Ethnic Conflict: Meaning, Theories, Types, Solutions

Ethnic Conflict: Meaning, Theories, Types, Solutions

Ethnicity is a term used to describe groups of people who share common traits such as race, religion, or language. Migration has made many modern nation-states diverse with multiple ethnic groups. Political mishandling and lack of vision, uneven economic and development policy, non-diplomatic authoritarian approach to solving any dispute or conflict, and elitism lead to ethnic conflict.

Let’s understand the meaning, theories, types, impacts, and solutions of ethnic conflict.

Understanding Ethnicity and Its Impact on Modern Society

Human groups are classified on the basis of ethnic characteristics. The word “ethnic” is derived from the Greek word “ethnos,” meaning “people” or “race,” and is now commonly related to characteristics of a human group having racial, religious, linguistic, and certain other traits in common.

If people having the same ethnicity lived in their ancestral territory, issues of ethnicity would not arise. Migration of people to different lands has resulted in a heterogeneous composition of people within the boundaries of a nation-state.

Very few modern nation-states are homogeneous in the composition of their nationals within their territorial boundaries. Statistics seem to indicate that the overwhelming majority of states in the world have populations that are not considered homogeneous.

According to a declaration issued by the International Institute for Nationality Rights and Regionalism in Munich (Germany), only nine percent of the states in the world are ethnically homogeneous.

Understanding Nationality, Statehood, and Ethnicity

Nation-state is derived from the concept that humanity is divided into nations, that nations are bound by common links, and held together by a will to live together whether they are homogeneous or not. Nationalism in the West arose in an effort to build a nation-state.

Although the success of the French Republic in 1789 as the first nation-state served as a model in Europe, nationalism as a concept fully developed in the 19th century.

The Role of Democracy in Nation-State Formation

The fact that democracy required a nation-state was spelled out by the English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-73) in his book titled “Representative Government.

Ethnicity Versus Nationality in Modern Nation-States

Most modern nation-states have numerous ethnic or religious minorities. Ethnic groups are generally differentiated from nations on several dimensions: they are more clearly based on common ancestry, and their membership in such groups is confined to those who share certain inborn attributes. In contrast to the definition of nationalism, ethnicity is a narrower concept.

State, Nationality, and Ethnicity Defined

State is a geographically and politically defined area, and nationality is specific to time and place, while ethnicity means cohesive groups having racial and other traits in common. An ethnic group may change its nationality as boundaries of the state are liable to change.

Illustrating the Difference Between Nationality and Ethnicity

The following illustration will clarify the difference between nationality and ethnicity.

A person from Carpathian Russia explains his nationality in the following way: “I am a born Hungarian in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I became Czechoslovakian and then Hungarian again. Later I became a Soviet Union national and then Ukrainian.” The change of his nationality was because his village (Ruthenia) had first been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In 1920 when Czechoslovakia was created, his village became a part of Czechoslovakia. Under pressure from Hitler, it was given back to Hungary in 1938. After World War II, it was annexed by the Soviet Union to become part of Soviet Ukraine. Thus, within a generation or two, that person changed his nationality four times.

Another Example of Changing Nationalities

A Bengali elderly person (born before 1947) living in Bangladesh changed his/her nationality three times – British subject, Pakistan citizen, and Bangladeshi.

Conclusion on Ethnicity and Nationality

The examples demonstrate that the identity of an ethnic group remains constant while nationality changes with the change of boundaries of a state.

Theories of Ethnicity

Two theories have been advanced with respect to ethnicity. One is primordiality and the other is situational. The primordialists underscore the ethnicity of a group of people by birth, indicating their race, skin color, language, and religion. They argue that human beings have always been grouped together on the basis of naturally given characteristics.

Other theorists argue that ethnicity is a fluid concept and its assertion originates from situations. This implies that ethnicity remains dormant until a situation arises where an ethnic group is not treated equally with the mainstream population in a nation-state.

The term “ethnicity” was first employed in 1953 in a generic sense in social science to mean the character or quality of an ethnic group.

Social class, such as haves and have-nots, refers to the division of social stratification, and ethnicity tends to replace class as a recognized ranking in a vertically structured social system. Ethnic minorities constitute a distinct group, but often, they do not necessarily act as a separate group.

Issues of Ethnicity and Colonialism

The last five hundred years witnessed slavery, colonialism, and migration, and as a result, the composition of people within a given territory has drastically changed.

First, the colonial masters ruled foreign territory on the basis of “divide and rule” policy: one group of people was set off against another group within a given territory.

Second, both migrants (settlers) and indigenous people coexist in varying proportions as in the case of Latin America.

Third, indigenous populations are exterminated and/or completely marginalized as in the case of Australia and North America. In such situations, indigenous populations became smaller as colonial masters claimed their territory as their homeland and became the majority population.

The new settlers suppressed indigenous communities through war and suppression. Discrimination, oppression, and exploitation, in turn, gave rise to ethnic issues.

Role of Dominant Ethnic Groups in Nation-States

In multi-ethnic societies within a nation-state, unequal distribution of resources among different ethnic groups is more of a standard norm than an exception. There appears to be an innate tendency on the part of the dominant ethnic group to establish hegemony over other ethnic groups within a state.

A state, in turn, tries to promote an official ethnic identity, and other minority ethnic groups are expected to fall in line through assimilation.

The domination of the mainstream ethnic people marginalizes minority ethnic groups, and if they resist assimilation with the dominant ethnic group or assert their right to preserve their language, traditions, and culture and maintain their ethnic identity, they are labeled anti-national and parochial.

Exception to the Dominant Ethnic Group

There are also examples of minority ethnic groups holding power in a state. This phenomenon can be best illustrated in Iraq (Sunni Arab is a minority but ruled Iraq until the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003) and Syria (11 percent Alawite Arabs rule the country). The Tutsi minority (15 percent) rules Rwanda’s Hutu majority (85 percent of the population).

In the past, Muslim Emperors were of Turkish, Afghan, or Persian origin, but they ruled India’s vast multi-ethnic population. One of the principal reasons for minority rule may be explained by their control of military power thereby stabilizing their continuity of power for long periods of time.

International Conventions on Racial Discrimination

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights legally binds signatory states to value human dignity and freedom. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Populations is specific with respect to the rights of indigenous populations.

The 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination considers all human beings equal in law, and no racial discrimination is permissible.

Furthermore, the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief reiterates that no one shall be subject to discrimination by any state on the grounds of religion or other belief.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted a revised Convention (number 169) to eliminate the paternalistic and assimilationist approach to indigenous people.

Majority Rule and Ethnic Conflicts: Diversity of Majority and Minority Populations

In most states, there are majorities and minorities among people that differ to varying degrees ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and also religiously. Yet they must live together within a defined territory of a state.

Indigenous Peoples and Their Distinct Identities

Among the ethnic minorities, there are indigenous Indian (Native Indians) peoples that live in the Americas, Inuits (Eskimos) and Aleutians in the polar regions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia and Maori in New Zealand. These and most other indigenous people have retained social, cultural, economic, and political characteristics which are clearly distinct from those of other segments of populations in those countries.

The Rise of Ethno-Nationalism and Its Impact

Since the 1960s increasing numbers of ethnic groups have begun to assert their ethno-nationalism that is now recognized as the main source of domestic, regional, and international conflicts in the post-Cold War era.

The Global Spread of Ethnic Conflicts

Between 1992 and 1993, there were 57 serious armed conflicts, low-intensity conflict, and serious disputes involving ethno-political groups that were of serious concern to regional observers. These conflicts continued in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Central and South Asia, Asia Pacific, Africa South of the Sahara, and the Americas.

The Quest for Independence and Improved Status

In the most intense conflicts, minority ethnic groups strive to establish independent homelands as was the case with the people of Eritrea and East Timor. Other low-intensity ethnic conflicts arise from efforts by minority groups to improve their economic and social status within the existing boundaries of a state rather than to secede from it.

The Observations of Samuel Lewis on Ethnic Conflicts

Samuel Lewis, President of US Institute of Peace said: “Ethnically based conflict is a pervasive worldwide phenomenon, one that erupts into brutality and violence”.

The Denial of Minority Issues by States

The most difficult situation arises when a state continues to deny having any minority problems or the existence of ethnic minorities within its territory and unless practical and sensible solutions are found to quell their unrest, ethnic conflicts inevitably arise.

The Complexity of Resolving Ethnic Conflicts

Ethnic conflicts are difficult to solve because they are fought over values and separate ethnic identities that are often sensitive and non-negotiable.

Types of Ethnic Conflicts

There are three types of ethnic conflicts depending on their nature and objectives.

Territorial Claims and Independence

The first type of ethnic conflict involves conflicting territorial claims by two or more neighboring states. The political boundaries were drawn by colonial powers without taking into account ethnic, linguistic, or religious factors of the people in the area and as a result, the same ethnic, linguistic, or religious group is divided in two or three countries.

Once independence is achieved ethnic or religious or linguistic groups want to unite themselves within one country and as a result, border disputes or ethnic or religious conflicts start among states.

The border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 is one such instance. There appears to be a growing demand of about 25 million Kurds living in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran to create an independent Kurdistan that was promised by the British during the First World War.

Another instance of conflict is between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh which is a part of Azerbaijan but is claimed by Armenia because of its Christian Armenian majority.

Internal Disputes Within States

The second type involves disputes between different ethnic, cultural, or religious groups living together in a state. Conflicts of this type tend usually to be over political participation in the decision-making within a state.

Ethnic minorities feel that they have no voice in running the administration in allocation of resources and national income. They remain marginalized in the national scene. This helplessness gives rise to frustration and desperation resulting in secessionist struggles.

Instances of this type of conflict remain in Cyprus where ethnic Greek and Turkish Cypriots divided the island country since 1974.

In Myanmar (Burma) ethnic communities of Karens, Kachins, and Shans living in the south, east, and northern parts of the country, have been fighting for over fifty years for greater autonomy from government dominated by ethnic Burmans (who constitute 68 per cent of population). The Basque separatists in Spain have been engaged in an armed civil war for an independent Basque region since 1993.

In Mexico, the Zapatista indigenous populations have been waging an armed struggle in the south of the country (Chiapas) where extreme poverty prevails. In 1967 Nigeria’s Ibo tribe in the east seceded and declared an independent state of “Biafra”. This civil war continued until 1970 with the loss of lives of many thousands of people.

Conflicts Stemming from Perceived Foreign Occupation

The third type involves a situation where in its homeland substantial groups of ethnic people consider them ruled by foreign occupation because they are governed by different ethnic people by accident of history or by force under the banner of one country.

The Bosnian war between Serbs, Bosnia Muslims, and Croats during 1992-95 and in Kosovo between Kosovar Muslims of Albanian origin and Serbs in 1999 are examples in point.

In China, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang want complete self-autonomy or political independence from the Chinese rule. In Sudan, Christians in the south have been fighting for independence from rulers of the Muslim-dominated north.

In Ireland, Catholics consider the rule of Britain in Northern Ireland as foreign occupation and until the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, armed struggle continued between armed groups of Catholics (Irish Republic Army) and Protestants (Ulster Defence Association). There remains an uneasy peace in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland.

Factors Influencing Ethnic Conflicts

Many observers suggest that the increasing rise of ethnic conflicts in modern times is due to both internal and external factors.

Internal Factors Contributing to Ethnic Conflicts

Internally, the mainstream community suppresses or deprives ethnic minorities of getting their due share of power and equitable distribution of national income and resources. Ethnic minorities’ suffering and poverty appear to be a “time-bomb” lodged against the stability of a country. Poverty and inequality are the greatest threats to peace.

The Role of International Human Rights Awareness

International concern with human rights is of recent origin. It is clear that states cannot as easily treat their own nationals within territorial boundaries as they would like because their conduct is now under greater scrutiny by the international community.

In that sense, their absolute sovereignty over their nationals has been curtailed insofar as human rights are concerned. In the past, they could get away with such discriminatory treatment. However, in modern times there is an external dimension to ethnic-related issues of discrimination in view of international concern for the violation of human rights.

The Interconnection of Human Rights Protection

Protection of human rights at both the national and international levels is closely connected, and all international human rights instruments require states to provide adequate redress for those whose rights are violated.

This implies international mechanisms operate to reinforce domestic protection for ethnic groups, and when the domestic system fails, the international community will come to provide redress.

The bottom line of the argument is that awareness of human rights encourages ethnic groups to demand better opportunities in national life. In the past, states were free to suppress their demands, but now they cannot do so without condemnation from the international community. As a result, it is argued that ethnic conflicts have emerged more than they had in the past.

A Call for Objective International Machinery

In this context, an author argued: “The moment human rights became part of bilateral and multilateral negotiations among governments, it presented a different scenario…. To avoid the manipulative use of human rights either by errant nation-states or by Western bilateral agencies, it is important that international machinery is set up that is objective and interventionist but representative of all world actors to implement human rights at the international level and within nation-states. Unless this independent body is set up, the next decade may witness a perversion of human rights issues as it is used to serve political interests of states.”

Boutros-Ghali’s Warning on Ethnic Conflicts

The former Secretary-General of the UN, Egyptian national Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-96), stated at a meeting of the UN Security Council soon after his election to the office on 31 January 1992 as follows: “The explosion of nationalities which is pushing countries with many ethnic groups towards division is a new challenge to peace and security…. Peace, first threatened by ethnic conflicts and tribal wars, could then be troubled by border disputes.”

Ethnic Conflicts and Democracy

Ethnic identity is multi-dimensional. Although ordinarily religion acts as a bond between people of the same faith, it has been seen that in many cases, a linguistic bond has been found to be much stronger than that based on religion.

In Pakistan, both Mohajirins and Sindhis are Sunni Muslims but speak different languages, and they have been engaged in violence for some years. Bengalis and West Pakistanis belong to the same religion (Islam) but speak different languages. Thus, in 1971, Bengalis seceded from Pakistan.

Democracy means the full participation by all people in the country. Arend Lijphart suggested a “consociational democracy” where if certain principles were observed, most of the ethnic conflicts would likely be resolved. The principles are;

  • high degree of cooperation among all ethnic groups,
  • proportional representation in elective bodies, including the national parliament,
  • a high degree of autonomy to regions, and
  • some kind of veto mechanism to be exercised by all ethnic groups to preserve their vital interests.

It is desirable that states should address the roots of unrest among ethnic groups and resolve them through peaceful negotiations.

One of the ways is the strengthening of local self-government in such a way that ethnic groups address their problems through these local institutions.

Centralization of power is counterproductive to democratic institutions.

It is argued that if decentralization of power is effectively transferred to a local level, most ethnic conflicts are likely to disappear. In countries with mature democracies, such as Britain, Canada, and the US, they were confronted at one stage with ethnic conflicts and have been able to resolve them through the mechanisms of autonomy and devolution of power to these groups.

Role of Civil Society in Solving Ethnic Conflicts

Civil society constitutes a moral force in the community. It aims at establishing decency and justice in society. It is intimately connected with establishing a society based on the rule of law, democratic values, and social justice. Civil society stands as a barrier to authoritarian rule.

Bridging Mechanisms for Inclusion and Security

Civil society can be considered a bridging mechanism between the state and ethnic groups and seeks to set values, including trust, tolerance, and inclusion of all ethnic groups, that enable these groups to feel secure in a given society.

As de Tocqueville noted nearly two centuries ago, voluntary associations serve as the “free schools of democracy” where individuals, irrespective of ethnic groups, participate equally in national life.

Focusing on Marginalized Social Groups

Civil society ordinarily focuses on three marginalized social groups, namely, minority ethnic groups, women, and youth, and ensures that these groups participate equally in public life. Civil society advances and defends the interests of marginalized social groups through collective action.

Promoting Democracy and Tolerance

One of the attributes of a strong civil society is to create building blocks of democracy and tolerance and promote human interaction with all ethnic groups that make partnerships among them possible.

The Role in Human Rights Enforcement

Civil society has a role to play in the preparation of a Charter of Human Rights that a national or regional Human Rights Court can enforce. In such an environment, ethnic conflicts may not arise because all groups join together to address socio-economic problems.

Importance of Human Resource Development

In many countries, civil society underscores the importance of the development of human resources. Human resource development is important to eliminating unrest among minority groups because employment is intimately connected with skilled human resources.

Economic Prosperity as a Disincentive for Ethno-Nationalism

When people of all groups are employed, comfortable, relaxed, and enjoy the fruits of economic prosperity, the strength of ethno-nationalism or identity gradually disappears. In other words, prosperity acts as a disincentive for minority ethnic groups to advance their interests as a separate group.

This has been illustrated by the integration of European states into the European Union, resulting in the disappearance of the rise of ethno-nationalism in Europe except in the Balkans in the 1990s.


Ethnicity is a term used to classify human groups based on their common racial, linguistic, religious, and other traits. Due to migration, most modern nation-states have a heterogeneous population. Nationality is specific to a time and place, while ethnicity refers to cohesive groups with common racial and other traits. Theories of ethnicity include primordiality and situational.

Ethnic minorities constitute a distinct group but often do not act as a separate group. Colonialism, slavery, and migration have drastically changed the composition of people within a given territory.