Hugo Grotius
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HUGO GROTIUS (Huig de Groot), a modern természetjogi felfogás és a modern politikai irodalom egyik megteremtője, aki a természet-jogon alapuló nemzetközi jog alapjait fektette le. »»



Managing Ethnic Conflicts: the Unlearned Lessons of History

Managing Ethnic Conflicts: the Unlearned Lessons of History
by Géza Jeszenszky at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh on May 31, 2003

The book we launched today [Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth Century Europe. Eds. Steven Béla Várdy and T. Hunt Tooley, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003] is a heavy one. Not only due to its size, 860 densely printed pages. It is also heavy in facts, figures, charts, footnotes. But the heaviest element is its contents: the dreadful story of horrors: war crimes, mass killings and expulsions committed in the name of national sovereignty, national superiority and exclusiveness. Indeed most of the tragedies of the 20th century were related to conflicts between different ethnic groups fighting for territory and wealth, and, as a concomitant, trying to dispossess, often even to eliminate rival ethnic groups. One of the methods used was the uprooting and expulsion of tens of millions from their homeland between 1918 and 1948. The list of victims is headed by the Germans, of whom some 16 millions were compelled to leave the lands where they lived and created so much throughout the centuries. Six million Jews were murdered just for their religious or ethnic background. A very large number of Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, Turks, Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Serbs, Albanians, Armenians, and other ethnic groups were also “cleansed” from their homes in the century we just left behind us. When I addressed the conference here in November 2000 and ventured to draw some conclusions from the terrible theme of “ethnic cleansing,” my first call was for presenting those hardly known facts so that both political leaders and the general public should become aware that what happened in the first half of the 1990s in the Balkans was not an aberration, a sad but unique episode in history, but a practice with many precedents in many versions. I also expressed the hope that it is possible to learn from history, so that the crimes of the 20th century, like the Holocaust and other forms of genocide or ethnocide, could never occur again. Now I’d like to add another warning: that there are some ongoing practices today which represent a version of ethnic cleansing, the slow and creeping version of it, and that is as unacceptable as the dramatic open version. This is the policy where the aim is to get rid of national minorities by subtle methods, apparently hardly noticed by the international community.

The U.S. ideal, an integrated multiethnic society, is a far cry in most of the countries. Even today’s Canada is based on the idea of two separate national communities. Most Americans (but also the Charter of the United Nations) do not realize that the majority of existing states are multi-national. That means that their population is far from being ethnically homogeneous but contains several national, linguistic or religious groups, all with a rather strong sense of separate identity. In Central Europe, between the Germans and the Russians there are eighteen independent countries with an aggregate population of about 170 million. Between the two world wars about one third of them belonged to a national minority. Hitler’s and Stalin’s „ethnic cleansings” plus the post-war expulsions ordered or accepted by the victorious allies reduced the proportion of those minorities to 10-12 per cent of the overall number. But 17-18 million is still a large number. A good ethnic map still looks like a colorful mosaic. (As we know, a mosaic is composed of tiny colored pieces as opposed to colors mixed on a painter’s palette.) Unfortunately such maps are rare and very hard to come by. [I have a few specimens with me.] In most multinational countries ethnicity and language - rather than citizenship - represent the source of primary allegiance and loyalty. Why? Because the various national communities in Europe and in Asia (whether forming a majority or being a minority in a state) have their own distinct culture, traditions, and language, they also have a territory which they have inhabited for centuries, and they want to preserve their own identity for future centuries. This desire is partly explained by the fact that - at least in Central Europe - those minorities emerged not by people crossing borders but by borders crossing people. Some of these minorities passed from one citizenship to another several times in one lifetime.[1] Most of the national minorities have a “mother country” or a kin state just across the border, so their mistreatment has international connotations. Besides their strong attachment to traditions, the national minorities are motivated by the fear, based on too many examples in the past and the present, that the stronger national group will always aim at undermining the position of the weaker groups and that their very existence is in jeopardy. Recent “ethnic cleansings” only bear out that feeling.

Having witnessed the recent breakup of several federal states and the bloodshed that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia, many people think that the recognition of the separateness of national groups inevitably leads to wars and the proliferation of states. On the contrary, it is not the demands of the minorities which is to blame for ethnic tensions, but the unwillingness of many governments to meet the legitimate aspirations of their minorities. In Asia and Africa the problem of national minorities is even more serious than in Europe. In countries where there was a lasting colonial presence the so-called “liberation movements” directed against the imperial masters united the many ethnic groups, but this unity has proved difficult to maintain. States which try to build a centralizing system are experiencing great difficulties, an upsurge of separatist movements. Nigeria, Congo, Sri Lanka, Indonesia are only some of the most obvious examples for that. In Afghanistan “nation building” is hardly possible, because there is no such thing as an Afghan nation. There are only Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik etc. tribal territories with co-nationals living in the neighboring states. On the other hand India, South Africa, Kenya, even Pakistan are more promising cases, mainly on account of the fact that those states recognize the separate identities of the various regions, historic provinces and national groups. We can safely say that one of the key problems facing the world is finding a way for the harmonious coexistence and collaboration of the many national/ethnic groups living together in one state. While open ethnic cleansing will hopefully not reappear, as the international community made it clear that it would not tolerate it, 20th century history should provide many lessons how to avoid the tensions and conflicts caused by national oppression and all its concomitants.

Arnold Toynbee, the renown philosopher of history, wrote a book in 1915 entitled “Nationality and the War.” It was war propaganda against the Central Powers, but the author’s intellect and foresight led to some very pertinent observations. Rather than advocating the break-up of all the European multinational states Toynbee preferred large economic and political units with guarantees for the rights of the various national groups. “We can only secure that the minorities are as small and the suffering as mild as possible. […] Savages wipe out minorities: civilized men take testimonials from them.”[2] In my essay on the dream of turning the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy into a kind of “eastern Switzerland” I showed that Toynbee was not alone with his sensible ideas, and I summarized how bad decisions in 1919 and in the 1940s ruined Central Europe while raising the level and cruelty of ethnic conflicts. The story of the break-up of Yugoslavia and of the handling of national problems since the Cold War ended is very educative, but it is far from certain that governments and the many international bodies will draw the necessary lessons.

The former Yugoslavia offers an object lesson. There the primary precondition for the peaceful coexistence of its constituent peoples, the recognition of their special interests and needs existed but was insufficient. The Constitution of 1921 did not create a federation but a Greater Serbia, and even the century-old Croatian Sabor was abolished. Following Word War II Tito understood the birth-defect of the first Yugoslavia and tried to remedy it by establishing a federal state and autonomous regions, but it was much like the similar structures in the Soviet Union. In dictatorships there cannot be democracy, self-government even on the local level. Having said that not only the Croats and the Slovenians but even the minorities, Albanians, Hungarians, Croats, Rusyns, Slovaks etc. enjoyed some cultural rights. When the iron hand of Tito was gone and Milosevic abolished the autonomy of Kosovo and the Vojvodina, that proved to be the death-toll for Yugoslavia. The real and imaginary grievances of the various peoples that composed Yugoslavia initiated the break-up of the state, and the Serbs’ unwillingness to accept the separation of Slovenia and Croatia led to war and ethnic killings. But the primary cause of that war was not any age-old feud between the Serbs and the Croats, but the existence of a half a million strong Serbian ethnic island in the heart of Croatia, and the inability of the Croats and the Serbs to work out an equitable arrangement for the future status of that enclave. Then the European Community divised a solution called the “Carrington Plan,“ which envisaged far-reaching territorial autonomy for the Serbs of Croatia. Foolishly neither side accepted it. While it was too much for the Croats the Serbs thought it did not provide enough for them. Milosevic declared that “all Serbs must live in one country,” in total disregard of the wishes of the non-Serbs. What followed was widespread torture, mass rapes, expulsion and massacres first in Croatia, then in Bosnia and finally in Kosovo. In all these cases it was only NATO, prompted by the United States, which eventually stopped the horrors and helped to create at least a lasting truce, opening the way to a real settlement - which has not arrived yet.

The melting-pot of America is rather the exception than the rule. Most multi-national countries have not been a melting pot for their national groups, and attempts at assimilating them may easily turn the country into a powder keg. History amply testifies that. What the minority communities are seeking is only guarantees for survival. Usually they do not want separation or a change in borders, but the right to retain their language and culture, to have their children educated in the language of their forbears, and to have local officials and representatives chosen from their own community, who understand their way of life. This is what the claim for autonomy and collective rights is all about.

Most states (and especially the formerly Communist-dominated ones) have not been neutral in matters concerning the national minorities. On the contrary, state authorities have been a tool for their mistreatment, or even elimination through expulsion, assimilation - and sometimes by outright massacre. Too many people tend to think that life is a zero-sum game, that rights accorded to a national minority are bound to hurt the interests of the majority. While open discrimination is no longer the rule, more subtle versions of it are evident. Members of the minority are seldom represented in the central government, and are practically absent from the civil service, the officers’ corps, and the police. Street names, signs, inscriptions, displays usually ignore their language. The proportion of students coming from the national minorities is considerably lower in high schools and even more at universities than that of the members of the national majority. Local officials make no effort to speak the language of the minorities even in regions where the latter form a substantial group, often a local majority. There is also a deliberate policy of moving people from the majority population into the areas inhabited mainly by the minority, so as to colonize those regions and change their ethnic composition. All that is a constant source of tension, leads to massive unemployment among the minority, or, since the formerly closed borders have opened up, to emigration, especially among the educated younger people. The result is an alarming decrease in the number of the minority, leading to growing exasperation.

The idea of the exclusive nation-state is not in line with modern democracy. The only way to create homogeneous nation-states - short of massive ethnic killings - would be through exchanges of population on a vast scale, involving tens of millions of people, at enormous financial cost and causing untold human sufferings. Some territorial readjustments would also be inevitable in such an arrangement. So it follows that the only real solution for the national minorities is to have democracy on every level, territorial or cultural self-government in which every national group cold participate in accordance with its proportion.

One thing is certain, I am afraid. The issue of the national and ethnic minorities is a time-bomb threatening with explosion, and a preventive solution must be found, combining national legislation and enlightened practice with international action like the codification of rights, monitoring their observance and a mechanism of enforcement. The minorities need guarantees for a decent life and a future. Individual minority rights are not enough. That approach is exactly the notorious one when rich and poor have an equal right to sleep under the bridge. Real equality requires opportunities, and a positive, at minimum neutral attitude by the authorities.

It is often argued that there is no such thing as collective rights or group rights for minorities. Although both the UN (in Article 27 in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the Council of Europe (most explicitly in the 1993 Recommendation 1201 of its Parliamentary Assembly) speaks of rights that could be exercised “in community with others in their group” and that local self-government is desirable, too many European countries do not endorse the idea. But no one denies that there exists xenophobia, racial and national discrimination. Those prejudices are always directed not at an individual but at the member(s) of a particular ethnic, religious or national group or community. If the denial of rights can take place on a collective basis, then legal guarantees should be also available for a whole community.

The events of the last twelve years demonstrate that the way to achieve and preserve a truly multi-ethnic state does not lie in deliberately and artificially mixing national groups that speak different languages, follow different religions and even use different alphabets. In my view the way to peace, cooperation and prosperity is to be found in allowing each national group self-government, in another word autonomy. In many cases this autonomy can have a territorial basis, but the majority nation tends to oppose it. There is an alternative solution, the voluntary association of the individual members of the minority into a corporate body, like the various denominations are organized. The first to propose that was Lajos Kossuth in his exile in Italy, where in 1862 he proposed the creation of a “Danubian Confederation.” In the 1900s that very idea was taken up by two Austrians, Karl Renner and Otto Bauer, using the term “cultural autonomy.” What is essential is an arrangement where the state is decentralized, where the smaller regional units are based on traditions and on ethnic/national composition, where those units decide over their own affairs and receive a due proportion of the taxes paid by the citizens.

We, Hungarians, offer an object lesson both on how not to handle this issue and also, in the 1990s, how to offer self-government to the national minorities. In 1848 Hungary transformed itself into a modern constitutional state. Then well over half the population spoke no Hungarian. The small Slovak, Romanian and Serb elite (mainly lawyers and priests) demanded territorial autonomy, but what the liberal and enlightened Hungarian political class could offer was only full individual rights and freedoms. That made it easier for the Habsburg court to incite “the nationalities” against the Hungarians. In July 1849, the Hungarian Parliament realized its mistake and offered generous terms for the non-Hungarians, but it was too late, Hungary was crushed by the army of the intervening Russian Czar. When Hungary made a compromise with the dynasty in 1867 one of the first acts of the restored Parliament was the passing of a Law on Nationalities. It was a good liberal piece of legislation, and offered rather extensive language rights, but refused to recognize the non-Hungarians as state-forming elements with territorial autonomy. Hungarians paid dearly for their political avarice in 1919, when their historic kingdom was partitioned, and well over three million Hungarians were detached from the nation to become ill-treated minorities in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.

After the trials of the Second World War and having suffered brutal ethnic cleansing in the territories ceded to the neighboring states Hungary finally learned the lesson. In 1993 passed a law on its own national minorities giving them self-government on local level and cultural autonomy on national level. With minor shortcomings the system appears to be working, some would say only too well.

There are also many good examples in Western Europe for autonomy. The oldest and best functioning system seems to be the old Swiss model of autonomous units, Kantons, bound together by geography, common traditions and economic interests in a federal state. A version of the cantonal system is the autonomy of a larger region. In Spain the Catalans have a province with a Parliament and a government. They are prospering and satisfied. Most of the Basques also support the present federal system. “Devolution” seems to work in the U.K., in Scotland and Wales. Sadly those arrangements are not what the international community is supporting in the eastern half of Europe. But autonomy is probably the only chance to avoid the renewal of violence and partition in Macedonia. It may now be introduced in Serbia, in the Vojvodina. That is what the millions of Hungarians in Slovakia and Romania are striving for, particularly in the south-eastern corner of Transylvania, where close to 700,000 Hungarians live in what is still a compact bloc, but is the target of penetration and a kind of colonization by the Romanian state authorities.
The EU and NATO have great influence over all the countries that aspire for membership in those organizations. That influence could have been used to induce governments for guaranteeing the rights and interests of the national minorities through decentralization or “devolution.” European integration goes hand-in-hand with regionalism, at least in the West. But apparently a Hungarian region in Romania and in Slovakia is still an anathema for the majority.

The lessons go well beyond Europe. In Asia federalism based on autonomies appears to be the only way for respecting national and religious differences within existing states. The survival of Afghanistan and Iraq hinges on that. This is the way to avoid new Bosnias and Kosovos, to prevent new ethnic cleansings. That awful term should never be forgotten, so that it could never happen again.

[1] [There is the celebrated case of a person who was born in 1914 in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, went to school in Czechoslovakia, married in Hungary, spent years in prison in the Soviet Union and today finds it very hard to survive on a meager pension in Ukraine - and the man or woman never left his/her birthplace in a region called Subcarpathia.]

[2] Arnold J. Toynbee, Nationality and the War (London and Toronto: J.M. Dent, 1915), 17, 20. p.


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