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THE NEW TRIBALISM: Defending Human Rights in an Age of Ethnic Conflict : Ethnic Strife Owes More to Present Than to History


In Georgia, little Abkhazia and South Ossetia both seek secession, while Kurds want to carve a state out of Turkey. French Quebec edges toward separation from Canada, as deaths in Kashmir's Muslim insurgency against Hindu-dominated India pass the 6,000-mark. Kazakhstan's tongue-twisting face-off pits ethnic Kazakhs against Russian Cossacks, while Scots in Britain, Tutsis in Rwanda, Basques and Catalans in Spain and Tuaregs in Mali and Niger all seek varying degrees of self-rule or statehood.

The world's now dizzying array of ethnic hot spots--at least four dozen at last count--starkly illustrates how, of all the features of the post-Cold War world, the most consistently troubling are turning out to be the tribal hatreds that divide humankind by race, faith and nationality.

"The explosion of communal violence is the paramount issue facing the human rights movement today. And containing the abuses committed in the name of ethnic or religious groups will be our foremost challenge for years to come," said Kenneth Ross, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch, a global monitoring group based in New York.

Indeed, xenophobia, religious rivalry and general intolerance of anything different are often now more anguishing and cruel--not to mention costly in human lives and material destruction--than the ideological differences that until recently divided the world.

The reversion to some of the oldest organizational principles of humankind reflects an attraction seemingly more potent than the prevalent 20th-Century principle of assimilation either by choice or by force--concepts such as the U.S. "melting pot" or communism's "dictatorship of the proletariat."

Why is ethnicity so powerful? And why now, at the end of the 20th Century, in defiance of so much that the period has stood for?

Since Communist doctrine began unraveling in 1989, conventional wisdom has linked the psychology and politics of hatred to the end of totalitarian rule that repressed ancient rivalries.

Today's clashes between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, for example, date back centuries to political and cultural hostility between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. In Sudan, Africa's largest state, the war pitting Christian and animist black Africans in the south against the Arab Muslim north has roots in the 19th Century--even before the birth of the modern state.

"To a large extent, history is catching up with us. Most ethnic conflicts have a background of domination, injustice or oppression by one ethnic group of another," explained John Garang, the U.S.-educated chairman and guerrilla commander of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the south.

"In our case in the Sudan, it goes back centuries to the slave trade. The northern Sudanese were the slave traders selling people from the south," he said in an interview.

Yet the proliferation of hatreds is not simply history's legacy to the Post-Modern Era, a cruel trick that has made old differences seemingly emerge out of thin air after disappearing for decades. History provides only the context.

"Ethnicity is not enduring and unstinting; it's shaped and given form. And what we take to be historic and ancient is often modern and recent," said Augustus Richard Norton, a political scientist at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The passions have instead been produced by a confluence of diverse factors, ranging from modernization and migration to democratization and limited resources, according to specialists. They flourish on fear and uncertainty.

Factor 1: Migration

The most basic cause stems from the Modern Era, which opened the way for cultural standardization and mass migration, the latter capped in the 20th Century by the largest movement of humankind in history.

On the eve of the 21st Century, fewer than 10% of the world's 191 nations are still ethnically or racially homogeneous.

The impact of global migrations and intermixing is reflected in a stark fact: Depending on definition, there are now between 7,000 and 8,000 linguistic, ethnic or religious minorities in the world, according to Alan Phillips, director of Minority Rights Group, a human rights monitoring organization based in London. In fact, virtually every ethnic group has a minority branch living somewhere outside its own borders.

The sheer magnitude of migrations in an ever more crowded world makes clashes and conflict virtually unavoidable.

The amalgamation of the world's peoples has already resulted in a host of otherwise unlikely skirmishes--between descendants of Africans and Koreans in white-dominated Los Angeles, or between Asian Indians and blacks in a South Africa ruled by descendants of Dutch and British settlers.

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