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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Conference Report: Ethnic Violence, Conflict Resolution and Cultural Pluralism

Report of the UNRISD/UNDP International Seminar on Ethnic Diversity and Public Policies, New York

In August 1994, more than 150 leading policy makers, academics, development experts, representatives of non-governmental organizations and journalists met at the United Nations in New York to debate new approaches to ethnic conflict and ethnic accommodation in diverse societies. The seminar, designed to provide input into the preparatory process for the World Summit for Social Development, was organized by UNRISD in co-operation with UNDP, and was co-sponsored by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies, International Alert, Minority Rights Group and the United Nations University/International Programme on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity.

The seminar was designed to promote discussion of a range of key issues confronting multicultural and multi-ethnic societies. Through a mixture of case studies and historical and thematic treatments, the seminar progressed from a discussion of the history and dynamics of ethnic conflicts to a consideration of creative approaches and mechanisms for conflict resolution, including third-party intervention by official and non-official sources. The agenda then moved to an analysis of the role played by public policies in mitigating ethnic tensions and promoting accommodation and pluralism. The media have come to play an increasingly powerful and visible role in political, social and economic affairs, and a special session was arranged to discuss the role of the media in ethnic conflicts.

The seminar then discussed a wide spectrum of policies ranging from constitutional guarantees of human rights to arrangements for devolution and sharing of power; from state investment, expenditure and resource allocation to affirmative action policies; and from assimilation to cultural pluralism especially with regard to language, religion and education. Some of these themes were discussed in connection with two groups of people in particular: ethnic minorities in North America and Western Europe, and indigenous and tribal peoples around the world.

The report highlights the discussions and the main policy implications of the seminar. It discusses the nature of ethnicity and the reasons for the recent upsurge in ethnic conflict. It points out the paradox of ethnic identification: ethnicity typically becomes most destructive when it is threatened; therefore, in order to reduce ethnic tensions it is necessary to protect people's rights to form ethnic loyalties, and not to repress ethnic identification. This does not mean, however, that policies entrenching ethnicity in formal social and political structures should necessarily be put in place. Ethnicity naturally evolves, and in the process previously important ethnic markers become insignificant, and new bases for identification are created. This is a process that is difficult to regulate, and it is usually a mistake to try to do so.

The report also points out the potential and limitations of third-party intervention in ethnic conflicts, indicating some of the warning signs of impending conflict and windows of opportunity for intervention - the time during which preparations for violence are being undertaken. Once conflict has broken out, the process of conflict resolution is accelerated when the external actors are either neutral to the conflict or united in their approach to it. However, external intervention is relatively unsuccessful where it attempts to define and enforce external solutions to the conflict, rather than to serve as a facilitator of negotiations between the combatants.

The report then discusses policy approaches that facilitate ethnic accommodation in diverse societies. Constitutional engineering is one of the most obvious responses to ethnic diversity. The report argues that electoral formulas in particular are relatively easy to negotiate and to amend, and that more attention needs to be paid to designing more truly representational electoral systems. Cultural policies should support cultural pluralism to the greatest extent possible, although in some cases cultural autonomy conflicts with individual rights. Economic policies should take into account effects on different ethnic groups, especially when different groups are traditionally associated with different sectors of the economy.

Finally, the report suggests that, to promote peaceful relations between different ethnic groups in a diverse society, it is essential to provide the conditions that encourage all groups to feel a shared interest in the society as a whole - to support, in other words, the creation of a sense of civic identity. This is an identity that cannot be forced on people, but that they must adopt themselves. They are most likely to do so when they feel that their society respects and meets their common needs, including their need for a sense of ethnic identity.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Feb 1995
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-1092
    From: UNRISD