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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
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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

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-à-vis the corresponding élites 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 élites can appeal to ethnic loyalties as a base for political power.