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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (United Nations University, 1996, 298 p.)
close this folder1. Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies
View the document(introduction...)
View the document1 Governance, ethnicity, and conflict resolution
View the document2 The role of the state
View the document3 The concept of self-determination
View the document4 Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies
View the document5 International responses and mechanisms

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.