Confront Ethnic Conflict before It Gets out of Hand

Article excerpt

BYLINE: Knut Vollebaek

The Hague: Kenya is in serious trouble. In addition to being a cause for common concern, the situation there is also a reminder to the African Union of the challenges Africa faces with its thousands of ethnic groups spread across national boundaries. Preventing political discord from turning into vicious inter-communal conflicts must remain foremost on the minds of the members of the AU.

Inter-ethnic conflict is the major source of violence, causing enormous human and material losses throughout the world, and gives rise to great costs for post-conflict peace-building, including physical reconstruction and social rehabilitation.

About 16 million lives have been lost as a result of ethnic strife since 1945 - far more than in wars between states. According to Oxfam, in Africa alone conflicts since the end of the Cold War have cost $300 billion. These figures, however, fail to reflect the damage inflicted on the fabric of societies that will haunt them for generations.

Dealing with the consequences of these conflicts usually requires tremendous reconciliation efforts. By the time violence breaks out, a conflict has developed its own dynamics, and the chances for successful diplomatic engagement are substantially reduced.

This is why violence in Kenya has to be stopped now before it erupts into a civil war. The international community must intervene now and help the authorities and the opposition to find common ground in addressing the grievances of all ethnic communities in the country.

The relic rhetoric of non-interference in internal affairs has to be set aside to prevent human misery in Kenya and potential instability in the region. An ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure.

The sudden outbreak of ethnic violence in Kenya should also serve to remind us all that security and stability are not a "given" in today's world and that those values need to be nurtured. Europe became bitterly aware of this when the wars broke out in the Balkans.

In response, a number of instruments have been developed to give conflict prevention a chance of success. Participating states in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have agreed that democracy, economic prosperity and good neighbourly relations also depend on respect for minority rights. …