How do most ethnic conflicts end up being resolved?

Domestic conflicts

Lutz Schrader

To person

Dr. Lutz Schrader (born 1953) is a freelance lecturer, consultant and trainer with a focus on peace and conflict research and conflict counseling. Work and research topics are the conflicts in the Western Balkans, options for civil society actors to act in armed conflicts and post-conflict societies, processes of conflict transformation, and peace and conflict theories.

Most internal conflicts are ethnopolitical or have an ethnic dimension. In them, aspects of ethnic identity, such as language, culture and origin, are exaggerated and become instruments of mobilization against "the others".

Members of the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on April 25, 2011. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

A large number of the violent internal conflicts in recent years have an ethnic background. This applies to Kosovo and the Basque Country as well as to Chechnya, southern Thailand, Sudan / Darfur, the Ivory Coast and Iraq. This suggests that there is something inevitable and inevitable about competition and enmity between different ethnic groups. First of all, you can give the all-clear. The fact that a peaceful coexistence of different nations and ethnic groups is quite possible, indeed the rule, is proven by the number of well over 10,000 peoples and ethnic groups worldwide. UNESCO counts around 6,000 different languages. Should there actually be a fundamental incompatibility between different peoples and cultures, the number of ethnic conflicts and wars would have to be many times higher.

The "ethnic" as a cause and driver of conflicts

But why is it then that ethnic groups and peoples clash? There are three scientific explanations for this. The primordialist Theory assumes that ethnic characteristics shape social groups from the outset and, more than other influences and interests, determine their collective self-image and actions. Ethnic characteristics include origin, descent, language, customs, customs, religion and settlement area. For the advocates of the primordialist approach, the dominance of a non-ethnic identity (e.g. political ideology, economic reason or alliance solidarity) appears to be artificial and therefore limited in time.

The constructivist Approach sees ethnic identities as social constructs that are shaped, changed, upgraded or pushed into the background under the influence of dominant elites and in the coexistence of the respective group. The constructivist perspective makes it clear that the identity of every individual and every group is by no means determined solely by ethnic characteristics. In addition, there is a multitude of other characteristics: class, dynasty, religion, world view, class, gender, age, income, education, etc. In the process of "ethnicization" these characteristics are pushed back, devalued or filled with ethnic content. Ethnic identity becomes the core of the group context.

The instrumentalist Approach focuses on the political purpose and goal of ethnicization processes. According to this, ethnic characteristics only attain their prominent importance compared to other social, ideological and political influences through propaganda and the staging of political, religious and intellectual leaders. The own supporters should be incited and mobilized against other groups. The aim is to devalue rival communities and their leaders, to cut them off from access to economic resources and to displace them from political power. Common means are to question and combat their ethnic and cultural symbols, rituals and beliefs.

All three approaches can contribute to a better understanding of violent ethnicization processes and to the search for alternatives. Experience has shown that ethnic and nationalist "narratives" have a greater potential for mobilization than other ideologies because of the deep roots of common ancestry and history in individual and collective consciousness. [1] By strengthening alternative identities (e.g. class, gender, civil society, historical experience, economic interests), however, the ubiquity of the ethnic can be balanced and suppressed. Finally, the instrumentalist approach points out that the political, intellectual and media elites bear primary responsibility for ethnic conflicts and their consequences. This is where the change of direction has to start.

The anatomy of ethno-political conflicts

In ethnopolitical conflicts, the supposedly traditional, unchangeable differences between groups and communities become the subject of debate. So Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians and Macedonians suddenly no longer wanted to live together in one state because they belong to different ethnic groups. More and more people in the various communities firmly believed that they must fight and give their lives because their ancestry, their language, their religion are exposed to a mortal threat. All other causes, interests and goals disappeared behind the ethnic differences. With increasing escalation, the conflict itself became the central reason and the most important content of the political identity of the conflicting parties.

The ruling elites had intended that. Because the focus on the ethnic simplifies the identification of friend and foe and is able to release enormous social energies. In order to further heat the situation, victories won in earlier wars and conflicts became the subject of targeted myths, as well as humiliations, defeats and experiences of violence suffered. Such myths and narratives were used by leaders on all sides to justify and enforce their interests and goals.

Within one's own community, common ethnic, political, religious, and moral beliefs turned into means of control and discipline. In a climate of suspicion, suspicion, and conformity, people of different beliefs, beliefs, and origins were branded potential traitors and expelled from the community. Even the representatives of the political, military and intellectual elites began to believe in the reasons for the conflict that they themselves brought into being. The escalation came to a head as radicalized forces in the various camps urged their political leaders to take an even more extreme course.

As the example of the former Yugoslavia shows, ethnic conflicts are ultimately political conflicts. That is why it is more precise to speak of ethno-political conflicts. Because there is an ethnicization of the political. Political and social convictions, interests, goals and contradictions appear in the guise of the ethnic. Conversely, a politicization of the ethnic can be observed, which initially represents a relatively independent form of socialization that is not linked to the political. Family ties, skin color, religious beliefs, language and group rituals become politically highly sensitive characteristics of belonging and demarcation. Politics and ethnicity seem to merge.

Ways out of ethnopolitical conflicts

According to Barbara Harr and Robert Gurr, targeted ethnopolitical mobilization will find fertile ground when there is considerable potential for frustration in the respective ethnic group or community. On the other hand, less dissatisfied groups, which also have only a weak awareness of their own identity, are hardly susceptible to the efforts of political elites and violent entrepreneurs to mobilize them against a real or perceived threat from other groups, communities or states. [2]

This knowledge offers starting points for dealing with and overcoming ethnopolitical conflicts. Ethnicity is not just "false awareness" and an arbitrarily available instrument of rule in the hands of power-hungry and irresponsible elites. Deeply rooted social and political conflicts, which also include ethno-political disputes, generally result from the fact that basic human needs for survival, well-being, security, identity, freedom and participation have not been or insufficiently satisfied over a long period of time. [3 ] In many cases, political elites use ethnopolitical mobilization campaigns to distract attention from homemade economic and social grievances.

A way out of ethnopolitical conflicts becomes possible when frustrated basic human needs are recognized behind the fixation on ethnic differences and nationalistic resentments. The electoral processing strategy must therefore be aimed both at overcoming social and cultural frustrations and trauma and at the implementation of socio-economic reforms.


Harff, Barbara / Gurr, Ted Robert (2004): Ethnic Conflict in World Politics. Dilemmas in World Politics, Boulder, Oxford: Westview Press.

Hensell, Stephan (2003): Typically the Balkans? Patronage networks, ethnicity and dynamics of violence in Macedonia, in: Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, Issue 4, pp. 131-146.

Kaufman, Stuart (2006): Escaping the Symbolic Politics Trap: Reconciliation Initiatives and Conflict Resolution in Ethnic Wars, in: Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 201-218.

Schneckener, Ulrich (2002): Ways out of the civil war, Edition Suhrkamp, ​​Volume 2255 Models for the Regulation of Ethno-Nationalist Conflicts in Europe, Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp.

Smith, Anthony (2001): Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History, Cambridge: Polity.

Volkan, Vamik D. (2006): Blind trust. Large groups and their leaders in times of crisis, Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag.

Wieland, Carsten: The Bankruptcy of Humanism? Primordialism Dominates the Agenda of International Politics, in: Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, Heft 4, 2005, pp. 142-158.


Burton, John W. (1998): Conflict Resolution - the Human Dimension, in: International Journal of Peace Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1.

Rubenstein, Richard E. (2001): Basic Human Needs. Next Steps in Theory Development, in: International Journal of Peace Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1.

Marker, Sandra (2003): Unmet Human Needs, in: Burgess, Guy / Burgess, Heidi (eds.): Beyond Intractability, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder

Minority at Risk Project - Monitoring the Persecution and Mobilization of Ethnic Groups Worldwide.

Information, texts and blogs on the topic of internal conflicts


[1] Volkan, Vamik D. (2006): Blind trust ...

[2] Harff, Barbara / Gurr, Ted Robert (2004): Ethnic Conflict in World Politics ...

[3] Rubenstein, Richard E. (2001): Basic Human Needs. Next Steps in Theory Development ...