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Why recognizing different ethnic groups is good for peace

In a time of global crisis that has reproduced many inequalities and reinforced mistrust across lines of identity in diverse societies, one may easily succumb to a sense that meaningful redress and social cohesion are impossible. But, learning from contexts of large scale violence and civil war, there’s reason to believe that “recognition” based strategies can help diverse societies overcome the legacies of their painful histories.

By recognition, we mean explicit reference to ethnic identities in constitutions, peace agreements, or legislation. This may be done for symbolic reasons or come with group-based rights like quotas or autonomy arrangements. For example, after mass violence through the 1970s and 1980s, Ethiopia’s post-war constitution granted group-specific rights to “every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia.” Whether or not to structure state institutions in a way that recognizes different ethnic identities is a long-debated question among both scholars of conflict management and political philosophers, as well as leaders and other peacebuilders grappling with post-conflict institutions the world over.

Having worked in contexts where both recognition (in Rwanda, historically) and non-recognition (in Burundi, historically) preceded large-scale violence, we began research on ethnic recognition without necessarily favoring it as a strategy and open as to what we might find.

We studied all violent conflicts that ended between 1990 and 2012 and found that governments around the world are split: 40% of post-conflict agreements and constitutions involve some form of ethnic recognition, whereas 60% do not. This classification contrasts recognition in cases like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ethiopia, and Iraq with non-recognition in cases such as Kenya, Liberia, and Turkey. In all these cases, ethnic identity was an important political cleavage and yet governments have chosen different approaches to addressing diversity in the aftermath of violence.

What explains these differences? Recognition can allow a group to feel assured that it has a place in the state and is not being shortchanged. On the other hand, it can facilitate or even license political mobilization on ethnic lines. How these effects play out depends on whether the country is led by a leader from the largest ethnic group  or not. . If the majority ethnic group is in charge, recognizing minority ethic groups improves outcomes. If the minority ethnic group is in charge, recognizing different ethnic groups doesn’t improve a country’s prospects for peace or political stability.

Informed by this analysis, we set about documenting the extent to which recognition was used, understanding the conditions under which it arises, and on the basis of all of that, assessing to what extent it may help societies to reduce the potential for future violence.

The results spoke rather clearly. We find promise in recognition. On average, countries that adopt recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more inclusive politics than those that do not recognize ethnic identities.

Looking more closely, these effects are driven by cases in which ethnicity was especially important in the conflict and where a leader from the largest ethnic group was in charge after the violence. When minority group leaders rule, there’s no clear indication of the benefits of recognition.

Burundi, Rwanda, and Ethiopia suggest that paradoxical effects abound.  Burundi’s recognition-based 2005 constitution uses extensive ethnic quotas, but the result is that ethnic differences matter less in defining the country’s political coalitions. In contrast, Rwanda’s non-recognition-based 2003 constitution aims to “eradicate” ethnicity, but deep mistrust persists between ethnic groups.  In Ethiopia, the minority Tigray-led regime used recognition as a strategy to bring together enough ethnic groups to overthrow the ancien regime. Ethnic identities and mistrust have remained politically salient, but it is difficult to imagine that these ethnic factions would have worked together in the absence of recognition.

Amidst alarming news of rising xenophobia and intergroup disparity, these findings suggest a pathway from despair. It appears that recognizing and affirming different ethnic groups and their interests could help countries improve trust and reduce conflict.

Featured Image Credit: Ethiopia Grunge Flag via freestock.ca

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