An ethnic group is a set of people that share common racial and cultural characteristics. They may share the same language, religion, territory, or economic and political system. They identify with other members of the group due to their shared ancestry, culture and heritage. While the territory of an ethnic group is important for practical reasons (it gives the group a place to live and sometimes provides the livelihood as well), it also often has symbolic importance as the place where the founders or paragons of the group lived.
People generally belong to whatever ethnic group they are born into, and the group maintains its existence by teaching its beliefs and behaviors to the next generation. Outsiders can sometimes be accepted into the group, through marriage or rites of passage.
While ethnic groups serve to organize life for their members, problems arise when one group decides that another group is inferior and should be eliminated. Another reason for ethnic conflict is if a change in the environment results in a scarcity of resources and other ethnic groups are perceived as threats to survival.
Ethnic conflict can erupt when a majority group controls the state, having at its disposal the institutions of government and the legitimate exercise of force, as well as the funding and infrastructure needed to carry out military operations. If other ethnic groups take up arms against the group that is in power, they are considered rebels or traitors. In this case, ethnic violence between the groups is asymmetrical and can result in genocide of the minority group.
Although it may seem that ethnic conflict between two groups has been going on forever (such as the Catholic-Protestant conflicts in Ireland, which began in the 1690s), usually many more years are spent together peacefully, or with low-level incidents, than in war. Some observers of ethnic conflicts maintain that these wars last on average five years, with violence escalating during the first two years and peaking in the third year. The fourth year usually finds the participants in a stage of exhaustion, and by the fifth year, they are more willing to listen to proposals for a truce. If warfare continues for too long, the ethnic group being persecuted is unable any quality of life for its members.
An unfortunate facet of ethnic conflict is the high percentage of civilian deaths, particularly among women and children. Although this is sometimes a result of all members of the ethnic group viewing themselves as participants in the war and actually carrying out acts of terrorism, it can sometimes be an unintentional result due to the absence of men who have gone to train in remote camps. When women, children or the elderly, traditionally viewed as weak or victims, turn against the opposing forces and perpetrate violence, the feeling of betrayal exacerbates moral issues.
Intervening forces that have been called in to quell conflict between two ethnic groups may find themselves dealing with problems of refugees, such as disease, food shortages and orphaned children. Military personnel may end up feeling impatient that these human problems are taking away their time and resources from combat. Intervening forces, whether the United Nations or Western countries, often find themselves in a very complex situation, unsure who the victim or villain really is in the ethnic conflict. The intervening forces often have to choose which side to support, as the very fact of intervention means that the balance of power has shifted.
Stopping violence with violence seems hypocritical, and unlike warfare between two countries, ethnic conflict has no commonly agreed upon rules of engagement. One reason why ethnic conflict seems so irrational is that the participants are driven by desperation, due to their perception that the alternative to fighting a losing battle is even worse.
While some observers claim that the number of ethnic conflicts has risen sharply since the end of the Cold War, others maintain that it is around-the-world television coverage that fosters this illusion.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, wars broke out in Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Croatia, Georgia, Serbia, Slovenia and Tajikistan. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute recorded 33 armed struggles around the world in 1989, but that number dropped to 27 conflicts by 1996. It has been found that although ethnic conflict does not disappear when a nation modernizes, the conflicts are less lethal in developed societies, with the most brutal ethnic wars taking place in impoverished societies such as Afghanistan and Sudan.