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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

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 élites 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 élites 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.