merely serve to create new disputes. Instead of being an attempt to bring parties to a consensus, an accord may really represent the exercise of power and the imposition of the will of the state. This is the time when civilians need to assert themselves and create space for democratic action and the resolution of conflict.

4.3.4 Conflict improvement: Negotiation and problem solving

There are instances when negotiations begin in earnest between protagonists. But cease-fires and negotiations tend to break down for a variety of reasons: there may be too much secrecy involved, or a lack of professional negotiators, and cease-fires can be used for regrouping armed militia. Such setbacks occur despite the fact that there are now many examples of frameworks for negotiations at the UN, regional, and subregional levels.

4.3.5 Conflict transformation: New institutions and projects

This is a phase when popular forces are able to change the balance of power and there is a change of regime, through either an election or a coup. Such transformation can only be meaningful if it is not a mere transfer of power, if structural changes are achieved within the society and new institutions emerge to address themselves meaningfully to outstanding issues.

We can classify possible solutions to the kinds of conflict discussed above, as follows:

(i) A high degree of regional autonomy for a minority which has already a strong territorial claim;

(ii) Fundamental social reforms such as land reform, labour rights, social redistribution of wealth, etc.;

(iii) Political democracy with a free press, multi-party system, civil and political rights;

(iv) Consociational democracy: more complex social contracts that combine universal political rights with special provisions for vulnerable groups;

(v) Federal form of government which recognizes linguistic groups and nationalities as units of devolution.

A rationalist formula may be able to deal with some of the phases in the conflict process but not all. The timing of various interventions and the nature of the intervenor can be crucial to the way in which the conflict is transformed. The challenge falls on those who capture the democratic space available to determine whether conflicts can be transformed through collective non-violence or whether armed conflicts and criminality will dominate. In peace-building processes, I would suggest that each specific culture has the indigenous resources to resolve its own conflicts. It should be borne in mind that conflict transformation attempts to empower all the parties to a conflict. This approach recognizes that social conflicts need to be transformed in a less violent way. Admittedly, violence can achieve limited objectives, but contemporary violence and its manifestations maim and injure all sides, including large numbers of civilians.

5 International responses and mechanisms

Concern has been expressed at the lack of capacity of international institutions such as the United Nations and various regional organizations to manage ethnic and internal conflict.

5.1 The role of the United Nations

The UN has considerable potential for conflict prevention and conflict resolution, but it is obvious that it has a limited mandate when it comes to violent conflicts, often defined as internal disputes. Nevertheless, the organization has been involved in conflicts in countries such as the Congo, Cyprus, Lebanon, Somalia, and Guatemala, and has sent observer missions to Palestine, Kashmir, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and El Salvador. Over the years, the UN has developed considerable competence in peace-keeping, but not in peace-making or in peace-building. It is therefore necessary to continue exploring ways to advance the UN's role as peacemaker. Many suggestions have been made, from improving reporting systems to early warnings, strengthening the role of the Secretary-General, developing competence within the Secretary-General's office, and appointing special rapporteurs. The Security Council has not been able to ignore the growing political and public pressure to re-examine the scope of UN activities. Discussions within the Security Council have allowed world leaders to explore the weaknesses and strengths of the United Nations, discuss its role after the Cold War, and make recommendations for its evolution. Many of the leaders proposed that the United Nations should play a major role in peace-making. It was suggested that the UN should not only develop an early warning capability but address the issue of conflict prevention by early and timely intervention. The Secretary-General was requested to use his good offices in advancing the cause of peace-making and peace-building.

Research on the formation of conflicts and their maturation tells us of the many lacunae and gaps in the field. We know that early warning and early intervention are still the weak links in the chain. We also know that once a conflict matures there is a mismatch between the event and forms of intervention. Generally intervention through fact-finding or mediation comes too late. We need to mobilize and deploy much earlier the skills available to enforce and monitor cease fires. Parties in conflict rarely find legitimate frameworks to discuss these issues.

Negotiation is not the business of amateurs but requires the use of organizations with an institutional memory. Different interventions are required at different stages, from early warning to conflict transformation. The problem is not only to reduce the duration of the conflict but also to reduce the mismatch between escalation and intervention.

The United Nations is rightly placed and has within its mandate the opportunity to address these issues. According to Brian Urquhart, the UN has exercised two options in the past: traditional peacekeeping or large-scale collective enforcement action, such as was seen in Korea and more recently in Kuwait. Urquhart suggests a third strategy of international military operation is needed, somewhere between peace-keeping and large-scale enforcement. It would aim to put an end to random and uncontrolled violence and provide a reasonable degree of peace and order so that humanitarian relief work could go forward, and a conciliation and settlement process be undertaken.

Such armed police actions would use highly trained but relatively small numbers of troops and would not have military objectives as such. Unlike peacekeeping forces they would be required to take certain combat risks and if necessary to use a limited degree of force. (Urquhart, 1993: 93-4)

My proposal, however, is directed toward preventing large-scale conflicts and bloodshed. The dynamics of conflicts are such that we need to have an enlarged political package where many initiatives can have a consistent place. This is why a new framework needs to be provided by the international community. There must be early and timely intervention. A framework for discussion can provide a basis for negotiating territorial grievances within an international setting.

Furthermore, guarantees for minorities may also be secured by providing comparative knowledge, as well as constitutional provisions and other mechanisms tried out elsewhere. Given timely warning and early enough alert information, the United Nations and the Secretary-General should be able to make available their offices to provide such frameworks for dispute resolution.

There must be a quick and effective manner to bring impending violent situations to the attention of the Security Council. In this regard, fact-finding missions sent quickly can accomplish a lot. Providing forums for the parties to identify the issues can also help, as can the sending of skilled peace-makers to talk to the parties and the provision of competent negotiators as technical assistants. The point is that contingency plans should be comprehensive.

In the pursuit of peace-making initiatives the United Nations can also benefit by closer cooperation with non-governmental organizations in the field. A much better understanding is required of how these organizations assist by developing early warning information and research and collaborating with other groups in the field. This in turn would foster a better understanding of the comparative advantages of each type of organization and the coalitions needed to be built around particular issues. Just as the current discussion on the role of the United Nations is timely, addressing these relationships at the highest level could help the people of the twenty-first century live in a more peaceful world.


Barsh, Lawrence. 1988. "The Ethnic Factor in Security and Development: Perceptions of the United Nations Human Rights Bodies." Acta Sociologica 31, no. 4: 333-41.

Horowitz, Donald L. 1981. "Patterns of Ethnic Separatism." Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 2.

Northrup, Terrell A. 1989. "The Dynamic of Identity in Personal and Social Conflict." In Louis Krieberg, Terrell A. Northrop, and Stuart J. Thorson (eds), Intractable Conflicts and their Transformation. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Rothschild, Joseph. 1981. Ethnopolitics: A Conceptual Framework. New York: Columbia University Press.

SIPRI Yearbook 1992. 1992. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Anthony D. 1983. "Ethnic Identity and World Order." Millennium 12: 149-61.

Special Rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. 1978. "Study of the historical and current development of the right to self determination on the basis of the Charter of the UN and other instruments adopted by UN organs with particular reference to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms." UN [E/CN.4/sub.2/404/Rev.1]

Urquhart, Brian. 1993. "Security After the Cold War." In Adam Roberts and Benedict Kingsbury (eds), United Nations, Divided World: The UN's Roles in International Relations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 81-103.

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