CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: New Order? International models of peace and reconciliation (Report No. 9)

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New Order?

International models of peace and reconciliation

Individual and collective rights

George Schöpflin

We live in a world of multiple identities and we regard the ideal political system as the one that permits them widest expression. Reality is different, of course. Political systems do indeed allow some identities expression, but others are constrained or repressed.

In understanding the nature of these processes, we have to look at the criteria by which communities sustain themselves and seek to establish the coherence that makes a community a community and not just a group of disparate individuals. Individuals without a community are dispossessed, but the community to which they belong imposes duties and assigns them rights, as well as empowering them with ways of decoding the world.

In this context, it is essential to understand which identities have political weight attached to them and which do not. In broad historical terms, we are living in an era when cultural identities are becoming more important and economic ones less so, at any rate as far as Europe is concerned. Until the collapse of communism, both the west and the communist world stressed the universalism of economic identities. Marxism-Leninism did so explicitly; western liberalism began from the assumption that individual choice was the mainspring of identity and saw this choice as primarily, though not exclusively, articulated in economics.

The collapse of communism placed a question-mark over this emphasis on economic identities. The contest for influence, authority and power that we call the cold war turned, inter alia, on the similarity between eastern and western assumptions about the nature of the deepest interests of the individual and how these economic identities should be fed into politics. Once communism ended, the west's own assumptions were left without an antagonist that thought in the same way It had to face relatively novel demands for access to power on the basis of cultural identities that were deviant by economic criteria.

All identities function in much the same way They seek to establish their validity, have them accepted by communities organised around other self-definitions, make their existence as communities unchallenged and unchallengeable and secure themselves in the context of political power. The order that communities establish operates, crudely speaking, at both the institutional and the symbolic level. Power and authority are expressed and sustained by institutions, procedures and other forms of explicit regulation.

At the same time, communities also rely on their symbols, rituals and ceremonies to ensure their survival. Every community does this. Memory and forms of knowledge are vested in the symbolic dimension of politics and create a sense of solidarity, without which it is difficult to sustain consent to be ruled. This is the essence of cultural reproduction. All communities seek to ensure their survival - that is, they engage in cultural reproduction.

It follows that a stable political system will make provision for both the institutional and the symbolic aspects of power. If one is neglected, the other will suffer and that generally produces negative reactions on the part of those affected. For 'negative reactions' read friction, conflict, dissension. All politics involves conflict, but when the contest for power is taking place at the symbolic rather than the institutional level, it is infinitely more difficult to regulate it - above all because symbols appeal to the emotions, to the affective dimension of collective existence.

This helps to explain why institutional provision on its own will not solve identity-driven conflicts. The finest, most elegant legal system in the world will be useless in such situations and reliance on a legal discourse is a waste of time unless the prior non-legal assent to be ruled is already there.

In most European political systems, provision for symbolic representation exists, but it tends to be unequal for different groups and that is the principal source of much ethnic conflict. The weakness or absence of access to symbolic power leaves identity groups uneasy about their cultural reproduction and they will seek to secure it. This makes the contest for power opaque and unpredictable, and raises fears about communal survival which institutional power is incapable of regulating.

The problem is acute or even hyperacute in multi-ethnic states because our political traditions privilege institutional regulation over the symbolic. Indeed, we tend to be dismissive of symbolic politics. We tend to dismiss it as primitive, or pre-political or just plain irrational. This is an error. If one's aim is to achieve stability, then adequate provision for symbolic representation is just as vital as the access to institutions which democratic theory stresses so strongly.

It follows from the foregoing that such twofold provision, both institutional and symbolic, is bound to be more difficult in multi-ethnic states than in mono-ethnic ones (under mono-ethnic I include states where one ethnic group makes up over 90 percent of the population). Where two or more ethnic groups coexist, access to institutions and symbols will require complex and continuous negotiation to ensure that no community becomes fearful for its survival and, crucially, that the symbolic demands of one community do not endanger those of another. This last proposition can be argued both on prudential grounds and on the basis of democratic self-limitation.

However, it is important to note that citizenship on its own will not produce the kind of democratic, inter-ethnic stability under discussion. The codes of citizenship establish the framework for the institutional relationship between the individual and the state and the clarity that these codes offer is vital for uninterrupted cultural reproduction. Arbitrary use of power not only makes for bad governance but generates fear.

It should be understood, though, that citizenship and its regulation are invariably coloured by the ethnic assumptions of the group that contributes most to it. It is this colouring that has to be made multi-coloured if all the ethnic groups in the state are to gain the security under discussion here. In this sense, citizenship is a necessary condition of democratic stability in a multi-ethnic state, but it is not sufficient.

What follows from the discussion so far is that collectivities create sources of power and the members of groups seek recognition for their demands for power. If the political system can absorb this proposition, then the extent of collective political rights can be seen as a matter of negotiation. Legal rights are downstream of that and it is misleading to begin from legal regulation. Legally defined rights will only gain full respect where the collectivities in which people live have a sense of their secure future.

The individual's position, therefore, is more dependent on the collective than we are accustomed to think. Since the Enlightenment, western assumptions have turned on the proposition that the individual is the pivotal, autonomous agent in society. This is persuasive, but that autonomy is not absolute. It is bounded by the implicit and explicit baggage of assumptions that all individuals bring with them and these assumptions are derived, as often as not, from cultural imperatives.

We are all members of communities and communities create their own regulation. Indeed, we are deeply suspicious of individuals who have no community, who are in that respect not 'recognisable'. Hence individual rights are established and exercised in and against the community in which the individual lives.

In certain circumstances, therefore, individual rights can be thoroughly constrained by the demands of the community. This delimiting of the individual takes place when the collectivity feels itself under threat and imposes the severest restrictions on freedom. Here, the field is wide open to manipulation, because when groups perceive their existence as being in danger, they will appeal to the affective dimension and thereby exclude or restrict rational argument.

So much for the theoretical analysis of the relationship between collective and individual rights. Applying these insights to the ruins of former Yugoslavia, we can draw various conclusions.

It is evident that multi-ethnic communist states were inherently weaker than mono-ethnic ones. Hence, communism had little or nothing to offer in advancing the skills needed for multi-ethnic accommodation, because it relied on force and the threat of force to maintain itself. The system was strongly reductionist in its failed attempt to eliminate or marginalise ethnic identities. Nor could it cope readily with the diversity that communist modernisation created, in terms of industrialisation and urbanisation - including massive migration from rural areas to towns without sufficient provision to learn the skills of urban living.

Communism had no concept of rights at all. It did give people a status - that of 'worker', say - but it established no proper procedures for validating rights and duties. It was arbitrary and unpredictable; hence those ruled by communism learned few of the skills needed to deal with conflict and contest. Thus when the security and coherence provided by the communist state disappeared, the only identity on which they could rely for the construction of a stable order was ethnicity.

The sudden projection of ethnicity into the public sphere took place without adequate understanding of what dealing with other ethnic groups would involve. There were few or no criteria for recognising reasonable or unreasonable demands, no culture of self-limitation or compromise. As a result, insecurity as to one's cultural reproduction was intensified. In these circumstances, individual rights were marginalised and those who controlled the agendas of the collectivity were able to recreate a one-sided distribution of power. In this context, the contrast with mono-ethnic post-communist states is noteworthy Where the state was already in existence before communism it was sufficiently well grounded to allow at least some regulated contest for power, though in these states, too, inter-ethnic relations have been a major problem. For new states the problem is magnified, because they have to construct themselves from inadequate raw materials.

The inadequacy of these raw materials has been exacerbated by the war. War generates insecurity and radicalises those involved. Where war has the qualities of an inter-ethnic conflict, anxieties will focus on one's cultural reproduction and all factors, demands, interests not perceived as enhancing cultural reproduction will be delegitimated and suppressed. The radicalisation will be expressed as polarisation and a thoroughgoing narrowing down of the cognitive field, which then becomes fertile ground for conspiracy theories and other forms of ideological thinking in which every event will be assessed through ethnic spectacles and fitted into a coherent pattern of ethnicisation.

The upshot of these propositions is that the Yugoslav successor states, with the exception of Slovenia, are grappling with multi-tiered problems of extraordinary complexity which make the recognition and validation of individual and minority rights all but impossible. The weakness or absence of a culture of citizenship, the shallow roots of the rule of law, the feebleness of civil society and the corresponding ease with which political leaders can mobilise along ethnic lines make for a situation in which individual rights are understood as deriving solely from ethnic identity Hence members of other ethnic groups can be validly denied their rights, because they are believed to be determined to destroy one's own. This is precisely the response that was reported from among the Serbs of Kosovo in March to the agreement that Albanians be permitted to study in Albanian, but that is by no means a unique case.

The validation of individual and minority rights needs stable political systems that function predictably and in which the exercise of power is transparent and accountable. Without this, conflict will be potentially open to rapid polarisation from which retreat is very difficult. This implies that external agencies (like the west) have a major role to play in the foreseeable future in stabilising the exercise of power; otherwise ethnicisation will be hard to block.

To bring that stabilisation about, the external agencies have to do more than create institutional structures. They must begin from the underlying proposition that cultural reproduction requires security at the symbolic as well as at the institutional level. This will demand patient and constructive engagement and sensitivity in understanding inter-ethnicity. Money, investment and economic activity are at best a helpful condition for stabilisation, but monetary incentives will not do much to change the underlying dynamic and it would be foolish to rely on them. Likewise, legal provision will only work if the underlying security has been firmly established. International legal norms, like war crimes, are useful in creating a set of external constraints, but they will not be internalised by those affected while there is a substantial constituency for ethnic perspectives, and that is the accepted attitude of the majority.

At the end of the day, the instability of the post-Yugoslav space is political and only political means will change that instability. In the current circumstances, that signifies a very considerable western presence in Bosnia, adding up to a protectorate, coupled with the need for pressure on all the other successor states to move towards the procedural and substantive recognition of rights that are essential for democracy. Similarly, the west will have to persist with its policy of constraining Serbia from its course in Kosovo, even while it must pay heed to the (legitimate) symbolic goods that the Serbs have in the region. Active engagement in Macedonia implies a framework in which security is offered to both Macedonians and Albanians. And Croatia will have to move towards a system that accepts and gives political expression to the diversity of Croatian society.

The west must be consistent and determined in this strategy and make it very clear that it will behave in this fashion; otherwise, ethnicisers have an incentive to sit it out, to wait until the west tires of its commitment. And the west must recognise that the special conditions of ex-Yugoslavia need special remedies-chief among them the understanding that threats to cultural reproduction and survival as a community create very long-term insecurities that are not easily assuaged. Until they are, the region will remain unstable.


Frank Steketee of the Council of Europe responded by describing the evolution of the minority rights régime over which the council presided.

Before 1989 it had been 'a factory of legal norms', especially the European Convention on Human Rights. Promulgated as this had been in the aftermath of World War II, the convention reflected the spirit of the times - like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - in focusing entirely on the rights of individuals.

But the idea that minorities deserved attention had remained an undercurrent throughout the work of the council, resurfacing in the 60s. In the 80s, the council had begun work on its languages charter,[1] though skirting the issue of minority rights as such.

Nineteen-eighty-nine had accelerated the process, boosting membership of the council to 40 with the subsequent accession of central and eastern European countries. Minority concerns were similarly reflected in declarations by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and by the UN: in 1992, the same year the Council of Europe published its languages charter, the UN published its declaration on minority rights.[2] It fell to the council to develop a legal instrument.

But even though there remained a commitment that these rights should be defined in individual terms-as attaching to 'persons belonging to' minorities- France (along with others) had baulked at inclusion of the new propositions in the European Convention on Human Rights, given the universalist character of the latter (as well as of France's political culture).

This had resulted in the framework convention of 1994,[3] which though lacking the justiciable status of the ECHR, via the Commission and Court of Human Rights, nevertheless set a legal standard. The convention had come into effect at the beginning of this year, and states' compliance would be monitored by independent experts working to the Committee of Ministers of the council. The council also advised governments more generally on the compatibility of legislation with instruments to which they had signed up.

Mr Steketee was pressed on the adequacy of the compliance mechanisms under the framework convention and whether there was still not governmental resistance to minority regimes which were perceived as undermining territorial sovereignty. He said that the council would advise governments to consult those whom the reports were meant to be about and such reports would be made public for comment when furnished. Some 200 NGOS enjoyed consultative status with the council.

But he admitted: "The arsenal is not very impressive." The option of expulsion of a recalcitrant state from the council had only been deployed once in its history - in fact, the Greek colonels had left just before they were pushed.

Thus it was suggested that there remained a need for pressure for the framework convention to have full convention status. Nevertheless, in the meantime, it provided a benchmark against which NGOS could demand governmental compliance in their treatment of minorities.

The importance of international pressure in ameliorating intercommunal conflict was clearly recognised. Very little that was positive that any of the key players in ex-Yugoslavia had done, it was pointed out, had been done because they had felt it was right to do it (a factor clearly evident with various players at various times in Northern Ireland).

It was suggested there needed to be better monitoring of states' behaviour - for example, the performance of Croatia-and a more credible military threat so that states would not believe they could get away with acting as 'international delinquents'. The lack of any coherent policy by 'the west' towards ex-Yugoslavia was inevitably highlighted in this regard - including the effect of premature recognition of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina in triggering the war.

In terms of handling division between groups internally, a rider was initially expressed that the multiple components of any society should not be reduced to multi-ethnicity. The risk was of an elision from ethnic élites to ethnic groups with, in the process, the exclusion of other senses of group membership. Hence the importance of NGOS in making it possible for societies to be 'self-managing' (rather than, say, being reduced to international protectorates) - for there to be 'civil democracy' with a proper division of power between politicians and civic groups. This led to a discussion of the need for 'transcendent symbolism' if such a scenario was to be possible.

The German post-war experience in the wider Europe had at least shown negatively how there could be a downplaying of national identity which might otherwise be deemed aggressive. And efforts had been made to find symbols for people living together - witness the visit by the chancellor Willy Brandt to the Warsaw ghetto, which had drawn a line under the past and established a basis for a new commonality.

The difficulty of constructing shared symbols was however recognised-especially in the light of the non-correspondence between state and 'nation' in Northern Ireland. It was also suggested that it was more difficult to handle diversity between religious groups than those that were linguistically divided (as in Belgium, for example).

But the European Union was now perceived as more relevant in Northern Ireland-with its financial assistance - and hence there was perhaps more recognition of the potential of its transcendent symbolism. In Romania, to take another example, there had been some progress towards acceptable symbolic arrangements between the Hungarian minority and other Romanians.

Yet in any such situation groups would only come together on some issues - not all. The state and civil society had therefore particular responsibilities in this regard, as otherwise only ethnic identities would prevail. The problem was not ethnic cleavages, as these would always be with us-the problem was whether we could deal with them.


1Council of Europe, European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages, Strasbourg, 1992
2 United Nations, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, New York, 1992
3Council of Europe, Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Strasbourg, 1994

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