Threats to Global Security Result from Domestic, Inter-Group Conflict

The UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has for some years carried an agenda item on the threat to peace resulting from gross violations of human rights. This threat is most menacing when the gross violations of human rights affect racial, ethnic or religious groups. One has only to think back to the many cases in European history in, which the persecution of a religious or ethnic minority has provided the justification, or quite simply the opportunity, for outside armed intervention.

Many of the member states of the United Nations are plural societies, in the sense that they are composed of ethnic, racial and/or religious groups, between whom there are pervasive cleavages, and often a past history of conflict. They have quite recently become independent. They have not yet had time to integrate their plural sections, and intergroup relations are further strained by pressure of population on limited resources and struggles for power. There is an inherent instability in these societies, and many opportunities for the intervention of outside powers, thus adding to the present international tensions.

There is an intricate relationship between these international tensions in an appreciably polarized world and internal intergroup violence in plural societies. A disaffected groups may have no realistic basis for challenging the regime by resort to arms, but this becomes possible with outside support in armaments, training and perhaps military personnel. The objective may be the destabilization of the existing regime and its replacement by one more favorable to the intervening power. But whatever the objective, there is a raising of the level of internal violence and its destructiveness, and at the same time, further tensions in increasingly polarized international relations.

Where civil violence has broken out, there is almost certain to be international involvement in support of the contending groups. The civil war in the Sudan is often referred to as "The Forgotten War," presumably in reference to the fact that the conflict was not internationalized. But this is rare. In Nigeria, the Ibos had a perfectly legitimate claim for self-determination in the form of secession, following the genocidal massacres of their people in the North. However, when the civil war broke out, there was involvement of outside powers in support of both contending groups. In the civil war in Angola, largely ethnic based, the government is supported by Cubans, the challenging forces by South Africa. In the case of the Pakistan government's massacre of Bengalis in East Pakistan, India and Pakistan became involved in open warfare. This was a particularly dangerous situation, with the USSR supportive of India and the USA of Pakistan, and the Security Council paralyzed by the veto. And now, there is a highly threatening situation in Sri Lanka, with the Indian government inevitably involved on behalf of the Tamils. In the Middle East, there is also a danger of a world war, with the Palestinians drawing support from the Arab states and the Soviet Bloc, and the USA supporting Israel.

These civil conflicts are always associated with the flight of refugees. Sometimes, a whole group may be expelled without preliminary warning. If the outside world is not willing to receive them, we have a genocidal situation. Usually, there is some receptivity, and a burden imposed, particularly on neighboring countries. This is inevitably a source of strained international relations. India found itself intolerably burdened by the need to provide for some ten million Bengali refugees, though it did receive assistance from the United Nations. If refugees begin to mobilize for armed resistance against offending governments, there may be reprisal raids, as for example by Israel against the PLO in Lebanon, or by South Africa against the African National Congress in Mozambique, Lesotho or Botswana, thus undermining international security. There are millions of these refugees throughout the world, victims of intergroup conflicts, often a source of strain in international relations, and sometimes a contributing factor in international conflict.

International Alert is primarily concerned with the prevention of internal societal violence against ethnic, racial and religious groups. As commented earlier, these are essentially a phenomenon of plural societies. It is possible to identify societies at risk with some accuracy. We would monitor these societies, and be on watch for early warning signals - campaigns of vilification of the target group, persecution of leaders, detention without trial, murders of some of the leaders, the beginnings of a movement of refugees, perhaps small massacres. All these early warning signals of intergroup conflict provide occasion for sounding an international alert, and seeking to restrain further deterioration in intergroup relations.

Sometimes, there are well-defined cycles involving self-determination. It may start with modest demands for reform by the leaders of a group suffering under discrimination. The government ignores the demands, or makes minor, insignificant concessions, or in fact promises or legislates reforms which are not implemented. This generates resentment. The demands become more extensive. The official response is negligible. Finally, in appropriate circumstances, there is a movement for secession. A small group may start a sabotage and terrorist movement. The government overreacts with indiscriminate repression and violence against the ethnic or racial group. There develop reciprocal indiscriminate massacres, and the conflict escalates to a point of no return.

The doctrine of self-determination has been highly significant in the whole process of decolonization. However, in the United Nations it has been appreciably redefined as inapplicable to sovereign independent states. This is unfortunate, since the doctrine of self-determination (in a form however short of secession) could contribute to the restraint of internal intergroup violence. There is an appreciable body of research by international and constitutional lawyers on a great variety of constitutional arrangements which could respond to these intergroup conflicts. It is important to rehabilitate the doctrine of self-determination and to establish constitutional advisory services. International Alert hopes to assist in this development, and thereby to contribute further to the prevention of intergroup domestic conflicts, with their threat to international security.

It is also worth saying that racial, ethnic and religious groups may have members extending over more than one state, so that the conflict immediately has an international dimension.

For more information, write: Committee for Action Against Genocide and Mass Killings, Box 259, 1015 Gayley Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024, or telephone (213) 825-3998.

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