Avoiding more ethnic disputes

Just before he died at the end of the twentieth century, philosopher Isaiah Berlin said, “It was the worst century that Europe ever had. Worse, I suspect, even than the days of the Huns. And why? Because in our modern age.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Fri 19 Nov 2010, 9:54 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

In his book Pandemonium, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that “there are just eight states on earth which both existed in 1914 and have not had their form of government changed by violence since then”. These are the US, Britain, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Switzerland, Sweden and New Zealand. “The defining mode of conflict in the era ahead is ethnic conflict”, wrote Moynihan. “It promises to be savage. Get ready for 50 new countries in the world in the next 50 years. Most of them will be born in bloodshed.”

This hypothetical gathering speed of ethnic self-determination provoked Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, to throw up his hands in despair, “If we don’t find some way that different ethnic groups can live together in a country how many countries will we have? We’ll have 5,000”.

So what’s the problem? Let a thousand flowers bloom. The difficulty is the human psyche- that makes getting from A to B without war so very difficult. The trouble is that, as in ex-Yugoslavia, neighbouring, but larger and more dominant ethnic groups, didn’t want smaller groups moving off into autonomy or independence, cutting their country down to size. And even if they succeeded in doing it would they be recognised by the rest of the world? Recognition, as we found over Kosovo, is considered the most difficult topics in international law.

By and large, in most cases, the community of nations has worked from the opinion of the League of Nations when, in 1920, it investigated the request of the Swedish-speaking inhabitants of the Aaland Islands in the Baltic to be allowed ‘self determination’ from Finland. “To concede to minorities”, the League’s advisors concluded, “either of language or religion, or to any fractions of the population, the right to withdrawal from the community to which they belong, because it is their wish or their grand pleasure, would be to destroy order and stability within states and to inaugurate anarchy in international life.”

This is why the British government supported, in the face of a big outcry at home, the right of Nigeria to put down the revolt in its dissident state of Biafra in the 1960s. Today it is why the Big Five on the Security Council are united in insisting on the territorial integrity of Iraq.

But there is obviously a change afoot in attitude. The US and the EU fought hard for the independence of Kosovo, despite opposition from Spain, fearful of undermining its stand for unity in the face of Basque terrorists seeking independence.

But how far will the West change its 1920 stance? Once the ball starts to roll, where does it end as Christopher warned? Ethnic conflicts do not require great differences; small will do.

Should the UN recognise the Polisario struggle against Morocco in its quest to rule West Sahara or the Chechnya rebels in Russia, the rebellion of the Shan people in Myanmar or those fighting for the independence of part of the northeast of India?

A nation being rent asunder or an ethnic group under threat could come to the court and ask a ruling on whether the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights were being followed. Are the boundaries of our province fair? Are the rights of language, education and political representation given to the minority group by the majority reasonable? Are there reforms of law or administration that the court could suggest to make the situation more equitable?

In effect this is what the mediators did with the Aaland Islands dispute in the 1920s. The island remains Finnish but the rights of the islanders to use the Swedish language were reinforced.

A Court of Ethnic Disputes could save the twenty first century much bloodshed. There is no need for 50 new disputes or 50 new countries.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London

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