Attaining Peace in Divided Societies: 5 Principles of Emerging Doctrine

By Gurr, Ted Robert | The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Attaining Peace in Divided Societies: 5 Principles of Emerging Doctrine


Gurr, Ted Robert, The World and I


Ted Robert Gurr is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, where he directs the Minorities at Risk project, which tracks the political status and activities of more than 300 communal groups world-wide.

An extraordinary shift has taken place in the last decade in strategies for the transformation of what I call ethnopolitical conflicts--in which cultural, racial, and religious minorities seek equal rights and political participation, and national peoples demand self-determination. Consider a few examples:

- Apartheid South Africa at the beginning of the 1990s was transformed into an African-dominated multiracial democracy not through bloody race war, as many observers predicted, but by a largely peaceful process of political and constitutional change.

- After Indonesia's transition toward democracy in 1998, the new government grudgingly accepted a referendum on Timor's secession and opened negotiations with representatives of the secessionist Free Aceh movement. Ethnopolitical violence continues in Aceh, in Irian Jaya, and elsewhere, but what was unthinkable under Suharto's authoritarian regime has now become the acceptable practice of seeking accommodation with rebels rather than relying exclusively on force.

- The German government, after decades in which citizenship was defined exclusively by descent, began in the late 1990s to lower in a meaningful way the barriers used to deny citizenship to the vast majority of Turkish and other non-German immigrants.

- Virtually every news analysis and essay on the future of Afghanistan written since September 2001 has stressed that the country's future stability depends on establishing a power-sharing coalition among leaders of its Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara communities. This is in marked contrast to the discourse of the 1980s and early 1990s, in which outside observers saw only the conflict between mujahedeen rebels and a communist regime in Kabul, and ignored the ethnic rivalries that have driven Afghan politics for centuries.

These transformations are hardly isolated. Instead they bespeak a new global doctrine for managing conflicts in heterogeneous societies. It is based on premises that communal contention about access to the state's power and resources should be restrained by recognizing minority rights and negotiating power-sharing arrangements; that threats to divide a country should be managed by the devolution of state power; and that the international community has proactive responsibility for promoting these outcomes. Once-common strategies of forced assimilation, racial separation, and ethnic cleansing--the phrase is new, the practice ancient--have been tossed into the dustbin of history, adding a new layer to the moldering relics of colonial conquest and imperial rule. The older strategies still have local defenders and practitioners, but the most influential international actors now assert the normative and practical superiority of pluralism, power-sharing, and regional autonomy within existing states.

The impact of the new doctrine is somewhat obscured by the brutality of recent ethnopolitical conflicts in Central and West Africa, in Kosovo and Chechnya, in Timor and Myanmar, and the messiness or absence of international responses to them. But the trends are unmistakable, as I show below. Among them are a long-run and near-global improvement in the status of minorities, a sharp decline in new ethnic wars, the settlement of many protracted wars, and proactive efforts by states and international organizations to recognize group rights and channel ethnic disputes into conventional politics.

International principles for managing conflict in heterogenous societies

The norms and practices of international responsibility for racial, ethnic, and cultural conflict evolved rapidly during the 1990s. Protection of human rights and redress for past discrimination against minorities were more actively promoted within and among countries. …

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