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The Ethnic Question has Helped
Destroy the Century



April 21, 1999

LONDON- As the twentieth century closes it appears more than ever to merit the French sociologist Raymond Aron's description, "the century of total war". Just before he died last year the great British 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 nationalism is not resurgent; it never died. Neither did racism. They are the most powerful movements in the world today cutting across many social systems". He ended: "I am glad to be as old as I am".

In his book "Pandaemonium", Daniel Patrick Moynihan, probably the U.S. Senate's most illustrious intellectual, observes that today "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 U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Switzerland, Sweden and New Zealand. "The defining mode of conflict in the era ahead is ethnic conflict", said Moynihan on another occasion. "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".

So the twentieth century has come down to this: we decide whom we love by whom we hate. The American ideal expressed in its constitution and in the opening words of the UN Charter, "We the Peoples..." which define a people by political beliefs rather than blood, has been pushed aside with vengeance.

This gathering speed of ethnic self-determination provoked Warren Christopher, the American Secretary of State during president Bill Clinton's first term, 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 don't want smaller groups moving off into autonomy or independence, cutting their country down to size. And even if they succeed for a while in doing it will they be recognised by the rest of the world? Recognition is considered one of the most difficult topics in international law.

Of course, the UN Charter recognises the "self-determination of peoples". Yet because it implies a significant erosion of the long held principle of sovereignty, applying it and accepting it has been a divisive issue among international law scholars. There is a vast literature and several advisory opinions of the world court have failed to settle the matter.

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. It is why the U.S. today so strongly backs the Turks against its Kurdish minority, despite the mass killings and widespread torture practised by the Turkish army. Indeed it is why the Big Five on the Security Council are united in accepting the territorial integrity of Iraq, despite the persecution of the Kurds in the north and the Shi'ites in the south.

But today there is obviously a change afoot. The West, particularly the U.S., has given strong hints that it is now prepared to consider independence for Kosovo. It certainly hasn't dealt with Serbia with the long patience it has extended Turkey. But how far will the West let itself be pushed? Once the ball starts to roll, where does it end, as Mr Christopher warned? Ethnic conflicts do not require great differences; small will do--what Freud called "the narcissism of minor differences".

For starters, if it wants to be consistent, the West could usefully agree on the dismemberment of Iraq. Or what about the creation of Kurdistan, not to mention immediate recognition, without further ado, of a Palestinian state? And while it's at it let's officially recognize Tibet as the country it was!

The West by allowing itself to be drawn in as the airforce of the Kosovar guerrillas is stepping into very deep water. And by unleashing its war-machine it is only making a difficult and complicated situation worse. It is laying down precedents it will live to rue.

My own long-held suggestion for this growing problem is the establishment of an International Court of Ethnic Disputes.

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. At the time it was a big issue. Today it is not. The island remains Finnish but the rights of the islanders to use the Swedish language were reinforced.

With Kosovo and Serbia no such sustained effort to mediate was made BEFORE the situation blew up and passions were roused. At the time of the Dayton Agreement, Kosovo was ignored. There was, needless to say, no court to refer the matter to. Instead the West has gone dangerously to war. What an epitaph to century.



Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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