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Challenges to Ending Ethnic Conflict

4174 words (17 pages) Essay

29th Mar 2019 History Reference this

Why is ending ethnic conflict so difficult?

Currently there are more than forty armed active conflicts across the globe. Many, like the ongoing conflict in Syria, have roots in ethnicity and religion. Throughout history, ethnic conflicts have long been a key component of international politics and affairs. Even today, in the post-cold war era, stated by Francis Fukuyama to be the “end of history” ethnic wars proceed to be the most common form of conflict around the globe. Ethnic conflict is considered to be “any episode of sustained violent conflict in which national, ethnic, and religious or other communal minorities challenge governments to seek major changes in status” (Bates et. Al, 2003). This interpretation of ethnic conflict belongs to the instrumentalist tradition most often associated with the international theorist Bates.

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Bates foremost point is that ethnic conflict is conflict among rational agents over scarce resources. He buttresses this claim by organising an astounding wealth of case-studies from Sub-Saharan Africa within his works. Additionally, there are two other mainstream causes accepted as the cause of conflict within international relations, these are the primordialist and constructivist accounts.  

In the recent years there have been multiple examples of ethnic conflict occurring, including ethnic war in Somalia, the Kurdish struggle for autonomy across Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey and guerilla wars in El Salvador (Sadowski, 1998). The United Kingdom itself has faced its own ethnic conflict in the past century, namely in Northern Ireland. All parties involved in the Northern Ireland conflict eventually came to what can be considered one of the greatest peace negotiations in history (BBC History, n.d.). The conflict in NI was eventually settled after years of bloody fighting and terror on the streets. This was down to a successful negotiated settlement through years of conflict transformation. However, this is not always the case and such a settlement is rarely achievable. It is claimed by many critics that ending ethnic conflict is difficult

This essay will set to determine the factors which often prevent ethnic conflict from ending by; analysing various case studies, the individual context of which such conflicts may have occurred and thoroughly analysing the preventative measures and negotiated settlements which are frequently used and attempted to limit and end conflict (within the field of international relations). There are six key strategies to ending and transforming conflicts namely; state building, autonomy, power sharing, federation, suppression and negotiated settlements, all of which will be critically analysed in this essay.

The impact of negotiated settlements on ethnic conflict

Negotiated settlements can happen at three levels: national, international and regional.  The concept is defined as “negotiation is often a process of power-based dialogue intended to achieve certain goals or ends, and which may or may not thoroughly resolve a particular dispute or disputes to the satisfaction of all parties” (Gardner, 2011).

The impact of statebuilding on ethnic conflict

The first strategy of which will be discussed is state building. This strategy is described in the following, “the construction of a state apparatus defined by its monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in a given territory” (Lottholz, and Lemay-Hébert, 2016).  Over the past two decades, state-building has become an integral part in the path to peacebuilding and ending ethnic conflict by the international community. State building is supposedly a method of institution building, creating socio-cultural cohesion and allowing economic viability of the state. However important political philosophers such as Leon Trotsky have always mainteded the view that a state comes about as a result of violence not peace. Observers across the political spectrum have come to see the state-building approach as the preferred, but arguably unsuccessful, strategy to peace building, evident in a number of recent high-profile conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Anders Perssons agrees, stating “More than two decades of Palestinian state-building have produced neither peace nor a state. In fact, the Palestinians are seemingly further away from statehood today than at any point since the state-building process began in the mid-90s”. This is all despite the fact Palestine institutions in the West Bank fully meeting the criteria of what makes a state by popular western institutions – “the West Bank’s institutions now perform, according to the UN, the EU, the World Bank and IMF, above the threshold for what is expected of a state” (Persson, 2017) . There are many reasons for this with critic Marina Ottaway arguing that the international community “has neither the will nor the way” (Ottaway, 2009) to build nations. In the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the lack of political will to recognise the Palestinian state, could arguably be down to geopolitics and Israel’s ongoing relationship with the West, in particular the United States. There are further examples of State Building failing, for example in Somali which has long been unstable since, and still to this day is embraced in conflict, the end of its civil war in 1991. Tobias Hagman states “extraversion has been a frequent cause and feature of failed inter-nationalized state building in Somalia” arguing that “state building that is more coercive has increased rather than reduced violent conflict”. (Hagman, 2016).

The impact of regional autonomy on ethnic conflict

A further measure to ending ethnic conflict is the granting of regional autonomy to restive ethnic groups in an aim to prevent or end ethnic conflict. Yash Ghai defines autonomy as a “device to allow ethnic or other groups that claim a distinct identity to exercise direct control over affairs of special concern to them while allowing the larger entity to exercise those powers that cover common interests” (Committee on International Conflict Resolution, 2000) Between 1999 and 2009 it is claimed new autonomous regions where created. There are vast examples of autonomous regions across the globe, some created by international agreements like Hong Kong via the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 or the more recent example been the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Autonomous regions can also be created internally, often as a result of inter-ethnic conflict. An example of these internally created federal regions are the autonomous communities of Catalonia and Basques Country in Spain. Yash Ghai, in Chapter 12 of International Conflict Resolution After the Cold War, considers autonomy as a strategy for conflict management. Autonomy is typically seen as a successful model, and up until recently the Spanish federal model could of been regarded as successful and settled – “The Spanish federal system – was once viewed as a model for countries around the world” (Garcia-Mila and McGuire, 2014). However, recent economic challenges have rendered Catalonia’s questioning their share of the deal, with commentators claiming “the largest tax contributors in Spain, view the federal system as blatantly unfair” (Garcia-Mila and McGuire, 2014). Evidently, this is somewhat true seen in the result of December 2017 referendum, now considered illegal. This caused Madrid to withdraw autonomous status from the region and call new elections immediately. However, Catalonia are still without a Premier with the leadership vote postponed again, as for the fourth time the Spanish judiciary refuses to release candidate. It could be said this particular gridlock questions the success of the model as well as showing that years of autonomous status has not stopped the desire for Catalonian independence. Other examples of the use of regional autonomy include Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Bangladesh. In the case of Sri Lanka and the ongoing Tamil-Sinhalese Conflict various forms of regional autonomy have been promised but very little successfully attempted. There are minimal to no noticeable differences in rights to the Tamil minority since the conflict began in 1948, with both sides embroiled in constant conflict. Both India and Norway, as third parties, have attempted to facilitate the path to regional autonomy, to little avail proving that conflict peace building is a complicated and messy.

The impact of power sharing on ethnic conflict

An additional method employed to end ethnic conflict is power sharing. Power sharing is said to be a combination of autonomy and power sharing to employ a deal with restive ethnic groups. This method has emerged in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Lebanon. The Northern Ireland Assembly, an autonomous body within the UK, adopted the consociationalism approach developed by Arend Lijphart. The Offical website for the Northern Irish Assembly defines its particular model as “the Agreement determined that the Executive Committee would be a power-sharing government, representing both unionists and nationalists” with particular focus on “cross-community power sharing at executive level”, “a proportional representation electoral system”, “cultural equality for the two main traditions” for example the development of the Irish language and Ulster Scots and “special voting arrangements that give veto rights to the minority”. Northern Ireland can be claimed to be a success, with some claiming it’s only “brought temporary calm” (Phillips) with many Catholics still facing the same representation problems today. The Assembly has seen its fair share of challenges, evident today as it still has no executive following its 2017 elections, and in the past when direct rule was imposed from London in October 2002 with devolved government not returning until March 2007 following the St Andrews Agreement (BBC History, n.d.). On the other hand the creation of the assembly and the passing of the Good Friday Agreement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair can be regarded as having many great achievements, the greatest arguably been creating an executive co-led by both Martin McGuiness, the former IRA leader, and Ian Paisley, a key figure head in the loyalist movements.  “Many could simply not believe quite how well the Catholic nationalist Mr McGuinness would get on with the pro-Britain Protestant Mr Paisley when they were thrust together in 2007” (ITV, 2017).

Other examples of attempts to end ethnic conflict via employing power sharing are evident in Bosnia. Upon the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation in 1990–91, Bosnia faced the challenge of managing inter-ethnic relations in their considerably diverse society. Ethnic conflict, via the Dayton and Ohrid agreements, “led to the restructuring of the institutional and political architecture of each state, with the intention of achieving greater inclusion and access to political power for all ethnic groups”. This put an end to the violence. Since the end of the ethnic conflicts, Bosnia is yet to plummet back into violence and armed conflict is yet to return. However, ethnic tensions have remained. Nikolaos Zifakisi claims “eleven years after the end of the civil war, ethnic tension in Bosnia is still as high as ever. All sides openly challenge the country’s political system that was determined by the Dayton accords. From the above it can be claimed that power sharing, as in the case of both Bosnia and Northern Ireland, offer a solution to stopping violence but not solve the factors which cause conflict in the first place.

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The impact of federalism on ethnic conflict

Federalisation of the political system is one method which can be utilised in order to prevent ethnic conflict. As mentioned previously it is often coupled with autonomy as evident in Spain. Federalism was first coined in America’s constitutional convention of 1787, where those favouring a powerful central government, adopted the name “federalists”. Those who wanted strong states and a weak central government became the “anti-federalists” (Economist, 2017). Federalisation is claimed to be the adoption of group proportional representation in administrative appointments, including consensus decision-making rule in the executive, which acknowledge group rights or non-territorial federation. To do this a ‘proportional’ electoral system is implemented such as the electoral college in the United States. The federal model in the US emerged as a result of ending conflict and can be more than regarded as successful due to how long it’s existed. Other examples of federalisation as a result of ethnic conflict include India and Nepal. Federalism is often recommended to prevent and manage conflicts, however its “adoption has exacerbated ethnic conflict in Nepal” (Lawoti, 2016). Disenchantment has been running high in the country, over the plan to divide the state into six provinces thus implementing a federal system. As a result, tensions are particularly high among marginalised groups, particularly those from the country’s far western and plains regions. Conflict has arisen as provinces currently do not, and under future plans will not, enjoy equal strength in terms of resource distribution or sustainability, therefore effecting the development of the nation. In the west of the country districts such as Surkhet are tense. India provides another federal model which has faced its fair share of challenges since the country was granted independence in 1947.  Jayaprakash Narayan part of the ‘LokSatta movement’ for democratic reforms in India writes “the efforts of the Union government to divide Andhra Pradesh irrespective of the State legislature’s views, pose a grave danger to federalism and unity” (Narayan, 2013) this arguable ignorance to the will of the people undermines federalism as typically a state that’s regarded as federal, such as the US, cannot be divided or merged with another state without the prior consent of the central (federal government) and decentralised powers (state legislature).

The impact of suppression on ethnic conflict

The final method of ending ethnic conflict which will be discussed is the tactic of suppression. It often sees the use of military force and abuses of human rights to achieve its goals. Example of the use of suppression can be seen in the Biafra people’s ongoing fight for self-determination against the oppressive forces of Nigeria, and particularly in the period of the Nigerian Civil War. When independence was granted by Britain, Nigeria adopted a federal constitution, defining its regions on the principal of ethnicity. By the mid-1960s the military, and the economic situation worsened, ethnic tensions broke out. In May 1967, the head of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, namely Emeka Ojukwu, declared the independent Republic of Biafra (BBC, 2017). During the war there war reports of horrendous atrocities been committed particularly the Assaba Massacre, in this particular event it is estimated “more than 700 men and boys were killed, some as young as 12 years old, in addition to many more killed in the preceding days” (Biafra TV, 2015). By the end of conflict over 50,000 military personal died and it is said due to the human rights abuses and frequent use of military force over the period of the 30 month war between 500,000 and 2,000,000 died of starvation (Biafra TV, 2015). Despite the conflict ending, mainly due to means of suppression, animosity still exists between the ethnic groups today. As recently as May 2016 the Nigerian authorities have continued there suppression of the Biafran people killing dozens at a pro-independence rally (This Day Live, 2016). The South-East Based Coalition of Human Rights Organisation claims 80 members of the pro-Biafra group the IPOB and their supporters have been killed under the directive of the Nigerian government between August 30, 2015 and February 9, 2016 (Okonkwo, 2018). This, for a multiple of reasons, is clearly not a method which should be attempted to end ethnic conflict. It may have lessened the threat of armed struggle in Nigeria but the animosity amongst the ethnic groups is still as ripe as ever and the total disregard for Human Rights is not a compromise worth paying.  

In summary it can be said there is no clear formula to how identity wars should be addressed as unfortunately there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for ending and managing ethnic conflict.  No two conflicts are the same therefore there is no transferable solution that can be replicated across conflicts, thus making the process of ending them very difficult. In order for a conflict to end there has to be political will within the international community. In the case of Isreal-Palestine, described in the writings above, there is very little political will therefore the likelihood of it ending is low. However, there have been elements of success as mentioned in the writings above and lessons can be learnt from them.

The peace process in Northern Ireland can, up to now at least, be rightly considered a success. Today, Unionist and Republican voices are represented in Stormont through a power-sharing arrangement in a way that is proportional to their share of the electoral vote. The level of violence is now below the level before the outbreak of the troubles, with the likelihood of being a victim of crime today been lower than if one were living in England or Wales (BBC, 2013). Despite this challenges have arisen for Stormont, particularly recently where Northern Ireland had now had no executive for other a year (Fenton, 2017). One reason for this could be that the reasons for the conflict where never properly resolved and as mentioned above Republican Catholics are still facing systematic intuitional oppression in Northern Ireland and the increasing likelihood of direct rule from Westminster and a hard border with the Republic of Ireland due to Brexit could cause conflict to re-emerge (Jack, 2018) This suggests the conflict is not settled but that it is just no longer violent.

In conclusion ending ethnic conflict is difficult as meeting all the criteria to do so appears (from the above) somewhat impossible to do. In order to end conflict and agree a long-term workable solution there first must be popular international political will, an agreeable compromise by all actors involved that suits also suits all parties involved; and a proper transitional plan for when a conflict cedes. Rarely does this ever happen and even the most lucrative settlement (Good Friday Agreement) is on the verge of collapse (Jack, 2018).


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