You are here:
PEACE, NON-VIOLENCE & CONFLICT RESOLUTION > CONFLICT RESOLUTION > The Role of Civil Society in Conflict Resolution
The Role of Civil Society in Conflict Resolution
M. B. Nisal
Horowitz argues, all conflicts based on ascriptive group identities -race, language, religion, tribe or caste - cause are called ethnic. In this umbrella usage, ethnic conflicts range from 1) The Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland and Hindu-Muslim conflict in India to 2) black-white conflict in the United States and South Africa, 3) Tamil - Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka, and 4) Shia-Sunni conflict in Pakistan.
The form ethnic conflict takes, be it, religious, linguistic, racial, tribal does not seem to alter its intensity, longevity, passion and relative intractability, their emphasis on the ascriptive and cultural core of the conflict, imagined or real, and they distinguish it primarily from the largely non-ascriptive and economic core of class conflict. Ethnic conflict may have an economic basis, but that is not its defining feature. The politics of ethnic group can be defined irrespective of internal class differentiation, race, language, sect or religion. So communal and ethnic mean the same.
Sooner or later scholars of ethnic conflict are struck by a puzzling empirical regularity in that field. Despite ethnic diversity, some places-regions, nations, towns or villages-manage to remain peaceful where as others experience enduring pottorus of violence. Similarly, some societies, after maintaining a veritable record of ethnic peace, explode in ways that surprise the observers and very often the scholars as well. Variations across time and space constitute an unresolved puzzle in the field of ethnicity and nationalism.
Until we study ethnic peace, we will not be able to have a good theory of ethnic conflict. Despite rising violence, many communities in the world still manage their interethnic tensions without taking violent steps.
Now let us distinguish between ethnic identity, ethnic conflict and ethnic violence. In any ethnically pleural society that allows free expression of political demands, some ethnical conflict is more or less inevitable. Indeed, such conflict may be inherent in all pluralistic political system, authoritarian or democratic compared to authoritarian systems, a democratic polity is simply more likely to witness an open expression of such conflicts. The former may look disaffected ethnic groups into long periods of political silence, giving the appearance of a well governed society, but a coercive containment of such conflict also runs the risk, though not the certainty of an eventual outburst of a pent-up frustration when an authoritarian system begins to liberalize or lose its legitimacy. Contrary wise, ethnic conflicts are a regular feature of ethnically plural democracies for if different ethnic groups exist, the freedom to organize is available.
The real issue is whether the ethnic conflict is violent or is waged in the institutionalized channels of the polity as nonviolent mobilization. If ethnic protest takes an institutionalized form in parliaments, assemblies, in bureaucracies, or on the street, it is conflict all right, but not violent. Such conflict must be distinguished from a situation in which protest takes violent forms. Rioting breaks out on the street and in the neighborhoods, and in its most extreme form, programs are initiated against some ethnic groups with full connivance of state authorities. Given how different these outcomes are, explanations of institutionalized conflict may not be the same as those for ethnic violence and rioting. Further explanations of rioting may also be different from those for programs and civil wars. Ethnic peace should be, for all practical purposes, be conceptualized as an institutionalized channeling and resolution of ethnic conflicts. The world will be a happier place if we could eliminate ethnic and national conflicts from our midst, but a post ethnic, post national era does not seem to be in the offing. At least our medium-run expectations should be better aligned with our realities. A roughly similar point can be made about the relationship between ethnic identity and ethnic violence. Ethnic identities by themselves do not produce violence, they may co-exist with peace. It is sometimes argued that if ethnic identities could only give way to economic identities, conflicts would be less violent and "civilized". Indeed, "modernization" in 1950s and1960s was widely expected to lead to class and occupational differences between human beings, overriding ethnic difference that were deemed relics of a by gone era. Why should economic conflicts be less violent than ethnic conflicts ? The underlying intuition is simply that identities tend to be indivisible, where as a fight over resources is amenable to flexible sharing. If a deal can be struck, splitting shares into a 60-40 or 65-35arrangement, a peaceful resolution of a conflict is possible. Such bargaining, it is argued, is not possible with respect to ethnicity. With the clear exception of those born of intermarriages, Christian cannot be turned into half-jews and a white person cannot be made half-black. The degree of freedom being so much lower, clashes based on ethnic identities resist compromise, arouse passion instead of reason, and generate violence.
Is there a way out? Lijphart argues that, in order to be successful and reduce ethnic conflict, democracy in a pleural society requires elite compromise. A pleural society is defined as one in which the various ethnic groups are segmented and have little criss-crossing. Elite compromise can best be around by a political system that works on inter-group consensus, not inter-group competition. A consensual democracy of this kind can be called consociational. It has from features, a grand coalition of ethnic leaders in government, a mutual veto given to each group proportionality in decision-making, positions, and segmental autonomy with respect to matters such as education, language and personal laws. The examples are Austria, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland.
If we summarise, we come to conclude that conflict is not necessarily violent. It can take on institutionalised form if ethnic demands for higher political representation, affirmative action, or personal laws are pursued in assemblies, elections, bureaucratic corridors, and nonviolent movements and protests.
Civil society interface at the point where conflict turns into violence. Civil links, if they exist between ethnic group also resolve the unanswered puzzle of instrumentalism, namely, why even though political elites may try to use ethnicity for political purposes and wish to cleave societies on long ethnic lines, they are unable to do so everywhere. In fact, they may not find such efforts sensible at all, and may instead put together winning coalitions in non-ethnic ways.
The concept of civil society, though highly popular and much revived in recent years, remains intensely contested. Accordingly to the conventional notions prevalent in the social sciences, "Civil society" refers to the space in a given society that exists between the family level and the state level. According to Gellner, civil society is not only modern but also based on strictly voluntary, not ethnic or religious associations between the family and the state.
Informal associations or activities help in forming civil society. The sites of civic interactions range from generally predicable to highly particular and culturally specific. The predictable sites are neighborhood, a village commons, the playground, the halls for entertainment ant community functions. Groups interaction is not confirmed to them, however, and may also mark some culturally specific sites, the festival venues where people not only participate in a religious activity but also build connections for secular purposes such as politics, the sidewalks where those returning from work habitually walk together are talk, not simply about the weather but also about organizational structures in the workplace, markets, films, festivals, and politics. The village river or a pond is the place where women not only wash cloths and exchange views about families but also discuss school teachers, landlords and village politics; the milk collection centers where men and women pour milk each morning as well as talk about children, relatives, local government, cultural trends and national polities.
What is crucial to the nation of civil society is that families and individuals connect with others beyond these homes and talk about matter of public relevance without the interference or sponsorship of the state. Whether such engagement takes place in association or in the traditional sites of social get-togetherness depends on the degree of the state urbanization and economic development. Cities tend to have formal associations, but villages make do with informal sites and meetings. In villages in our country-India-less that 4 percent of all deaths and roughly 10 percent of all Hindu-Muslim riots are on record during 1950 to 1995. Peace was maintained not because of associations but because everyday civil engagement between Hindus and Muslims was enough to keep potential rioters away. In cities, however, such everyday engagement was not enough, and associations were required.
When villages become towns, towns turn into cities, and cities are transformed into metropolises, people begin to travel long distances for work, face to face contact is typically not possible beyond neighbourhoods, and associations become necessary not only for civil peace but also for many economic, social and political aims and interactions. We should not look for associations, where the end for them is not pressing or where access to them is difficult for some groups. We should, instead, look at the alternative civil sites that perform the same role as the more standard civil organisations do. One more observation is that interethnic or inter communal engagement makes for peace, not interethnic or intra-communal. Intra-communal engagement leads to the formation of what might be called institutionalized peace system. Engagement, if all intra-communal, is often associated with institutionalised riot system.
One the whole, two links can be specified between civic life and ethnic conflict. First prior and sustained contact between members of different communities allows communication between them to moderate tensions and preempt violence, when tensions arise owing to an exogenous shock, say a riot in the nearby city, distant violence repeated in press or shown on T.V., rumours planted by politicians or a group in the city, a provocative act of communal mischief by police or some youths. In cities of thick interaction between different communities, peace committees at the time of tensions emerge from bellow in various neighborhoods and the local administration does not have to impose such committees on the entire city. The former is better peace protector than the latter.
Secondly, in cities that have associational integration as well as everyday integration, the foundations of peace becomes stronger without a nexus between politicians and criminals, big riots and killings are highly improbable.
Civil links across communities have a remarkable local and regional variation. They differ from place to place depending on how different communities are distributed in local business, middle-class occupations, parties, and labour markets. The result is, when the same organisation is able to create tensions and violence in one city or region, it is unable to do so in another city and region, when civil engagement crosses communal lines.
One might ask whether these points are India-specific or can be applied elsewhere also. Ethnic violence tends to be highly locally or regionally concentrated. A countrywide breakdown of the ethnic relations is rare. We tend to form exaggerated impressions of the destructive power of ethnicity because violence is what attracts popular attention; especially the attention of media. The quiet continuation of routine life may be important for research but it is not news; and hence is unimportant for the media. In contrast, large riots or major acts of violence make "good copy" and are widely repeated. In the process, we end up getting the impression that ethnic violence is normal and ethnic peace rare in the world, whereas the reality is the other way round.
If we systematically investigate the links between civil society and ethnic conflict, we can achieve better understanding of violence in general as well as of its local a regional variation.
[Source: International Seminar on Conflict Resolution, February 15-17, 2003]