Ethnopolitical Conflict: Conference Report

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Ethnopolitical Conflict: Conference Report

Ethnopolitical Warfare: Causes And Solutions

Report on the Conference Held in Londonderry/Derry,

Northern Ireland
June 29 to July 3, 1998
(Report Prepared by Daniel Chirot, September 28, 1998)


Conference Goals
The conference's first goal was to understand the causes of ethnic conflict, and specifically, ethnopolitical warfare. Why is it that some potential ethnic conflicts do not take place, while others produce violence, warfare, and even, in some cases, genocide? How is it that some ethnic conflicts get resolved, and others do not?

A second goal was to find out the role that psychology can play in predicting and perhaps preventing ethnopolitical warfare. More than this, what can psychology do to help the victims of such conflicts?

Finally, the ultimate aim was to inventory knowledge about these topics in order to plan a more comprehensive research effort that will lay a scientific base for solving ethnic conflicts in the future, and for helping its victims.
Barricaded ethnic identities that deny entry to outsiders and prevent exit are more dangerous than open ones. When barricaded groups come into conflict with other ethnic groups, the potential for violence is high.

Dominant state elites trying to maintain their nations' unity and their own monopoly on power, not spontaneous popular actions, have been responsible for most of the ethnopolitically motivated killings in the 20th century.

In the worst cases of genocide, Armenians in 1915, Jews during World War II, Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 (which had an important ethnic component, though that was not all there was to it), and Rwanda in 1994, political leaders in charge of state controlled armed forces initiated mass murder in order to hold on to power and to further a nationalist vision of what kind of state they wished to rule. In all these cases, those targeted for death or expulsion were felt to be hereditarily antagonistic to the project of the rulers, and a mortal danger to the rulers' ambitions and projects. In all these cases, political leaders convinced their followers that the danger applied to the entire group, so that mass murder was the best, most viable solution. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and their "ethnic cleansing," followed this model, too.

Calling either the leaders of such atrocities or their followers "mad" or "irrational" is mistaken. Rather, they have been driven by an ideological view of the world that seemed to leave them few options. This may explain why so many bystanders who did not share the ideologies of the perpetrators were unprepared for countermeasures, and so often watched helplessly as these events unfolded.

Only a small minority of ethnic conflicts become genocidal. Extreme ethnic complexity is often a mitigating factor, whereas simplification of the situation into two or three competing groups is more dangerous.

Another mitigating factors may be external, forceful intervention, or its threat, which raises the potential costs of conducting ethnic warfare. Federal government intervention on behalf of the civil rights movement in the American South made the cost of continuing the conflict unacceptably high for segregationist whites. British military intervention in Northern Ireland precluded escalation of the conflict to genocidal proportions, or even any kind of systematic ethnic cleansing. Outside intervention would have been possible in Rwanda, but the two powers able to take such action, the French and the Americans, refused.

When different ethnic groups do not view each other as uniform, communal blocks, but see each other as consisting of many individuals with a large variety of views, conflict is less likely, and if it occurs, it is less threatening.

Democratic societies, even very imperfectly democratic ones like South Africa under the apartheid regime, when only whites had full political rights, are more likely to be able to achieve some kind of reconciliation because different options can be discussed, and opposing groups will have some potential leaders who argue for reconciliation. But democracy is not enough, and in some cases, as in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it increased tensions as electorates voted for extremists.

Reconciliation requires former enemies to reject revenge, and in many cases, to forego justice. Reconciliation will mean that many of those responsible for past atrocities will not be punished.

There are six different levels of ethnic conflict (see the Table on page 14), including reconciliation after prior conflict. The psycho-social and structural commonalties between cases in the same categories, and the differences between the various categories can be studied more systematically to arrive at useful, scientifically sound conclusions about those conditions that lead to greater or lesser conflict.

It is naïve to think that human beings are inherently peaceful and that conflict is unnatural. On the other hand, conflict and war, particularly ethnic war, can be avoided or controlled. If we recognize the structural conditions that bring out conflict, we might be able to set up a world watch to warn us of potentially dangerous situations likely to escalate. If we understand the psychological conditions that accompany escalation of tensions, we may be able to suggest useful intervention.

One of the most interesting questions for psychology is to understand why certain individuals are able to forgive past wrongs, and break the cycles of revenge that typically escalate ethnic warfare. Another is to ask how individuals come to identify so strongly with an ethnic group that they will engage in bloody conflict with members of other groups who were once acquaintances, or even, sometimes, friends. Though there has been insufficient research on this in the past, it is clear that psychology is uniquely positioned to make progress in such inquiries.
In every ethnic conflict, it is when whole communities are blamed, rather than individuals, for past wrongs, that escalation or continuation of the conflict becomes almost inevitable. It is when individuals are blamed, and distinctions made within ethnic communities, that reconciliation becomes possible.

Psychologists have been better at coming up with helpful program for treating victims of ethnic wars than at predicting or preventing such conflicts. By working in collaboration with other social scientists, however, psychology has the potential to make a contribution to the prevention of ethnopolitical warfare in the twenty-first century.
Issues for further research are spelled out on pages 18 and 19.


We were trying to answer the following questions.

1) What do we know about the sources of ethnopolitical warfare? Why do some potentially serious conflicts never produce violent clashes, while others do?
2) Why is it that even when there are major conflicts between ethnically defined groups the levels of violence vary so much, ranging from the relatively mild to the murderously genocidal? Can a regular set of stages from civility to genocide be articulated?
3) How can we distinguish between individual level and group level causal variables in the study of ethnic conflict and violence, and between short-term and historical determinants of these conflicts?
4) Has violent conflict between competing ethnic groups become more common since the end of the Cold War in 1989? Or is it that the collapse of communism exposed long simmering ethnic tensions in many countries, so that the series of murderous ethnic wars that broke out in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and in Central Asia were the product of conflicts that predated the 1990s?
5) Why has the 20th century in general witnessed so much ethnopolitical warfare? What has been the role of nationalism in reawakening, or creating tribal passions that modernization was supposed to calm?
6) Will the next century see as much or even more ethnopolitical warfare than the 20th? What can we do to forestall such conflicts? What can we learn from conflicts that have been resolved, or are on their way to being resolved?
7) To these original goals, we added a seventh: what is the best possible program for continuing research on the causes of ethnopolitical warfare, and for finding ways of preventing it, solving it, and helping its victims.
36 participants were invited to present papers or comment on the proceedings. 27 formal papers were presented. (See appendices.) Though the meeting was not open to the general public, the organizers considered expressions of interest from many, and invited about 25 others to attend at their own expense. They observed, and were able to ask questions. On the final day, all those who attended took part in a general discussion that lasted about three hours. All told, the average session had an attendance of over 50. There were also two interesting dinner speeches given by people involved in attempts to settle the Northern Irish conflicts, and the participants toured Belfast. As it happens, this was a particularly interesting time in Northern Ireland, just after the elections, but just as the “marching season” was about to begin.

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