Recurrent Challenges to the Implementation of Intrastate Peace Agreements: The Resistance of State Authorities


This paper will explore a recurrent implementation issue that has clearly been detrimental to the effective implementation of peace agreements involving autonomy arrangements. In research conducted on 30 states around the world with intrastate peace agreements which were not fully “successful”, most of them involved a refusal or unwillingness by state authorities to fully implement the agreed upon terms of the agreement.

1. Introduction

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[T]he Imperial City has endeavored to impose on subject nations not only her yoke, but also her language, as a bond of peace... but how many, great wars, how much slaughter and bloodshed have provided this unity.

Saint Augustine, The City of God (circa 410)

Since the end of the Cold War, most conflicts worldwide have been within states, and in most cases have erupted through ethnic or group mobilization over grievances. Some of the most massive and costly conflicts in human terms have involved the long?standing intrastate conflicts in Sri Lanka and Sudan, and the attempted genocide in the Great Lakes area in Central Africa.

Instead of a “minority” or “ethnic” problem, it appears from the results of this comparative examination of intrastate conflicts is that the main obstacle to the peaceful settlement of internal violence is more often than not the inability or refusal by those in control of government in these conflicts to fully implement promised concessions and autonomy arrangements.

As the following sections will show, to understand why one of the main obstacles in intrastate peace processes seems to be the reluctance of state authorities to abide by their commitments, it is necessary to understand what appears to be the common dynamics and root-causes of many of these conflicts, and thus why autonomy is a prevailing for of accommodation to address these root-causes.

In particular, a common theme underlying many conflicts that needs to be more fully considered is the absence of trust between state authorities and minorities or other groups, especially in relation to issues of state linguistic, religious and ethnic preferences and neutrality. As will be shown, it is precisely because the state is not neutral that many minorities or other groups seek the protection of “autonomy”, which serves as a form of insulation, of protection against their grievances variously described as matters of “minority rights”, “social and economic justice”, indigenous rights”, “nationalist aspirations” or “self-determination”.

Unfortunately, for minorities or other groups, autonomy is something which must be conceded by government, and for many governments around the world it seems that such a concession may in turn be too difficult to actually enforce after the euphoria of a peace agreement is over.

2. The Roots of Conflicts

Most ethnic conflicts do not begin as a quest for territorial sovereignty or independence. The argument that intrastate conflicts always involve a separatist threat to the unity of the state is a chimera.[1] Of the following 30 conflicts considered, almost none of them involved – at least in the initial stages – an overt separatist threat:

Chad; Democratic Republic of Congo (Banyamulenge); Cyprus; Ethiopia (Erithrea); France (New Caledonia); India (Nagaland); Indonesia (Aceh); Indonesia (East Timor); Indonesia (Kalimantan); Indonesia (West Papua); Iraq (Kurds, Shi’a); Israel (Palestine); Italy (South Tyrol); Lebanon (Muslims); Macedonia (Albanians); Mexico (Chiapas); Moldova (Transdniestr); Morocco (Western Sahara); Myanmar (Karen, etc.); Niger (Tuaregs); Pakistan (East Pakistan/Bangladesh); Philippines (Moros); Rhodesia; South Africa (during apartheid regime); Spain (Basques); Sri Lanka (Tamils); Sudan (South); Turkey (Kurds); United Kingdom (Northern Ireland); Yugoslavia (Kosovo)

The movement towards separatism more often than not was a gradual process which began to appear after attempts by a minority or other group at maintaining or obtaining either autonomy, minority rights guarantees or legal protections in a state’s constitution, or some form of equitable distribution of public and economic goods, have failed. A few of the above conflicts which did involve in the initial stages a strong separatist dimension were those which involved a denial of the right of self-determination, as recognized in international law (Palestine; West Papua; East Timor; Western Sahara).[2]

In other words, it appears that the vast majority of the above conflicts involved not innate antagonism or rejection of the state, but demands by groups for “improvements” in the structures and institutions of the state.

This is further confirmed in empirical studies of conflicts involving minorities, such as the Minorities at Risk Project, which points out that the number of conflicts around the world has been increasing steadily since the 1960s, although their intensity has in a general sense lowered in recent times, especially where minority rights are respected and some sort of autonomy arrangements have been negotiated.[3]

To fully understand the links between minority rights and autonomy arrangements - which tend to appear continuously in intrastate peace agreements- and the prevention of conflicts, one needs to appreciate the nature of the root-causes of instability.

In most countries plagued with an intrastate conflict, what you have is not a "minority problem", but a majority problem, or rather the refusal of state authorities to abide by basic principles of human and minority rights.[4] Additionally, while these situations tend to be rare, a state where government authorities were controlled by an ethnic, religious or ethnic minority were almost always the scene of an intrastate conflict (Iraq, Apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia, etc.).

A comparative study of intrastate conflicts indicates that such conflicts do not go hand in hand with the presence of minorities or other groups. It is not the presence of a religious, linguistic or ethnic minority in a state that is in it a natural source of conflict. What is most remarkable when one considers human diversity in terms of its multitude of language, religious and cultural textures is that despite the perhaps hundred of thousands of various minority or group combinations worldwide, there are in fact so few violent intrastate conflicts.

For minorities - be they Catholics in Northern Ireland, Basques in Spain, Muslims in the Philippines, Albanians in Macedonia or Yugoslavia, and Kurds in Turkey - to rise up in arms against the State, there generally must be in place a relatively unique set of conditions given the actual absolute rarity of such conflicts in proportion to the number of minorities or other groups around the world.

To prevent conflicts requires an understanding of their causes. To say that the causes are “multiple through time and space” is not helpful since it merely admits ignorance. Yet, when examining the thirty and more cases referred to in this paper, it is possible to identify some commonalities which may be useful to understand and explain where and why intrastate conflicts occur. Hopefully, this in turn can help identify what can be done more effectively to ensure the implementation of peace agreements by seeing more clearly the fundamental characteristics of the conflict which need to be kept in mind if a long term solution is to be found.

From the thirty cases considered for this paper, there tended to be in common (1) a similar type of setting, (2) a number of similar root causes underlying the tensions leading up to the eruption of violence, and finally (3) immediate events or "sparks" which might ignite conflicts.

2.1 The Setting for Conflicts

There is a particular setting found in common in most intrastate conflicts in Europe, Asia, Africa and other parts of the world. Conflicts almost always involve "substantial minorities" who are a majority in a part of the state in which they live, or at least a very high percentage of the population on a given territory. This territory which they occupy is also generally "their" traditional or historical territory. They are in almost every cases except a very few not “new” arrivals in the state.[5]

Very small minorities or relatively recently established populations - almost never revert to violence against the state in support of their demands. It is with larger, historically established minorities or other groups with some territorial identification that you find a setting with a potential for conflict under certain conditions.

It seems clear that even in the setting just described, minorities or other groups generally will only revert to violence because of some additional long-standing sources of tension. The existence of a numerically substantial, traditional or territorially based minority is not in itself a cause of conflict, as demonstrated by the minuscule number of actual intrastate conflicts worldwide.

2.2 Root-causes of Tensions

[T]he state is more than a passive register of citizen preferences, and in policy deliberation state leadership and initiative are critical... Here we encounter another paradox: the state is the arbiter and broker of cultural difference, yet the state is unlikely to be wholly neutral in ethnic terms. In the distribution of power within their structures, states inevitably reflect the dominant groups within civil society (by class and interest, as well as ethnic derivation). As noted earlier, many states invest their national personality with the cultural attributes of the leading ethnic community. Even in countries with predominantly civic forms of nationalism, such as the United States, the argument that different communal segments (racial in this instance) were neutrally treated would be impossible to sustain historically. States are thus asked ? figuratively speaking ? to leap out of their own skins, to transcend their own cultural nature. Notwithstanding the intrinsic difficulties of this task, and the improbabilities of complete success, we contend that the larger requirements of statecraft ? the imperative necessities of stability and comity within the polity ? make partial realization possible.[6]

All of the thirty cases of intrastate conflicts involved minorities or other groups in this particular kind of setting (where they are a substantial percentage of the population).

Most of the thirty cases of intrastate conflicts also involved states where there were long-standing practices by government authorities which involved breaches of the human rights of minorities, especially in areas involving linguistic or religious preferences affecting employment or resource allocation.

This chart outlines these root-causes to the various intrastate conflicts, at the very preliminary stages of grievances, before the conflicts erupted into violence:

State and Conflict Initial Root-causes of Tensions
Chad (North-South) Exclusion of and discrimination against non-Muslim and southern ethnic groups
DR of Congo (Banyamulenge) Denial of citizenship, employment, associated rights (Discrimination)
Cyprus Move to weaken minority provisions, autonomy/power-sharing agreement favouring Turkish minority and absorption by Greece
Ethiopia (Eritrea) Denial of right to self-determination, discrimination in terms of language and ethnic preferences against Eritrean minority, abolition of federal/autonomy arrangements
France (New Caledonia) Discrimination in use of indigenous languages by government authorities, extinguishment of traditional land and customary rights (discrimination)
India (Nagaland) Unilateral Indian revocation of planned autonomy in “9-point Agreement”, discrimination in government employment policies, loss of traditional land rights and resource use
Indonesia (Aceh) Refusal to implement promised autonomy (federalism), discrimination in terms of use of Acehnese language in most public institutions, under-representation of Acehnese in public institutions in their region, transmigration and land policies that discriminate against Acehnese
Indonesia (East Timor) Denial of right to self-determination in international law, discrimination in terms of use of local languages in most public institutions, under-representation of Timorese in public institutions in their region
Indonesia (Kalimantan) Loss of traditional native land rights, without adequate compensation and discriminatory, under-representation of Dayaks and Malay groups in public institutions, transmigration and resource policies that discriminate against local groups
Indonesia (West Papua) Denial of right to self-determination in international law, discrimination in terms of use of local languages in most public institutions, under-representation of Papuans in public institutions in their region, transmigration and resource policies that discriminate against local Papuans
Iraq (Kurds, Shi’a) Discrimination in language and government employment policies, Right to vote and participate in public life (democratic governance), discriminatory expropriation of land (mainly Kurds) and transmigration
Israel (Palestine) Denial of right to self-determination in international law, extreme discriminatory practices in terms of employment, access to public services, land ownership, transmigration program (settlements in Occupied Territories)
Italy (South Tyrol) Discrimination in terms of German minority language use by public authorities during Franco regime, transmigration efforts via “industrialization”, discrimination in most categories of state employment prior to autonomy arrangements
Lebanon (Muslims) Discrimination in terms of access to certain categories of employment for Muslim group, ultimate political control guaranteed to Christians, despite Muslims becoming majority (discrimination)
Macedonia (Albanians) Exclusion of Albanian language from use in most national institutions (discrimination), huge under-representation of ethnic Albanians from a number of categories of employment in state institutions, refusal to set up an Albanian language university (discrimination)
Mexico (Chiapas) Discriminatory language policies, extinguishment of traditional land rights, vast under-representation of Maya groups in public institutions
Moldova (Transdniestr) Initial replacement of Russian language by Romanian (Moldovan) in most areas of public administration (discrimination), increasing exclusion of Russian speakers from various public employment opportunities
Morocco (Western Sahara) Denial of right to self-determination; exclusion from main public service positions, lost of land rights and control over resources (discrimination)
Myanmar (Karen, etc.) Loss of promised federalism/autonomy arrangements, discrimination involving language policies and employment in state institutions, loss of traditional land rights
Niger (Tuaregs) Non-recognition of right to use language of Tuaregs by public authorities, under-representation of Tuareg in public service positions and loss of traditional land usage rights (discrimination)
Pakistan Discrimination as to use of language by state authorities,
(East Pakistan – Bangladesh) denial of right to participate in public life
Philippines (Moros) Historical land and transmigration programs that discriminated in favor of Christian settlers, loss of traditional land rights and forms of autonomy, transmigration program favoring Christian, under-representation of Muslims in most categories of public service (discrimination)
Rhodesia Right to vote and participate in public life (democratic governance), extreme discriminatory practices against Black majority, including denial of right to vote, land ownership, various categories of employment, etc.
South Africa (apartheid regime) Right to vote and participate in public life (democratic governance), extreme discriminatory practices against Black majority, including denial of right to vote, land ownership, various categories of employment, etc.
Spain (Basques) Discrimination in terms of use of Basque language by government authorities and violations of freedom of expression in relation to use of Basque language during Franco era, abolition of previous autonomy arrangements
Sri Lanka (Tamils) Discrimination in terms of use of Tamil language by government authorities, discriminatory quota system for admission to university, discriminatory employment policies against Tamil minority and transmigration program which favored Sinhalese majority
Sudan (South) Forced Arabisation (discrimination) of southern minorities, violations of freedom of religion and discrimination on the basis of religion and language against southern populations in term of employment, use of language, religion, etc.
Turkey (Kurds) Discriminatory language policies which discriminated against Kurds in areas of state services (public education, etc.), violations of freedom of expression in relation to private use of Kurdish, discriminatory land ownership and expropriation activities
United Kingdom (Northern Ireland) Widespread exclusion of Catholic minority from state and private employment categories, discriminatory housing and voting rules
Yugoslavia (Kosovo) Discrimination in terms of use of Albanian language by government authorities, discrimination in state employment (including public hospitals) and public housing, abolition of previous autonomy arrangements

Whether democracies or not, states that are the scene of internal conflicts tend to a number of similar causes of tension over a long period of time.

Among the most prevalent root-causes of tension in the above intrastate conflicts are, in decreasing order:

1.      Discriminatory expropriation or extinguishment of traditional land ownership rights, often in combination with transmigration programs that tend to disadvantage members of the minority involved in the conflict (Chad, France, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Niger, Philippines, Rhodesia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey).

2.      Discrimination in access to various categories of employment and other opportunities, usually linked to language policies that unjustifiably disadvantage or exclude individuals from the linguistic minority in the conflict (Ethiopia, France, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Macedonia, Mexico, Moldova, Myanmar, Niger, Pakistan, Philippines, Rhodesia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, Yugoslavia).

3.      Discrimination in terms of exercise of right to vote or right to participate in public life (Chad, Congo, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Niger, Rhodesia, South Africa, Sudan, United Kingdom)

4.      Erosion or elimination of previously existing autonomy arrangement (Cyprus, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Philippines, Spain, Sudan, Yugoslavia), or denial of self-determination (Eritrea, Indonesia, Israel, Morocco).

These recurrent common tensions appear to constitute the initial deep?laid sources which would eventually erupt into intrastate conflicts, preparing as it were the groundwork for the subsequent appearance of political entrepreneurs from both sides of the ethnic divide and increasing levels of distrust and polarization.

In many cases (Spain, United Kingdom, etc.) the factors such as discriminatory practices by state authorities appeared at the very early stages of the emergence of tensions. In most of these, governments had subsequently attempted to address the initial deep?rooted sources of tension; unfortunately, from the thirty cases described above, it is also clear that once a conflict has started to slide down the path of violence, redress of the initial grievances in itself is seldom sufficient to stop violence.

3. Implementation of Peace Agreements: Why Autonomy?

[It] is not difficult to establish that violations of the rights of free exercise and non?discrimination intensify conflict neither in divided multiethnic societies, nor to project with reasonable confidence that the observance and implementation of those norms will serve to reduce conflict.

David Little, "Belief, Ethnicity and Human Rights", 1996, U.S. Institute of Peace

In the thirty intrastate conflicts examined, most of those where the conflicts have ended or abated dramatically involved peace agreements which provided for autonomy (France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Sudan, United Kingdom) outright independence (Eritrea, East Timor, Pakistan (Bangladesh)) or even de facto separation (Cyprus, Moldova, Yugoslavia).

When not recognizing some form of autonomy arrangement, most of the other peace agreements include provisions for protecting the rights of the (usually minority) group involved in the conflict. This normally takes the form of provisions enshrined in the constitution or more specific rights legislation often dealing with language use or religion.

Why this focus on autonomy as one of the preferred means to resolving intrastate conflicts?

The answer appears to be because of the direct relationship between the underlying root-causes sources of tension leading up to most conflicts, and the type of measures needed to redress them.

Conditions for intrastate conflicts appear, in the setting of a large or territorially concentrated minority, where there is discrimination and exclusion over a substantial period of time against a substantial minority in terms of access to employment, education and the use of a their language by state authorities, political representation, development projects which result in mass influx of new arrivals who take up employment opportunities and even the traditional land basis of these minorities.

It is, in most cases, the discriminatory distribution of power and resources and other violations of the rights of large minorities which constitute the deep?rooted sources of tension that can be sparked into violent conflict. Minorities usually revert to violence as a reaction to their inability to change the policies of state authorities in view of the asymmetry of the power relations, since they are by definition and in practical terms outnumbered and outvoted. Minorities, in democratic societies as well as non-democratic ones, tend to be excluded or seriously under-represented at almost all levels of involvement in political and public life.

They therefore usually react to defend their interests in a legal and political environment which they believe they cannot control or even influence significantly. There has also often developed a deeply imbedded lack of trust in state authorities seen as predominantly preferring the interests of the majority.

Autonomy arrangements directly address the asymmetry of power between the dominant group and group in a conflict, their under-representation and weakness in terms of political and public life involvement, and their vulnerability to discriminatory practices and exclusion from effective participation in public life.

Autonomy is the privileged formula for conflict resolution in intrastate peace agreements because it constitutes a power-sharing formula which in effect gives a group the structural and political control from which it may protect itself against the often discriminatory practices of state authorities.

Where, as in most cases, autonomy takes a territorial form, it therefore enables a group to form a de facto majority in a sub-unit of the state, thereby exercising effective control on the levers of government in the sub-unit, allowing it to occupy there a prominent, controlling position in political and public life, and thus ensuring that its interests are reflected in the linguistic, religious or cultural preferences of that level of government.

If effectively put into place with adequate powers, this conflict resolution method apparently assumes that autonomy will subtract from (usually) majority control the most contentious issues which state authorities were unable, or even unwilling, to address previously: transmigration programs which favored the dominant group(s) but tended to discriminate against the minority by extinguishing or improperly compensating for their lost land rights; discrimination in terms of use of language by state authorities, with resultant disadvantages for minority in terms of access to employment, educational and other opportunities; etc.

Autonomy would in other words permit the new authorities in place to stop or limit, in theory, the most damaging policies of central authorities. It permits the accommodation of the claims of minorities while maintaining the unity of the state.

Provisions in the constitution or legislation to protect the rights of minorities serve a similar purpose, though in a more diluted form. For members of a minority, rights represent limits to what the majority which may overwhelmingly control state authorities may impose. Freedom of religion, freedom of expression, non?discrimination based on language, religion race or ethnic origin, the rights of minorities to use their own language among themselves and to practice their religion or enjoy their culture, are all limitations against unjust or unfair ethnic preferences of the majority controlling the state. In number peace agreements, either alone or in combination with autonomy arrangements, rights protection is often a prominent, almost indispensable, feature.[7]

They thus act in preventing state authorities from (1) imposing the characteristics of the majority on the minority against its will; (2) restricting the expression of linguistic, religious or cultural characteristics among members of a minority; or (3) using unreasonable or unjustified distinctions when laying down conditions for the accessibility to services, privileges and benefits provided or allowed by the state.

4. The Nature of the Implementation Problem: The Resistance of State Authorities

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The main obstacle to the implementation of most of the peace agreements in the thirty cases examined has been the resistance or outright refusal of state authorities to proceed with political settlements which required autonomy arrangements or compliance with the international legal obligation of self-determination. This has occurred for example at various times in Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, Myanmar, Philippines, Rhodesia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, and the United Kingdom.[8]

This does not mean that most peace agreements “fail”. Most peace agreements, at least in the immediate, dramatically lower the level of violence in most of the cases observed (especially Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Morocco, Philippines, Rhodesia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, and the United Kingdom). In terms of intensity of the conflict, most peace agreements in the short term are often successful.

It is the long term which tends to be a problem. A common and very serious obstacle in the implementation of the peace agreements above is the unacknowledged difficulties for state authorities to divest themselves of political power.

The rebels or insurgents are usually required to cease their armed confrontation against the authority of the state, and in some cases disarm or at least symbolically disarm and renounce violence. In return, state authorities must “reward” them by granting autonomy over a territory or sharing power in a way which a group finds acceptable (as in Northern Ireland).

While for outside observers such a result may seem objectively a rational and balanced outcome, most of the case studies examined show there are in fact a number of pitfalls that are extremely difficult to avoid in the longer term. Some of these difficulties lay with the distrust and lack of firm commitments from both sides, but it appears that in many cases the problem lies more directly at the doorstep of state authorities.

In most cases, there is a deep-rooted feeling of distrust between the two sides: since most conflicts involve a complete failure of dialogue or compromise between state authorities and insurgents and signals the use of violence in order to achieve a political and structural re-alignment of the state, such a reaction is quite understandable.

Usually, and initially, peace agreements tend to fail because state authorities eventually balk at autonomy arrangements. Human rights provisions and other provisions dealing with the protection of minorities do not tend to be opposed to the same extent in most cases of intrastate conflicts, and have greater success in full implementation.

In many cases, previous agreements have tended to fall apart when came time to fully implement autonomy arrangements or the right to self-determination (Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, United Kingdom). This does not involve any apportionment of “blame”. It does however identify difficulties in the implementation of autonomy arrangements in intrastate conflicts because of the unique nature of such arrangements for state authorities.

In addition to the lack of trust, mutual in any event, state authorities must contend with the following:

1.      The perception of rewarding unlawful violence.

2.      Having to negotiate and make concessions to what may be portrayed as “brigands” or even “terrorists”.

3.      Incompetence or ineffectiveness in solving the insurgency.

4.      Loss of political and in some cases legal control over part of the state.

5.      Accusations of having split the state or been unable to defend its integrity or sovereignty.

6.      Challenges by other segments of the political spectrum which may present members of the government having negotiated the autonomy arrangements as “traitors to the nation”.

7.      Fear of the government losing upcoming elections because of portrayal as weak and ineffective militarily in handling the conflict.

8.      Election of new government determined to handle insurgency more effectively and protect integrity of state.

9.      The involvement of third parties – while usually presented in conflict resolution circles as a desirable mechanism – can also be portrayed as needless and uninformed intervention in a state’s internal affairs. Most rejection of third party involvement eventually comes from state authorities.

All or a combination of the above have played prominent roles in practically all of the autonomy arrangements which have failed to be fully implemented. At the end of the day, the fundamental compromises involved in most peace agreements rely on the willingness of governments to divest themselves of some of their political authority. Since this is completely dependent on the willingness or ability of governments to fulfill their promises, autonomy arrangements are therefore likely hostage to the prevailing political climate, and thus susceptible to its vagaries. It becomes therefore almost predictable that governments may avoid full implementation of autonomy arrangements, arguing that insurgents have failed to disarm on time, been involved in criminal activities, have attacked government troops, etc.

There are some preliminary conclusions possible from the examination of the thirty cases mentioned in this paper.

1.      The level of violence in an intrastate conflict usually falls soon after the conclusion of a peace agreement.

2.      Adoption of human rights and other provisions to protect minorities against dominant groups usually tends to ensure that violence does not subsequently re-escalate to the same level, especially if these address specifically linguistic or religious grievances that were at the root of tensions leading to conflict.

3.      Complete cessation of hostilities usually only occurs once full implementation of a peace agreement occurs, especially in setting up into place an autonomy arrangement.

4.      Failure by state authorities to implement promised and effective autonomy often creates even greater mistrust and polarization.

5.      The worst case scenario involves the failure of state authorities to implement fully autonomy arrangements when coupled with a failure to also adopt expected or promised human rights and other provisions to protect minorities against dominant groups. This tends to create conditions where the conflict will not only re-appear, but become even more violent.

What is noticeable, and which deserves to be highlighted, is that many of the “concessions” by state authorities in these peace agreements are not really concessions at all. In most cases of conflict, the groups opposing state authorities were victims of discriminatory policies, and in the initial stages were demanding mainly non-discriminatory practices in areas of language use, job allocations, recognition of traditional land rights, etc.

It was more often than not state ignorance of what are the rights of minorities in these areas that lead to increased tensions and eventually violence. Even today, it appears many governments are not fully aware of what are these rights to which individuals are entitled, and thus mistakenly believe they are making concessions to insurgents when in fact they are only applying existing or emerging rights standards.[9]

5. Conclusion: The Challenges

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Intrastate conflicts do not operate in a vacuum. One can identify with some degree of certainty the measures which may help avoid continued violence by addressing the root causes of these conflicts. In most cases of successful peace agreements, at least in terms of bringing down the level of violence, are measures to guarantee the protection of the group involved in an intrastate conflict against state authorities. Such measures play a considerable role in addressing and responding to ethnic tensions, since it is generally when minority members are subjected to discrimination, denied freedom of expression, are unable to use their language, practice their religion or enjoy their culture, or cannot obtain their "just desserts" from public authorities to the degree appropriate to the strength of their relative numbers and territorial concentration, that a situation of ethnic conflict may develop. As briefly described in this paper, most intrastate conflicts were reactions to state policies of discrimination and political exclusion affecting these groups.

One of the main lessons from the more successful peace agreements seems to be that policies of respect of the rights of minorities, of accommodation and autonomy are likely to contribute to civil peace. As UN Secretary General Koffi Annan indicated in his Agenda for Peace presented on 17 June 1992 to the General Assembly, the threat of ethnic, religious, social, cultural or linguistic strife cannot be solved unless we address the "deepest causes of conflict: economic despair, social injustice, and political oppression".[10]

Autonomy arrangements also appear as another favored method in many cases for addressing these grievances in a general climate of distrust and animosity. It provides in essence with a form of political and legal control which gives control over the main matters of contention – including language and religious preferences, land and resource ownership, employment – to members of a group in a way which permits them to avoid the previous discriminatory practices by state authorities that had created the tensions leading up to a conflict.

Where autonomy has been fully – and generously – implemented, intrastate conflicts have tended to disappear, and separatist sentiments along with them.

Yet there appears to be one major difficulty which constitutes the perhaps most daunting challenge for the success of peace agreements. The successful and full implementation of autonomy arrangements is dependent on the goodwill and willingness of state authorities to take the necessary steps. This is an inherently difficult step to take for almost any government, as it may be seen by some, among other things, as a sign of weakness, of inability to protect the integrity of the state, of bowing to “brigands” or “terrorists” or of lack of political leadership.

In most identified cases of non-implementation of autonomy arrangements, the most likely reason is because of the continued difficulty at fully complying by state authorities given a change political climate, despite an earlier “promise” to do so in concluding a peace agreement which contained an autonomy arrangement.


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[1] “Separatism” here is used in the sense of a movement for the creation of an internationally fully independent state.

[2] The 1998 International Conference of Experts held in Barcelona by UNESCO on the implementation of the right of self-determination as a contribution to conflict prevention proposed the following understanding of self-determination: “an ongoing process of choice for the achievement of human security and fulfillment of human needs with a broad scope of possible outcomes and expressions suited to different specific situations. These can include, but are not limited to, guarantees of cultural security, forms of self-governance and autonomy, economic self-reliance, effective participation at the international level, land rights and the ability to care for the natural environment, spiritual freedom and the various forms that ensure the free expression and protection of collective identity in dignity”. Such an understanding is not however the same as the right of self-determination from a legal, international perspective, where it is much more limited on scope. See for example Rosalyn Higgins, “Postmodern Tribalism and the Right to Secession, in Peoples and Minorities in International Law, C. Brolman, R. Lefeber, M. Zieck (eds.), Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht, 1993.

[3]Peace and Conflict 2003: A Global Survey of Armed Conflicts, Self-Determination Movements, and Democracy, Monty G. Marshall and Ted Robert Gurr, Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland.

Also available online at

[4] It should be pointed out that although it is normally members of an ethnic, religious or linguistic majority who control the state machinery and can therefore see their own language, religion or culture reflected or favored in the operations of the state, there are in modem times well?known examples of a minority being politically dominant. The political exclusion of the non?White majority in Apartheid South Africa is perhaps the most well?known. The subsequent preferences of the State for "White languages" and the White "race" had the effect of excluding or marginalising most non?White South Africans from a variety of, employment opportunities and levers of power within an otherwise modem state structure. Not entitled to full citizenship most South Africans were politically excluded in a state that was overtly non?neutral to an extreme degree. In fact, what occurred was the almost complete exclusion of the majority of the population from effective participation and representation in the public life of the State. It should nevertheless be added that there is nothing in international human rights to prevent a state from privileging the cultural, religious or linguistic preferences of the State (and its ethnic, religious or linguistic majority). In other words, human rights do not in themselves have the effect of automatically prohibiting such preferences, subject to one major proviso: no cultural, religious or linguistic preferences are permissible in international law if they amount to a violation of fundamental human rights such as freedom of religion, nondiscrimination, etc.

[5] Among possible exceptions one can mention the Mohajirs in Pakistan and the Banyamulenge in the Democratic Republic of Congo, although one could argue that the presence of the Banyamulenge is actually quite long?standing. In both cases the minorities involved are very substantial.

[6] Young, Crawford, "Ethnic Diversity and Public Policy: An Overview", Occasional Paper No. 8, World Summit for Social Development, UNRISD, 1994.

[7] See generally Christine Bell (2001), Peace Agreements and Human Rights, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[8] There is of course always the argument that “it’s the other side which failed first”, as shown in the recent travails of the Belfast (“Good Friday”) Peace Agreement. For the purposes of this paper, I have considered whether there has been a breach of the actual commitments contained in an agreement, instead of the “spirit” of a text or some other claimed misbehavior.

[9] The human rights of minorities are fairly well elaborated in documents such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, the Oslo Recommendations Regarding the Linguistic Rights of National Minorities, the The Hague Recommendations regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities, and the Lurid Recommendations on the Effective Participation of National Minorities in Public Life. They provide guidance as to the linguistic, religious and cultural elements in state practices that have to be understood and in some cases tempered in order to find that necessary balance to prevent ethnic conflicts. See also generally on the issue of the use of language by state authorities de Varennes, Fernand (1996), Language, Minorities and Human Rights, Kluwer Law International, The Hague.

[10] UN Doc. A/47/277, An Agenda for Peace, Preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peace-keeping, Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to the statement adopted by the Summit Meeting of the Security Council on 31 January 1992.