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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder1. Governance and conflict resolution in multi-ethnic societies
View the document(introductory text...)
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

(introductory text...)

Kumar Rupesinghe

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.