A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
International Security and Ethnic Crisis
By O.N. Mehrotra *
International security deals with the fundamental questions of war and peace. It is the highest responsibility of the international community to avoid war and maintain peace. During the Cold War period, leaders of the two superpowers were mainly responsible for avoiding the most devastating nuclear war and maintaining the world order. Academics helped them in formulating policies that "avoided both war and appeasement." 1 No doubt, a major war could be avoided, but it was the period of Cold War, with a brief interval called a period of detente. World peace was always uneasy and fragile.
With the end of Cold War, it was widely felt that an era of stable world peace had begun. President George Bush called it the beginning of "a new world order." But Samuel Huntington wrote the most controversial and widely quoted thesis that economic and ideological antagonisms would be superseded by the clash of civilisations in the future. 2 However, Kenneth Waltz maintained that countries would continue to compete for wealth and security. Their competition will lead to conflict in the future, he surmised. 3 While the two American academics gave their own assessment about the behaviour of states or civilisations in the future, President Bill Clinton's security adviser, Anthony Lake argued that the world's future faultlines will fall not between the states or civilisations but between democratic market-oriented states and the states that defied the world community. The latter states are classified as "pariah" or "rogue" powers. These are states that support terrorism and are clandestinely seeking the production of nuclear and/or chemical weapons. Lake placed several nations in this category--Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya; 4 and other writers have added Sudan and Syria. 5
However, neither could the new world order be established after the conclusion of the Cold War, nor did different civilisations begin to fight; competition for wealth and security amongst countries did not lead to conflicts; and nor did the so-called "rogue" powers threaten the existence of the international community. But the threat to international security has emanated from a different source, i.e., ethnic conflicts, according to many academics and commentators. The present world order has failed to establish any principles or methods whereby either international or regional organisations could resolve such crises successfully. So far they have intervened only after the heat of the conflict has subsided and have failed to offer any lasting solution to such conflicts. In fact, the widely endorsed principle of imposing international sanctions for containing ethnic crises have not produced the desired results. In certain cases, use of international military force with the sanction of the United Nations (UN) is also considered as a plausible means to resolve the ethnic crisis.
The pertinent question is whether an ethnic conflict really poses a threat to the international security system. In fact, international security is considered to be threatened if any crisis challenges the present world order because the basic objective of security is to preserve the existing order. Ethnic crises have been persisting in different parts of the globe and the present international security system lacks the capability to contain them, leave alone solve them. Moreover, the crises appear to be spreading and giving birth to new flashpoints the world over. No doubt, an ethnic crisis is not a new phenomenon: numerous multi-ethnic countries have been confronted with ethnic crises in the past but they were able to control them with reasonable success, without the involvement of the international community. Though at times an ethnic crisis had threatened the territorial inviolability of a country, by and large, they had not threatened the international security system in the past. This may have been because most of the serious ethnic crises were confined to one or a few countries and never assumed a universal trend. Many ethnic differences could be controlled by a strong central authority.
But from the late 1960s onwards, observes David Brown, "Disparities between the developmental promises of state elites and their performances began to engender disillusionment, so that state elites began to be seen increasingly as the source of insecurity and disruption. In these circumstances, individuals began to look for alternative imagined kinship communities able to offer security in the form of social justice." 6 Consequently, the state authority began to decline, leading to erosion of the state's main legitimatory ideology--the myth of assimilating nationalism, believes Brown.
The history of existence of the modern state is just 350 years old. Under the Westphalia order, states enjoyed a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence or force within their borders, and the right to use force outside their borders. But now the state's authority to use force on both fronts has been challenged. With the growing democratisation of polity and internationalisation of the economy, it is widely felt that the state's legitimate authority for inter-state war has declined enormously. Any inter-state dispute may be resolved or contained by the mediation or direct intervention of regional or international organisations or both. At the same time, the state's monopoly of power has recently been confronted with serious challenges from increased differences within the state along ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, caste or class lines.
These challenges to the state authority or even to its inalienable right of sovereignty have questioned the validity of the Westphalia order. In other words, the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within and outside its borders "is being jeopardised both by the trend toward transnational deterritorialisation and by the trend toward national, subnational, and ethnic reterritorialisation." 7
This is an irony of history that when efforts were made to integrate the world through economic and political means, especially in Europe where integration even on security was also attempted, disintegrating trends erupted along ethnic lines. The European Union (EU) has moved towards the integration of Europe by economic and political means by adopting a new integrative policy and expanding its membership. At the same time, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has also enlarged its membership by deciding to admit new members and promising to admit more in the future. Thus, bringing more European countries into the ambit of a common security system. Though both integrative moves in Europe have failed to meet the aspirations and wishes of all countries of the continent, as also become a bone of contention amongst some of the countries, yet the process of European integration has gradually been advancing. While Moscow has agreed on the expansion of NATO eastward, the Russian leaders have time and again expressed their unhappiness over the move. 8
Be that as it may, the integration of Europe has not been a smooth affair because of the reservations of some countries on its principles and procedure. While many countries have shown their keenness to join the process of European integration, they have been denied active participation on account of a variety of reasons, e.g., standards of economic development, or lack of political democratic institutions, or unsatisfactory records on human rights. It may be recalled that when the members of the European Community decided to integrate themselves and agreed to establish the European Union at the Maastricht Summit in December 1991, at the same time they also made a historical decision on hastening the process of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In other words, the process of integration and disintegration of Europe began at the same time. They gave legitimacy to the establishment of a new state on the basis of ethno-nationalism and allowed the disintegration of a multi-ethnic state because one or more of its constituent ethnic groups sought secession from the federal state. As a matter of fact, unified Germany prevailed on other European countries to grant recognition to Croatia. Some European countries, the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union were opposed to the division of the former Yugoslavia on ethnic lines. Thus, the West European countries gave legitimacy to the formation of new states, and strengthened Muslim nationalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Subsequently, ethnic differences in Bosnia sharpened and the much publicised Bosnian ethnic conflict became not only a regional security issue but also an international security issue. Consequently, the media and international organisations began to accept an ethnic conflict in a state not as an internal security issue but an international security issue. Such recognition, however, has not been universally endorsed so far.
Be that as it may, an increasing number of ethnic groups have begun to demand more rights and recognition of their separate identity in a multi-ethnic state. In fact, in the post-Cold War period, ethnic crises have assumed significance in international affairs. The number of ethnic conflicts have increased and several of them are highly visible. In fact, ethnic conflicts have become a major concern to policy makers because of the large scale brutal killings and violation of universally accepted human rights in these clashes. Sometimes they are considered as a major source of domestic and international conflict. In certain quarters, it is believed that "ethnic conflict seems to have supplanted nuclear war as the most pressing issue on the minds of policy makers." 9 In reality, nuclear war is not likely to be fought, not only because of its devastating characteristics but because of the validity of the existence of deterrence against a prospective offender. Though its possibility has not been completely eliminated, the causes of a nuclear war have been reduced tremendously with the end of the Cold War, with the adoption of many confidence building as well as arms control measures in the recent past.
In spite of a general belief that there has been an explosion of ethnic conflicts in the post-Cold War period, in reality ethnic conflicts increased gradually in the post-World War II period. "The worldwide magnitude of ethnic rebellion, for example, increased nearly fourfold between the period 1950-1955 and the year 1985-1989." 10 But neither the United Nations, nor regional organisations or the major powers took much interest in the resolution of ethnic conflicts. At times the belligerent ethnic groups were supported by regional or/and superpowers. But the ethnic conflicts remained confined to a country or a region and hardly assumed international significance. Moreover, the media also did not take a keen interest in informing its readers and observers about ethnic crises. Thus, one of the longest modern civil wars in Ethiopia, from the early 1960s until 1991, did not become an international security or human rights issue as the Bosnian civil war did in the early 1990s.
But in the post-Cold War period, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International and International Alert, as well as local human rights watch groups, have highlighted ethnic conflicts the world over. Some regional organisations like the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have also begun to express concern and take interest in resolving ethnic crises in their respective regions. Above all, since Boutros Boutros-Ghali became UN secretary general in 1992, the UN has become more active in resolving ethnic conflicts. In his Agenda for Peace, released on June 17, 1992, Boutros Ghali had outlined four kinds of responses to ethnic, religious, social, cultural, or linguistic strife: preventive diplomacy, peace-making, peace-keeping and post-conflict peace-building. But he had not proposed or supported the use of forces to compel the belligerents to end their hostilities. The international community's response to ethnic conflicts gained further strength because US President Bill Clinton has taken a more assertive interventionist policy posture against human rights violators.
Though collective intervention is allowed under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter and Article 34 empowers the Security Council to investigate disputes that cause international friction, humanitarian cases, like violations of human right and ethnic cleansing, are not included for intervention. In fact, states are subjects of international law and the UN may intervene if there is a conflict between two states. But ethnic groups have no special international legal status. At the forty-eighth session of the UN Commission on Human Rights on February 21, 1992, the commission approved a draft declaration on the "Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities," which made an attempt to give a special status to groups under international law. However, none of the human rights conventions clarifies group membership, except the UN draft declaration which names them as "Separatists, Pluralists and Activists." In fact, it is difficult to identify a group as a separate entity because its membership can be changed.
Nevertheless, the international community has identified four types of groups--national, social, ethnic and religious--in the Genocide Convention, but it avoids reference to gender and political groups. Another example of human groups as subjects of international law is prohibition of terrorism, which specifically identifies terrorists as members of identifiable groups. 11 The recognition of groups is implicit in certain cases and does not apply to all groups. In other words, groups do not have an independent international legal status with some exceptions like the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Consequently, there is legal sanctity for international intervention in resolving an ethnic crisis. Notwithstanding the international legal status of ethnic groups, some ethnic crises have assumed international significance and called for collective intervention in their resolution.
Though geo-political boundaries remain significant, and every state has the right and responsibility to preserve and protect them because the territorial integrity of a state has been recognised by the international community, they have gradually been eroding because of the internationalisation of national economy and interference by the international community on the ground of violation of human rights and universally acknowledged international norms. In some multi-ethnic countries, the most serious threat to the sanctity of geo-political boundaries has changed from external to internal, because ethnic, tribal or religious conflicts generally originate from within and may disintegrate a state into two or more independent sovereign states. In other words, in certain cases, the geo-political boundaries may not be faultlines or flashpoints but ethnic conflicts within a country may emerge as the new faultlines, and at times they may be considered appropriate cases requiring international intervention for their resolution because they threaten regional and/or international security. In this respect, it has been noted that in case of an ethnic conflict occurring in a small and militarily weak state, there is greater likelihood of outside intervention for resolving the crisis than in a large and especially militarily strong state.
For example, while the US and many Western countries expressed serious concern on the use of brute military force by Russia for crushing the Chechen's for independence, they could not contemplate use of military force for the resolution of the ethnic crisis, apparently because of the military might of Russia. But this was not so in the case of the Bosnian crisis. In reality, the Bosnian crisis was a civil war in which initially three ethnic groups were fighting amongst themselves and the Yugoslav federal military forces were there to maintain law and order. Since the federal military force comprised mostly the Serbs because the other ethnic groups opted not to join it, the involvement of the Yugoslav military force was considered an intervention by Serbia. It was also regarded as the Serbs' attempt to preserve the federation for the survival of their reign. Once Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence and secured recognition from the Western countries, the Bosnian civil war was proclaimed as a war between two countries--Yugoslavia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, because in the meantime, Serbia and Montenegro had joined together to constitute a new federal Yugoslavia. Thus, the Bosnian ethnic conflict assumed the status of inter-state war wherein the Serbs, Croats and Muslims were fighting. It may be noted that in spite of Bosnia becoming an independent state its inhabitants remain known by their distinctive separate ethnic identity and not as Bosnians. Before Yugoslavia disintegrated, an insignificant number of its citizens identified themselves as Yugoslavs. However, until the three states were separated from each other, they were three republics belonging to the federal Yugoslavia and their citizens had the common citizenship of Yugoslavia.
No doubt, such a distinction of citizenship assuming a legal status is not new in the annals of human history but the Bosnian case is unique because the new independent state was presumably constituted by its people exercising the much cherished right of "self-determination." In reality, the right of self-determination was not exercised universally because one-third of the population of Bosnia, i.e., the Serbs, boycotted the referendum. The fundamental question is, if a sizeable part of the population of a state boycotts a referendum that decides their fate in a newly created state, should they be condemned to be citizens of a country they despise? Or do they have an option to exercise their right of "self-determination" for constituting a new, independent state or becoming a part of another contiguous state where people of their own ethnic group reside?
The Bosnian crisis marked a distinctive character of the history of the post-Cold War period that granted sanction to the division of a state on ethnic lines but did not give universal endorsement to the principle of division of a multi-ethnic state on ethnic lines. We live in a world that thrives on contradictions but we refuse to admit the contradictions and claim that we observe norms, principles and rules that govern the existing world order. The Bosnian crisis is the seminal example of such contradictions. If the solution of the Bosnian crisis is allowed to determine the future of human history, then there will be worse ethnic wars in future than we have witnessed in the post-Cold War period so far.
In fact, the Bosnian ethnic conflict is a most contentious one that is likely to elude solution if the basic premise of its resolution is not modified. It is an acceptable universal principle that a multi-ethnic state should not be divided on the ethnic lines. 12 Various leaders advised the ethnic leaders of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia to preserve federal multi-ethnic states. But both the states disintegrated on ethnic lines as various former republics were called by their ethnic names, even though almost all of them were inhabitated by more than one ethnic group. The Republic of Slovenia of Yugoslavia was the most ethnically homogeneous amongst them. The two former Communist states disintegrated on the basis of internal borders which were largely drawn for administrative purposes.
The newly created states received recognition from the international community with some hesitation. Yugoslavia was primarily allowed to disintegrate on ethnic lines as the different republics were nominally constituted. The internal borders became the national borders of the new states. With the exception of Kazakhstan and Bosnia, all the other new states comprised a majority of one ethnic group. While all the former republics are called by a specific ethnic group's name, Bosnia is not the name of an ethnic group. In Bosnia, no single ethnic group comprised more than 50 per cent of the population. The Muslims were the single largest ethnic group in the former republic with 43.7 per cent of its total population of 4.3 million, in comparison with the Serbs constituting 33.4 per cent and the Croats at 17.3 per cent. In reality, the difference in numbers between the Muslims and Serbs was hardly half a million of people. In the bloody ethnic war, the Serbs had the upper hand because they were better armed and trained than their Muslim adversaries. Though the Muslims and Croats were more hostile to each other than the Muslims and Serbs, they joined together against the Serbs in the formation of a new state because they found in the Serbs their common enemy. However, they continued to fight with each other. Though the objective of the Dayton Peace Accord was to establish a multi-ethnic state, it was agreed to establish a federation of Croats and Muslims and a separate Republika of Srpska for Serbs in a new Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nominally, Bosnia is one state but in reality, it is divided along ethnic lines. When multi-ethnic Yugoslavia was not allowed to survive, Bosnia's attempt to succeed as a multi-ethnic state appears to be arduous.
The fundamental question is not whether Bosnia is going to survive as a multi-ethnic state or not, but whether a multi-ethnic state should be allowed to disintegrate if a bloody ethnic crisis persists and there is no sign of its resolution. There seems to be no likelihood of the international community endorsing the principle of constituting a state on ethnic lines and allowing a multi-ethnic state to be disintegrated. "Some 40 per cent of the world's states have five or more sizeable ethnic populations, a mere 20 per cent are relatively homogeneous." 13 There are around 8,000 ethnic groups the world over and it is unthinkable that every ethnic group will have its own independent sovereign state in the near future. But many multi-ethnic states are likely to be confronted with the demand for granting more rights, autonomy or even independence to one or more ethnic groups. Generally, the central state authority will oppose granting of any privileges or rights to an ethnic group in a multi-ethnic state because other ethnic groups would also agitate for such demands and, consequently, state authority would not only be weakened but the state may be divided into several parts. The state authority has the solemn responsibility of guarding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state and it is also responsible for protecting and preserving the lives of its subjects and adequately satisfying their aspirations. It is expected that in a democratic country, the people's grievances will generally be redressed and there should not be any cause for serious concern on ethnic grounds. However, many developed and under-developed democratic countries have perennial ethnic problems that elude solutions.
In fact, ethnic differences are not in themselves the causes of conflict but they may become so when historical grievances--imagined or real--are exploited by unscrupulous political leaders. 14 An ethnic crisis usually begins in a state when an ethnic group raises its demands because it presumably believes that it has been denied its rights and privileges by the dominating ethnic group in a multi-ethnic state. The state authority will generally oppose it and if the ethnic agitation becomes violent, the state will try to suppress it because the state authority believes that the acceptance of the demand of an ethnic group would weaken the state structure and may lead to its fragmentation. But an ethnic dispute cannot be resolved by the use of violence. Violence breeds violence. No doubt, the state has a monopoly on the use of force but that has to be used for protecting the lives of its citizens and guarding the state's territorial integrity from aggression by one or more foreign states. However, the state was primarily established for protecting the lives of its citizens. "For most people, a feeling of insecurity arises more from worries about daily life than from the dread of a cataclysmic world event." 15
In the post-World War II period, more people have been killed by their own states or in ethnic or tribal wars than in inter-state wars. "With the dark shadows of the Cold War receding, one can now see that many conflicts are within nations rather than between nations," the Human Development Report 1994 notes, and in addition, it observes, "Human security is not a concern with weapons--it is a concern with human life and dignity." 16 In a multi-ethnic state, once an ethnic group or groups have no faith in the neutrality of the state and "to the resonance of myths of the multicultural nation" as well as in the appeal of nationalist vision, "individuals begin to search for new imagined kinship communities able to promise social justice." 17
In such circumstances an ethnic group in a multi-ethnic state begins to demand its special rights and privileges which the state authority generally opposes. If the ethnic crisis appears intractable, then ethnic leaders propogate that their ethnic group is like a subject of the state authority which is believed to be under the command of a dominant, larger ethnic group. 18 They would like to attract the attention of the international community and accuse, rightly or wrongly, that there have been violations of human rights against their ethnic group by the state authority. They may demand the right of self-determination on the issue of whether their ethnic group should remain a part of the existing state with more autonomy or be allowed to establish an independent sovereign state.
The pertinent question is whether the sovereign right of a state or the right of self-determination of an ethnic group is absolute or not? The state authority will contest the right of self-determination and oppose interference by the international community on the ground that it is an internal affair, therefore, no outside interference can be justified. In fact, a state cannot procrastinate on the issue under the cover of it being an internal matter and, thus, not allowing international community to intervene in the resolution of the problem. If the ethnic crisis persists for long or becomes too bloody or neighbouring country/countries are affected by it because of the same ethnic group residing there or due to an inflow of refugees, the international community is likely to discuss the issue and suggest ways for its resolution, notwithstanding the aggrieved state's protest that it is its own internal affair. As a matter of fact, the "components of human security are interdependent. When security of people is endangered anywhere in the world, all nations are likely to get involved. Famine, disease, pollution, drug trafficking, terrorism, ethnic disputes, and social disintegration are no longer isolated events that are confined within national borders. Their consequences travel the globe." 19
In the current age of mass electronic media, no crisis can be kept an internal affair of a country for long. In fact, as early as in 1952, the United Nations General Assembly condemned the apartheid policy of South Africa, which was in a way an internal affair of that country. In other words, an ethnic crisis in a state cannot be an exclusive internal affair of a state. The international community is likely to intervene in the resolution of an ethnic crisis of a state and the latter cannot prevent it from doing so on the ground of infringement of its sovereignty. Thus, sovereignty is no longer an absolute right of a state. If we accept that the sovereignty of a state is not an absolute right, then the much publicised right of self-determination of an ethnic group gains validity.
But the principle of self-determination as a method of determining the right of a minority ethnic group for attaining a sovereign status or autonomy in a multi-ethnic state has not been universally acknowledged as a legal right. During the accelerated trends towards decolonisation, the principle of self-determination gained the legal status of "right" with the adoption of a declaration by the UN General Assembly but its validity in a sovereign multi-ethnic country was never granted by the world body. 20 Be that as it may, recently the ethnic wars of secession have highlighted "the inherent tension between 'self-determination' and 'sovereignty' or 'territorial integrity'." 21 These days, an agitating ethnic group generally justifies its demand for "self-determination" on the ground that its human rights have been violated by the state and it cannot enjoy universally acknowledged rights in the existing state structure. In case a movement for "self-determination" has been launched by a minority ethnic group in a multi-ethnic state and it receives moral and/or material support from one or more neighbouring countries because in those countries people of that ethnic group are residing, it may not only cause tension between two or more countries but would also become a regional or international security issue. In such case, neighbouring countries may raise the ethnic issue of another country in a regional or international forum. In other words, an internal issue of a country cannot be exclusively its own. Recently, efforts have been made on recognition of the right of the international community to intervene in an ethnic crisis in a state on the ground that human rights are violated and the crisis may threaten international security.
In the post-Cold War period, it is believed in some quarters that the state has been confronted with threats from within, more than from outside. The state authority has been facing challenges from dissenting forces within its internal borders. Now in many states, their citizens may not trust the state elites as neutral policy makers and executors. Many of them may believe that they can get economic, social and political justice only in a state that is constituted on ethnic lines. This tendency is likely to re-territorialise a multi-ethnic state like the erstwhile Yugoslavia, especially if different ethnic groups are mostly residing in separate geographical and/or political divisions. Incidentally, Yugoslavia disintegrated in spite of a large number of mixed marriages, i.e., the social and emotional bondings. The most serious negative characteristic of Yugoslavia was that its people were always identified first as a native of an ethnic group and then as a citizen of the state. But this can happen in any multi-ethnic state if ethno-nationalism becomes aggressive and ethnic lines become sharp.
There has been a shift from strategic to security studies. "Once anything that generates anxiety or threatens the quality of life in some respect becomes labelled a 'security problem'." 22 Now famine, disease, pollution, drug trafficking, terrorism, ethnic disputes, religious fundamentalism, population explosion, refugee issues, economic crisis and social disintegration are no longer isolated events that are confined within national borders. It is widely believed that a national security problem is as much the concern of the international community as of the victim state. The international community has generally extended its aid and assistance to a state that is devastated by either a natural disaster or human crisis. An ethnic crisis can divide a state into two or more parts and challenge the state structure and international order. It is not only a security concern for the aggrieved state but also for the international community. Therefore, in certain cases, an ethnic crisis is considered not just as an internal concern of a state but as an international security issue. However, it has not been universally acknowledged that an ethnic crisis threatens regional and international security. While the Bosnian ethnic crisis became a regional or international security issue, the ethnic crises in Rwanda, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka remained confined to the respective country and some of their neighbouring countries. In fact, the Clinton Administration, the UN under Butros Ghali's secretary generalship, Western intellectuals, and Western media have played significant roles in projecting the sudden explosion of ethnic crises in Europe as the major international security concern in the post-Cold War period. An ethnic crisis may become an international security concern only if it acquires recognition by the international community, and its intervention in resolution of the crisis is considered fundamentally important.
Note 5: See Michael T. Klare, "Redefining Security: The New Global Schisms," Current History, vol. 95, no. 604, November 1996, p. 354, Prof. Klare has quoted the above stated three articles and this part of my paper is largely based on Klare's article. Back.