Summer Institute



Ethnopolitical Warfare: Causes and Solutions


JUNE 29 TO JULY 3, 1998

(report prepared by Daniel Chirot, September 28, 1998)



The conference's first goal was to understand the causes of ethnic conflict, and specifically, ethnopolitical warfare. Why is it that some potential ethnic conflicts do not take place, while others produce violence, warfare, and even, in some cases, genocides? How is it that some ethnic conflicts get resolved, and others do not?

A second goal was to find out the role that psychology can play in predicting and perhaps preventing ethnopolitical warfare. More than this, what can psychology do to help the victims of such conflicts?

Finally, the ultimate aim was to inventory knowledge about these topics in order to plan a more comprehensive research effort that will lay a scientific base for solving ethnic conflicts in the future, and for helping its victims.


Barricaded ethnic identities that deny entry to outsiders and prevent exit are more dangerous than open ones. When barricaded groups come into conflict with other ethnic groups, the potential for violence is high. Dominant state elites trying to maintain their nations' unity and their own monopoly on power, not spontaneous popular actions, have been responsible for most of the ethnopolitically motivated killings in the 20th century.

In the worst cases of genocide, Armenians in 1915, Jews during World War II, Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 (which had an important ethnic component, though that was not all there was to it), and Rwanda in 1994, political leaders in charge of state controlled armed forces initiated mass murder in order to hold on to power and to further a nationalist vision of what kind of state they wished to rule. In all these cases, those targeted for death or expulsion were felt to be hereditarily antagonistic to the project of the rulers, and a mortal danger to the rulers' ambitions and projects. In all these cases, political leaders convinced their followers that the danger applied to the entire group, so that mass murder was the best, most viable solution. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and their "ethnic cleansing," followed this model, too.

Calling either the leaders of such atrocities or their followers "mad" or "irrational" is mistaken. Rather, they have been driven by an ideological view of the world that seemed to leave them few options. This may explain why so many bystanders who did not share the ideologies of the perpetrators were unprepared for countermeasures, and so often watched helplessly as these events unfolded.

Only a small minority of ethnic conflicts become genocidal. Extreme ethnic complexity is often a mitigating factor, whereas simplification of the situation into two or three competing groups is more dangerous.

Another mitigating factor may be external, forceful intervention, or its threat, which raises the potential costs of conducting ethnic warfare. Federal government intervention on behalf of the civil rights movement in the American South made the cost of continuing the conflict unacceptably high for segregationist whites. British military intervention in Northern Ireland precluded escalation of the conflict to genocidal proportions, or even any kind of systematic ethnic cleansing. Outside intervention would have been possible in Rwanda, but the two powers able to take such action, the French and the Americans, refused.

When different ethnic groups do not view each other as uniform, communal blocks, but see each other as consisting of many individuals with a large variety of views, conflict is less likely, and if it occurs, it is less threatening.

Democratic societies, even very imperfectly democratic ones like South Africa under the apartheid regime, when only whites had full political rights, are more likely to be able to achieve some kind of reconciliation because different options can be discussed, and opposing groups will have some potential leaders who argue for reconciliation. But democracy is not enough, and in some cases, as in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it increased tensions as electorates voted for extremists.

Reconciliation requires former enemies to reject revenge, and in many cases, to forego justice. Reconciliation will mean that many of those responsible for past atrocities will not be punished.

There are six different levels of ethnic conflict (see Table below), including reconciliation after prior conflict. The psycho-social and structural commonalities between cases in the same categories, and the differences between the various categories, can be studied more systematically to arrive at useful, scientifically sound conclusions about those conditions that lead to greater or lesser conflict.

It is naive to think that human beings are inherently peaceful and that conflict is unnatural. On the other hand, conflict and war, particularly ethnic war, can be avoided or controlled. If we recognize the structural conditions that bring out conflict, we might be able to set up a world watch to warn us of potentially dangerous situations likely to escalate. If we understand the psychological conditions that accompany escalation of tensions, we may be able to suggest useful intervention.

One of the most interesting questions for psychology is to understand why certain individuals are able to forgive past wrongs, and break the cycles of revenge that typically escalate ethnic warfare. Another is to ask how individuals come to identify so strongly with an ethnic group that they will engage in bloody conflict with members of other groups who were once acquaintances, or even friends. Though there has been insufficient research on this in the past, it is clear that psychology is uniquely positioned to make progress in such inquiries.


In every ethnic conflict, it is when whole communities, rather than individuals, are blamed for past wrongs, that escalation or continuation of the conflict becomes almost inevitable. It is when individuals are blamed, and distinctions made within ethnic communities, that reconciliation becomes possible.

Psychologists have been better at coming up with programs for treating victims of ethnic wars than at predicting or preventing such conflicts. By working in collaboration with other social scientists, however, psychology has the potential to make a contribution to the prevention of ethnopolitical warfare in the twenty-first century.


We were trying to answer the following questions:

1) What do we know about the sources of ethnopolitical warfare? Why do some potentially serious conflicts never produce violent clashes, while others do?

2) Why is it that even when there are major conflicts between ethnically defined groups the levels of violence vary so much, ranging from the relatively mild to the murderously genocidal? Can a regular set of stages from civility to genocide be articulated?

3) How can we distinguish between individual level and group level causal variables in the study of ethnic conflict and violence, and between short-term and historical determinants of these conflicts?

4) Has violent conflict between competing ethnic groups become more common since the end of the Cold War in 1989? Or is it that the collapse of communism exposed long simmering ethnic tensions in many countries, so that the series of murderous ethnic wars that broke out in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and in Central Asia were the product of conflicts that predated the 1990s?

5) Why has the 20th century in general witnessed so much ethnopolitical warfare? What has been the role of nationalism in creating or reawakening tribal passions that modernization was supposed to calm?

6) Will the next century see as much or even more ethnopolitical warfare than the 20th? What can we do to forestall such conflicts? What can we learn from conflicts that have been resolved, or are on their way to being resolved?

7) To these original goals, we added a seventh: what is the best program for continuing research on the causes of ethnopolitical warfare, and for finding ways of preventing it, resolving it, and helping its victims.

36 participants were invited to present papers or comment on the proceedings. 27 formal papers were presented. (See appendices.) Though the meeting was not open to the general public, the organizers considered expressions of interest from many, and invited about 25 others to attend at their own expense. They observed, and were able to ask questions. On the final day, all those who attended took part in a general discussion that lasted about three hours. All told, the average session had an attendance of over 50. There were also two interesting dinner speeches given by people involved in attempts to settle the Northern Irish conflicts, and the participants toured Belfast. As it happens, this was a particularly interesting time in Northern Ireland, just after the elections and just as the "marching season" was about to begin.



The conference began with three theoretical papers (Jowitt, O'Leary, and Staub) that gave general reasons for the causes of ethnic warfare. This was followed by the main part of the conference, the presentation of various cases of ethnic warfare, going from the most genocidal to cases that had been resolved.

[Ken Jowitt] Ethnic identity is not automatically violent. Identities that allow both entry and exit are much less likely to lead to political violence. On the other hand, "barricaded ethnic identities" deny individuals the right to decide their degree of participation, deny entry to outsiders, and consider any exit to be high treason. Barricaded identities are more prone to violence. When barricaded groups come into conflict with other ethnic groups, their fundamental existence is brought into question, and issues of group honor become matters of life and death. This conclusion applies as well to religious conflict which is theoretically very similar to, and in cases such as Northern Ireland and former Yugoslavia, virtually identical to ethnic conflict in the modern world.

[Brendan O'Leary] Though Western social scientists are extremely suspicious of both nationalism and ethnic consciousness, these are and will remain strong sentiments. In the modern world, the village, the family, and the clan are no longer the primary focus of allegiance. Rather, the state is the focus of political identity, and if a particular religious or ethnic group feels that the state in which they live discriminates against them, they will eventually attempt to seize that state, or secede and form their own state. (Any group that claims its own state is a nation.) This is why any form of nationalism based on an exclusionary, barricaded identity is so dangerous; it refuses to treat different ethnicities or religions as equal nationals, and so eventually leads to conflict. We should recognize, however, that in the 20th century states have killed many more people than less organized groups acting against states. Dominant state elites trying to maintain their nation's purity and their own monopoly on power have been responsible for the worst ethnopolitically motivated outrages. Thus, the issue of how to create open, inclusive, and genuinely democratic forms of nationalism is a key to understanding how to diminish violence generated by ethnic and religious conflicts.

[Ervin Staub] Difficult life conditions, ranging from wars, to persecutions, to economic difficulties, make people cling more tightly to ethnic identities that are likely to turn violent. Righting past wrongs is never easy, and at best, it takes a long time to heal anger. Raising non-violent children is part of the long term solution, but of course, this is easier said than done. Encouraging bystanders to express disapproval when they witness violence is also important, and children can be taught to do this. In every known case of mass ethnic violence, bystanders somehow remained silent even though many did disapprove. In a way these steps are the psychological equivalent of what the political scientists say when they call for the fostering of open, non-barricaded forms of nationalism that allow for individual choice about belonging. The goal is clear, but the path that needs to be taken is long and tortuous.


The presentation of the cases was based on a theoretical typology worked out ahead of time by the conference organizers. This typology is summarized in the table below, following the description of the papers.

1) Genocides

The genocidal conflicts discussed in the conference, though covering four different parts of the world, showed that some strong general conclusions can be drawn. The cases discussed were the killings of Armenians by the Ottoman state in 1915 [Fikret Adanir], the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 [Ben Kiernan and Patrick Heuveline], the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s [Misha Glenny and Anthony Oberschall], and Rwanda in 1994 [Gerard Prunier].

One important consideration must be taken into account. All such events have generated an immense amount of controversy. Almost every aspect of the history leading up to these events is contested, and the events themselves are the subject of great controversies. Merely untangling competing claims and counterclaims can be unnerving, even with the best of good will. For example, many Armenian nationalists now claim that Turks had long standing genocidal intentions against Armenians, and still do, while Turkish nationalists claim that the killings were part of a war over control over eastern Anatolia. Many who have commented on the killings in Cambodia deny that there was any ethnic element involved, and claim that to say there was in some way lessens the responsibility of communism. Many Rwandan intellectuals, particularly among the Tutsi, assert that ethnicity had little to do with the genocide. As for Yugoslavia, we know that Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian Muslim nationalists all claim that they were only defending themselves against the others.

In all these cases political leaders in charge of state-controlled armies and police forces initiated mass murder in order to hold on to power and to further a nationalist vision of what kind of state they wished to rule. In all these cases, those targeted for death or expulsion were felt to be hereditarily antagonistic to the project of the rulers, and a mortal danger to the rulers' ambitions. In all these cases, political leaders convinced their followers that the danger applied to their entire group, so that mass murder was the best, most viable solution.

To what extent were the Armenians, the two million Cambodians who were killed, starved, or worked to death, the Tutsis, or the Muslim Bosnians a genuine threat to those who killed them? The same question arises in the case of the Nazi attempt to exterminate Jews. In some cases, the victims, or at least their political leaders did present a real threat. In others, the threat was entirely fanciful. But in all cases, it is quite clear that the killers, or at least many of them and most of their leaders genuinely believed in the threat. What psychological mechanisms transform people who had been neighbors, and in some cases colleagues, into killers? Fear inspired by leaders who themselves view the world in polarized, strictly bounded categories is the crucial element. In the chaos of a collapsing economy, in the midst of a civil war or revolution, when an old world of predictable interactions collapses, people will look for simple explanations that blame "outsiders" or "foreigners." But it is only when the political elites accept this belief that genocides can occur. It is not mass rioting or the populist pogrom that winds up committing genocides, but concerted state action. Local popular activists may be used (as the Ottoman state used the Kurds to kill Armenians, or as the Rwandan government mobilized its civilian population to commit murder), but they depend on state support and follow the initiative of the state.

In the case of Cambodia, Khmer nationalists (communist and non- communist alike) feared the Vietnamese who were thought to be aiming at the extinction of Khmer culture, and perhaps the Khmer people themselves. To this was added the class antagonism of those Khmer who were not Khmer Rouge, and who were said to have "Vietnamese minds."

It is clear that the psychological mechanisms that transform ordinary people into vicious killers are not well understood. Conformity and fear of being left out of the group play a role, of course, but the ideologies that drive the leaders responsible for initiating these atrocities have not been explored particularly well. On close inspection, it turns out that the leaders were not "mad" or "irrational" but that they were driven by an ideological view of the world that left them few other options.

In commenting on these issues, Clark McCauley pointed out that psychologists have much more work to do to understand both how people identify with their ethnic group or nation, and how they become killers in order to defend such identities. Research on group psychology suggests that it is a mistake to treat such extreme behavior as "sick," and to look to abnormal psychology for answers. In fact, it is possible to mobilize completely normal people for genocidal killing.

2) Ethnic Wars that Never Became Genocidal

Among the whole range of potential ethnic conflicts that have occurred in the 20th century, few have resulted in genocides. Many more have produced wars that remained less than genocidal, many have been resolved, and many have not degenerated into much violence at all. Why not? The conference looked at Northern Ireland [Tony Gallagher], the present Turkish-Kurdish conflict [Resat Kasaba], the American South [John Reed], South Africa [Don Foster and Brandon Hamber], the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [Herb Kelman and Ian Lustick], Malaysia [Jomo K.S.], and Indonesia [Geoffrey Robinson] to try to find common elements that limited these conflicts, and made it possible to resolve some. It turns out that in most of these cases structural elements rather than specific psychological mechanisms limited the conflicts.

A good example is the Northern Irish conflict. In the 20th century, and certainly after 1969, the British were not going to allow either side in Northern Ireland, or their own troops, to engage in genocidal mass killing. Thus, even though the conflict has killed over 3,200, the casualties could not reach the same proportions that occurred when state-controlled forces led the killings. Aside from having strong moral restraints against genocidal behavior, and an open democracy that would have made it impossible to hide such a policy, the British government could never feel fundamentally threatened by events in Northern Ireland. Some extremist Protestants and Catholics did think they were mortally threatened, but they were not in command of the armed forces or police. Thus, terrorism's destructive powers were limited, and the occupying British authorities kept the two sides sufficiently apart to prevent an all-out civil war.

In the case of South Africa, both international pressure and the fact that the whites depended on non-white labor made a genocidal solution unlikely. The fact that the whites had a functioning democracy among themselves also made it possible for dissident white opinion to make itself heard, and it afforded some partial source of help for non-whites. However much repression and censorship there was, many details about the abuses of power carried out by the Apartheid government got out. Furthermore, whites were not a single ethnic group, anymore than were non-whites, but were themselves divided. South Africa is, in fact, an extremely complex ethnic mosaic. This is not to say that it was a pluralistic society in the American sense since the majority under white rule was heavily discriminated against, repressed, and disenfranchised. But extreme ethnic complexity made genocide less of an option than if there had been only two or three clearly defined ethnic groups in South Africa.

In a different session, Crawford Young explained that Tanzania has escaped the kinds of ethnic conflicts so common in Africa because its has so many different ethnicities, with none having even a clear plurality, much less anything close to a majority. Contrasted to Rwanda or Burundi, this made it easier to maintain ethnic peace, despite the great poverty. But again, creating an ethnic mosaic with many different groups is not something that can be planned.

In South Africa, as in Northern Ireland and in the American South during the struggle for civil rights from the 1950s to the 1970s, there came a point when it became clear that the struggle to suppress non-whites, Catholics, and African-Americans was no longer worth it for most of the dominant group. The costs were high and rising, outside pressure was mounting, final success, barring genocide or ethnic cleansing, was impossible, and extreme solutions were impossible because of structural constraints. In South Africa, the fall of communism and the fact that South Africa no longer could claim a strategic role in the East-West struggle meant that external pressure would grow. At the same time, the ANC's abandonment of extreme socialist measures made it somewhat less threatening. In Northern Ireland, the growing wealth of the Catholic Republic of Ireland, its integration in the European Union, and the political moderation of the Republic may have made the Republic seem less threatening to the Protestants. Even more important was the growing European and British pressure on the Protestants to compromise and grant the Catholics civil rights. In the American South, the fact that state power (that is, the Federal Government) was increasingly involved against segregation vastly increased the cost of white Southern resistance. Any violence is too much, but as John Reed pointed out, there were, during the 1960s and 1970s, fewer than 50 murders associated with ethnic conflict. This is a tiny number compared to other cases of violent ethnic conflict over any comparable period of time.

These cases that have moved to resolution point out the importance of outside pressure. On the other hand, all of the cases of outright genocide were either in states that were extremely isolated or that thought that their closest big power allies would agree with the action. Nazi Germany itself waited until 1941 to begin the whole-scale extermination of Jews, even though the intention had been there from the start of Nazi rule. Before 1939, Hitler did not want to precipitate a war before he felt ready, and between 1939 and 1941, he wanted to stay in the good graces of the Soviets whom he thought (quite wrongly) were controlled by Jews. Cambodia was almost totally isolated when it conducted its mass killings. The Ottoman Empire felt (correctly) that its big-power ally, Germany, would say nothing. Rwanda, in what was one of the most shameful episodes of recent history, felt that its big-power ally, France, would keep international pressure at bay during the genocide because, as Gérard Prunier pointed out, the French had not complained about prior, lesser episodes of killing. And, indeed, Rwanda turned out to be right, as both the French and the Americans at first denied that what was going on was genocidal. External pressure can have considerable effect. In Yugoslavia, when the Americans finally got up the nerve to use military force, the Serbian genocide against Bosnian Muslims stopped. Had the United States or Western Europe acted earlier, there almost certainly would have been far fewer deaths in Bosnia.

Indonesia is a particularly interesting case because from the time of its independence until now it has been beset by many ethnic-regional revolts. Most of the early ones were settled because the Indonesians had managed to create a strong sense of an open, ethnically inclusive, and religiously tolerant nationalism. At the same time, they repressed local uprisings without blaming entire populations for the uprisings. But this policy failed in four areas. First, it left out the Chinese who have been subjected to pogroms, most recently just weeks before our conference. Secondly, it never quite managed to include Aceh, where a very orthodox form of Islam combines with an ancient tradition of statehood and a distinct ethnic identity. Aceh has periodically rebelled, and much of it remains hostile to Indonesia. Third, the annexation of West New Guinea (Irian Jaya) involved an attempt to assimilate a people who were historically, culturally, politically, and economically completely different. There, the Indonesian government has simply imposed itself by brute force against the aboriginal population, much the same way that Europeans imposed themselves on Native Americans, and sometimes with similar, catastrophic results. Fourth, a similar situation has existed in East Timor, where the brutality of the occupying Indonesian army has created an East Timorese sense of nationalism bitterly hostile to incorporation. In the case of East Timor, international exposure of Indonesia's crimes (up to one third of the population has died since the 1975 invasion of that territory by Indonesia) has not been sufficient to stop the occupation. A corrupt and brutal, though ultimately ineffective army has, in the past, resisted compromise, but that may change because the Suharto government was overthrown in 1998, and the army's prestige severely damaged.

The experience of the Indonesian army in East Timor parallels that of the Turkish army in Kurdistan. There, a group of radical Marxist students were able to take advantage of the poverty in Kurdistan to launch a rebellion, but the heavy-handed, brutal repression conducted by the Turkish army and police have actually increased support for the rebels and prevented compromise. In neither East Timor nor Kurdistan have the dominant states planned genocidal actions, and in both cases compromise would have been possible had the military and police not been in charge. Occupying armies not subject to the control of civilian democracies tend to be corrupted by such wars, and as their honor comes to be questioned, their officers become progressively less able to contemplate compromise. Thus, even without the intention of committing genocide, mass atrocities still occur, and make ultimate reconciliation much more difficult.

3) Ethnic Conflict Without War: Contrasting Outcomes

In some cases of ethnic conflict, there has been little or no war, and minimal violence. But such cases are not necessarily happy ones. The case of Israel presents us with one of the world's most effective examples of semi-benign repression that has not and is not leading toward real reconciliation. Since independence, those Palestinians who remained with the 1948 borders of Israel have been granted an unequal form of citizenship. In matters of housing, economic opportunity, public facilities, and access to good jobs, they have been heavily discriminated against. But they have been allowed free expression and have benefited from some government programs. There has been almost no violence. How have the Israelis managed this? As Ian Lustick pointed out, enough Arabs have benefited, and their society has been sufficiently penetrated by Israeli intelligence, to keep the situation under very firm control. Repression has not been so extreme as to drive the local population to desperation (as in, say, East Timor), but it has been great enough to prevent effective mobilization against Israel. It becomes obvious from this story that many official Israelis once believed that they could work out the same kind of compromise with Arabs in the territories occupied after 1967, but this failed. Whereas Israeli Arabs comprise less than 15% of Israel's population, the population in the occupied territories is overwhelmingly Arab, and was harder to penetrate or seduce. The effort to do so eventually broke down, as did a parallel effort to see if the West Bank could be reabsorbed by Jordan. Eventually, a Palestinian revolt changed the minds of some Israeli leaders. These were the ones who led the effort to find a compromise that would lead to Palestinian statehood in the occupied territories.

Herbert Kelman, who has been active in promoting dialogue between Arabs and Jews, pointed out that until the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, the peace process was well under way. Why? Again, as in the American South, or in South Africa, the leaders of the Israeli state realized that they could not win a permanent victory without resorting to means that were domestically and internationally unpalatable, namely genocide or mass ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, after the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War, the Arab threat seemed low, so that the cost of compromise appeared lower than before. Finally, for a moment, the United States had the prestige and power to influence all parties in the Middle East, and enforce any agreement. But the peace process broke down. Extremists on both sides managed to commit enough terrorist acts (including the murder of Rabin) to raise everyone's fears. The Israeli right has never given up on the idea of ultimate ethnic cleansing of some of the occupied territories, and neither did the Palestinian extremists. In both cases the extremists are convinced that God is on their side. The United States lost some of its influence as it proved unable to control either the Israeli right or its own enemies in the Arab world. Finally, political expediency on all sides made it easier to give in to extremists than to push forward with the peace plan.

Ultimately, the case of the American South presents one of the world's outstanding success stories. No American could be fooled into thinking there is racial harmony, but a considerable amount of reconciliation has taken place, there are thousands of African-American political officials in the South, the level of interracial violence is low, and the Civil Rights struggle has been won. Aside from the fact that this was helped by the Federal government's intervention, it was also helped by the fact that most Civil Rights leaders appealed to values shared, at least in principle, by most white Southerners. The movement was led by Protestant clergy who were of the same religion as the whites; both sides claimed to be inspired by America's democratic ideals; and the movement's leadership threatened neither confiscation of white property nor massive retribution. Therefore, the costs of giving in were relatively low compared to the costs of trying to maintain segregation.

The Southern case cannot be easily replicated elsewhere, but it does show that fostering reconciliation requires the aggrieved party to abandon some, perhaps most claims to retribution. It requires the costs of continued struggle to be higher than the costs of settlement. It requires both sides to find some common values. It requires some outside force, either international or domestic, to impose a prohibition against extreme measures such as genocide or ethnic cleansing. Finally, the solution requires at least some politicians to emerge who have a broad enough vision to give up the extreme claims of their side. A democratic system, even if it limits the political freedom to the controlling side, is essential for this because it prepares the way for open debate.

Another interesting example of a country beset by serious ethnic conflict that has been handled peacefully is Malaysia. In the 1960s Malaysia was thought to have a very serious problem with its Malay-Chinese relations, as the former controlled the government and were a bare majority of the population, while the Chinese, who were about a third of the population, controlled the economy. Yet, the Malay government managed to create an economic affirmative action program at the same time that it successfully promoted very rapid economic growth, so that both Chinese and Malay businesses thrived. Also, by being considerably more democratic, Malaysia's ruling party incorporated Chinese interests into the polity in order to gain Chinese votes. Thus, when economic difficulties hit Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia in 1997 and 1998, Malaysia escaped anti-Chinese pogroms. Indonesia, which has a small but economically very powerful Chinese community, experienced killings, rapes, looting, and burning of Chinese businesses on a large scale.

What Malaysia did right in some ways resembles what happened in the American South. Extreme measures were never taken, but the government worked to redress past inequalities. Democracy, though imperfect, created a much more open system that allowed some differences to be worked out, and incorporated various ethnic interests.

Other cases where the possibility of reconciliation has existed, or continues to exit, have all had some of the same characteristics. Israel, because it is a functioning democracy, will eventually find that it has made an error in voting for a government hostile to the peace process. The South African and Northern Irish electorates, when faced by the realities of their situation, voted against the extremists. Politicians with some vision always exist, but they have to have the opportunity to gain power. In Indonesia, at least with respect to the East Timorese situation, it has taken a near revolution to overthrow Suharto and open fruitful negotiations. In all cases, international opinion has opposed extreme measures, and in Northern Ireland, as in the American South, the controlling state made extremism illegal.

An interesting issue was raised by Miguel Centeno, who explained that Latin American nationalisms have rarely directed their hostility toward outsiders. One reason for this has been that they shared so much in common with their neighbors. On the other hand, internal wars of repression, particularly against Indians, or against ideological and class enemies, have been more common and on the whole, far bloodier. Latin American elites have tended to share cultural outlooks across borders more than they have with many of their own people. Thus, for a vast region that has been dominated by military governments for so long, international war has been remarkably rare, especially in the 20th century. Nationalism has not been as deep or as institutionalized as in some other parts of the world, particularly Europe.

This raised a very disturbing issue. At one point Daniel Chirot pointed out that there have been many potential ethnic conflicts that have simply fizzled out, for example, the one between Catholic Bavarians and Protestant Prussians, or north Germans in general. After all, these religious and linguistic differences were as great as between, say, Croats and Serbs. Also, there had been a tradition of war on religious grounds. Among scholars of German history, there is some agreement that the wars fought by Germany under Bismarck, and then World Wars I and II, ended all possibility of internal German disunity by creating such a strong sense of shared destiny. Unpleasant as the conclusion may be, it would seem that one of the best ways of reducing internal ethnic conflict is to find an outside enemy and fight a war.

Melvin Konner, speaking as an anthropologist, suggested that it would be naive to believe that human beings are inherently peaceful and that conflict is unnatural. On the other hand, that does not mean that conflict and war cannot be controlled. Once we recognize that there are structural conditions that bring out conflict, we might be able to set up a world watch to warn us of situations that are degenerating into serious conflicts. Then, outside pressure might be brought to bear before it is too late.

4) Typological Summary Underlying Presentation of Cases 


Examples and Cases Discussed at Conference
(with extra cases mentioned for purposes of illustration)


(examples in parenthesis not presented during the conference)



Armenians, 1915
Jews, 1939-1945
Cambodia, 1975-79
Rwanda, 1994

There will be a paper in the volume about the Jewish Holocaust, and though it was not presented at the conference, much that was said referred to that case

War short of genocide

(Guatemala, 1970s/80s)
(Sri Lanka, now)
Kurds in Turkey, now East Timor, now Yugoslav Wars, 1990s

This is a much more common type of case than outright genocide. It can, however, produce many massacres. In Guatemala, the war was largely but not entirely fought along ethnic lines.

Conflict, low level war

Israel-Occupied West
Bank/Gaza, 1967-now
Northern Ireland, 1969-1998?
South Africa before 1990
Many cases in Latin America

Even more common, these types of semi-wars have occurred in dozens of cases. They sometimes heat up or cool down, but can remain unresolved for decades. These are the kinds of ethnic wars most likely to be stopped with proper mediation, but that can escalate if mishandled.

Conflict, no war but occasional violence

Israel-Israeli Arabs, 1948-now
U.S. South before 1970s
(Many cases in India, Southern Mexico, now)

Very common, such cases may be held in check by effective repression and co-optation, as in Israel and Mexico. In India, they occasionally flare into more severe warfare, as is Kashmir.

No serious conflict despite high level of awareness about and important political role of ethnic and religious differences

(China-Han regions)
(Tanzania-many tribes)

There are many dozens of examples, and a few illustrations are given here to show that most potential ethnic conflicts need not be actualized, much less turn into wars.

Past Conflict Followed by Reconciliation

South Africa
Northern Ireland
U.S. South
(Basques in Spain)
(Muslims in Thailand)

In all these cases, tensions in the recent past either produced wars or high levels of confrontation that seemed to be heading toward civil war; but all have produced some level of reconciliation in the 1980s and 90s.

5) Breaking the Cycle of Revenge

In the discussions about cases of ethnic conflict that had been, or were in the process of being resolved, the issues of justice and revenge loomed large. As Brandon Hamber emphasized, many of the former victims, or relatives of victims of apartheid in South Africa believe that the reconciliation commission set up to expose and forgive past abuses is letting off criminal officials in return for insincere, shallow "confessions."

If we consider the meaning of the word "justice" in criminal proceedings, it is quite obvious that in many cases, despite frequent assertions to the contrary, victims and their relatives mean "revenge." This is a sensitive subject because the legal systems developed in Western Europe have gradually moved toward notions of prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment for the sake of revenge. Nor do modern legal systems permit individuals to take revenge in their own hands.

Ethnic warfare is a form of violence that invites collective revenge, and if there is no outside authority to impose "justice," ethnic communities may feel entirely justified in seeking to take matters in their own hands. South Africa has taken steps to prevent just that by, first of all, individualizing responsibility, and secondly, emphasizing the possibility of forgiveness. To identify particular persons (or, as Don Foster suggested, particular men – since men committed almost all the violence) as responsible, rather than "whites" or "Afrikaners," is meant to defuse inter-communal hostility. Whether this is "just" or not, it is obviously the only path to eventual reconciliation, because when one community visits retribution on another, this only leads to continuing or renewed warfare. Satisfying abstract notions of justice, even by demanding that a particularly responsible community pay significant reparations, invites the very opposite of reconciliation. We can all agree that for victims of past abuse, this may seem unfair, and psychologically unsatisfying.

Even if past abuses are individualized, how severely should they be punished, and how many should be punished? All systems of ethnic oppression involved the collaboration of large portions of the population. In the case of South Africa, as in the American South, not only were most whites complicit, but so were many non-whites. In cases of genocide, for example in the case of the Nazis, of Rwanda, and of the Ottoman genocide of Armenians, hundreds of thousands of individuals, ranging from the top officials through ordinary soldiers and co-operating civilians were responsible for mass murder. The same has been true in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Who, then, should be brought to trial? It is relatively painless, but psychologically frustrating, to bring a few men or even a few dozen men to trial, and to sentence them. No victim of the Nazi holocaust was fooled into thinking that an appropriate number of Germans had been punished for their crimes, however much satisfaction a victim may have felt at hearing about Goering's suicide and Ribbentrop's hanging. Surely, victims of the Yugoslav wars must feel that bringing a handful of killers and torturers to trial before an international tribunal is, at best, a tiny gesture. But if there is to be reconciliation, how much further should justice be pushed before it begins to appear like collective revenge? Once that threshold is passed, the community being punished may feel that there is no point in trying to achieve reconciliation, and either renewed war or flight are better options than waiting for massive retribution. That is precisely what the government of South Africa wishes to avoid. Whether or not South Africa will succeed remains to be seen. Could the current crime wave, calls for greater retribution from some circles, and the continuing but unpublicized flight of whites and East Indians erode the process of reconciliation? Clearly, however, we can agree that the course being followed by South Africa, to try to overcome past abuses with a minimum of punishment and through strict attempts to blame individuals rather than whole communities is the only possible road to reconciliation.

This, obviously, was the path followed in the American South as well. Only a few handfuls of individuals responsible for the most flagrant criminal acts have been punished for what was a much larger pattern of past abuse.

Gerard Prunier presented us with the contrasting case of Rwanda, where attempts at reconciliation have failed, and where civil war continues. Ultimately, he predicted, there will be further rounds of bloody massacres, and another genocide cannot be excluded. Moderate Tutsis and Hutus are being killed by their own extremists. If the international tribunal set up to deal with Rwanda has moved slowly, retributions and counter-retributions between the two communities have killed thousands more since 1994.

In every case of ethnic conflict, it is when whole communities are blamed, rather than individuals, that escalation or continuation of the conflict becomes almost inevitable. It is when individuals are blamed, and distinctions made within ethnic communities, that reconciliation becomes possible.

This leaves open a fascinating question. Under what circumstances can wronged individuals learn to forgive, and to abandon a quest for revenge? It is because Nelson Mandela has done this that he is recognized as a great man. Forgiveness, especially by those who have been so victimized, is rare, and it should be the task of future psychological research to identify what motivates such exceptional cases. Much more common, both among leaders and ordinary people, are those who harbor deep grudges for past wrongs, and even extend them historically to include whole communities for many generations.


Inger Agger, a practicing psychologist who worked in a trauma center in Bosnia, made the very useful point that we should beware of facile and politically appealing generalizations. For example, she noted that despite all the attention given to rape during the war, few women clients thought this was the major issue. The war itself, the loss of home and disappearance of family members, the loss of livelihood and all sense of stability, these were the major reasons for trauma. From her presentation it became clear that psychologists are well equipped to offer counseling and individual healing to victims of such conflicts, but they do not yet have any particular insights into the causes and prevention of ethnopolitical warfare. Presentations by several others psychologists [Miles Hewstone, Corann Okorodudu, and Jane Mocellin] made the same point.

This shows that we need more basic psychological research in the field of ethnopolitical conflict. The structural conditions that lead to this kind of warfare, and even the structural conditions that can contribute to solutions are fairly well understood. What we do not know is what goes on inside the minds of those directly involved. Why do some politicians, like Rabin, or de Klerck come to adopt a broader vision, while others, like Netanyahu or Milosevic do not? What are the psychodynamics that produce extremists? After all, most Palestinians, most Israeli Jews, most Irish Protestants and Catholics, most black and white Southerners, and, we suspect, most Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians are not extremists. Under what circumstances does fear so pervade the mentality of whole people that they listen to, and even sometimes elect extremists? What kinds of community will satisfy modern individuals without forcing them to give up their individuality? How can individualism be fostered, in order to make "barricaded" identities less likely, but without producing the decay of social solidarity? What breaks the cycle of revenge seeking?

It is tempting to say that the conference made progress in solving these problems. Instead we concluded that we had inventoried much that is known about ethnopolitical warfare, and also much that we do not know. It is particularly at the intersection of social psychology and the other social sciences that much fundamental research remains to be done. Then, we will be able to talk about the possibility of taking long range preventive action on the basis of a more solid scientific foundation.


JUNE 29 - JULY 3, 1998

Monday, June 29

Arrivals during the day

4:15 - 4:30 Sherry Reception at Aberfoyle House

4:30 - 6:00 Introduction

Mari Fitzduff (Director of INCORE, University of Ulster )
Martin Seligman (President, American Psychological Association)
Peter Suedfeld (President, Canadian Psychological Association)
Daniel Chirot (University of Washington)

7:00 Keynote speaker and dinner at Beechill Country House Hotel

Tuesday, June 30

8:45 - 10:15 Nationalism, boundaries, and ethnic conflict

Ken Jowitt (University of California, Berkeley), Boundaries
Brendan O'Leary (London School of Economics), Nationalism and ethnicity
Ervin Staub (University of Massachusetts at Amherst), Origins and prevention of group violence

Session chair: Daniel Chirot

10:30 - 12:45 Why genocides? Why ethnic cleansing?

Fikret Adanir (University of Bochum), Why did the Armenian tragedy occur in 1915?
Ben Kiernan (Yale University), The ethnic element in the Cambodian genocide
Misha Glenny (author and journalist), Ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia
Anthony Oberschall (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). Theories and realities of ethnic violence: Bosnia

Session chair: Peter Suedfeld

12:45 - 2:45 Lunch and tour of city walls

2:45 - 4:15 Ethnic wars that stopped short of genocide

Tony Gallagher (Queens University, Belfast), Is the religious divide in Northern Ireland ethnic?
Resat Kasaba (University of Washington), Why does the Kurdish War continue?
Herbert Kelman (Harvard University), Is Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation possible?

Session Chair: Mari Fitzduff

4:30 - 6:30 Discussion: bringing in psychology and trying to understand violent ethnic conflict

Clark McCauley (Bryn Mawr College), The psychology of group Identification

Followed by a general discussion of the day's presentations

Session chair: Ed Cairns (University of Ulster at Colraine)

7:30 Dinner at Everglades Hotel, and speaker

Wednesday, July 1

8:45 - 10:30 Ethnicity and genocide in East Africa viewed in comparative perspective

Gerard Prunier (National Center for Scientific Research, Paris), Rwanda
Crawford Young (University of Wisconsin), How has Tanzania maintained ethnic peace in a troubled region?

Session chair: Martin Seligman

10:45 - 12:45 Serious conflicts that have avoided escalation

John Reed (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), What has limited ethnic bloodshed in the American South?
Jomo, K.S. (University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur), What has been the basis for the Sino-Malay accommodation in Malaysia?
Ian Lustick (University of Pennsylvania), Why have Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel proper never exploded into mass violence?

Session chair: Paul Rozin (University of Pennsylvania)

12:45 Lunch and afternoon trip to Belfast, followed by dinner on North Coast

Thursday, July 2

9:00 - 11:00 Avoiding and Resolving Ethnic and Nationalistic Conflicts</p

Miguel Angel Centeno (Princeton University), Why Latin America has had few nationalistic wars
Don Foster (University of Capetown), The South African miracle
Geoffrey Robinson (University of California, Los Angeles), How Indonesia's ethnic and regional wars were ended, but why this has not worked for East Timor

Session chair: Michael Wessells (Randolph-Macon College)

11:15 - 1:15 The social psychology of intergroup conflict

Melvin Konner (Emory University), The evolutionary anthropology of group hatred
Dean Pruitt (State University of New York, Buffalo), Conflict dynamics in ethnopolitical warfare
Miles Hewstone (University of Wales), Intergroup conflict
Corann Okorodudu (Rowan College), Gender and ethnic conflict

Session chair: Ronald Fisher (University of Saskatchewan)

1:15 - 2:15 Lunch

2:15 - 5:00 Measuring, evaluating, and using key concepts

Patrick Heuveline (University of Chicago), Measuring genocide
Inger Agger (Center for Development Research, Copenhagen), Evaluating different methods of helping victims Coffee and tea from 3:45 to 4:00
Brandon Hamber (Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johannesburg), Reconciliation
Jane Mocellin (United Nations, Geneva), What works in reconciliation

Session chair: Anne Anderson (Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Washington, DC)

5:00 - 6:00 Discussion: what can be done to prevent ethnopolitical conflicts from escalating?

Session chairs: Martin Seligman and Peter Suedfeld

7:30 Dinner, followed by Irish music at Thran Maggies, Craft Village

Friday, July 3

9:15 - 12:15 Useful steps toward solving ethnic conflict in the twenty-first century

Open discussion -- all participants, including those attending but not presenting papers

Session chairs: Daniel Chirot and Michael Wessells

12:30 Lunch and farewell


(Participants are listed in the order of their appearance on the program)

Mari Fitzduff is the Director of INCORE (Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity), a joint initiative of the United Nations University and the University of Ulster based in Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland. She is the author of Beyond Violence: Conflict Resolution and Processes in Northern Ireland (United Nations University Press, 1996).

Martin Seligman is president of the American Psychological Association, has a chair in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the author of such well-known books as Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death (New York: Scribners, 1975) and the best selling Learned Optimism (New York: A.A/ Knopf, 1992).

Peter Suedfeld is president of the Canadian Psychological Association and is the former head of the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is the editor, with Philip Tetlock, of Psychology and Social Policy (New York: Hemisphere, 1992), and the editor of Psychology and Torture (New York: Hemisphere, 1990).

Daniel Chirot is professor of International Studies and of Sociology at the University of Washington. He is the author of Modern Tyrants: The Power and Prevalence of Evil in Our Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

Ken Jowitt has a chair in political science at the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

Brendan O'Leary is head of the political science department at the London School of Economics and the author, with John McGarry, of The Politics of Ethnic Conflict: Case Studies of Protracted Ethnic Conflicts (London: Routledge, 1993) and, also with John McGarry, Explaining Northern Ireland (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

Ervin Staub is professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Fikret Adanir is professor of history at the University of Bochum and the author of Die Makedonische Frage [The Macedonian Question] (Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1979). He now heads a German project to bring together Armenian and Turkish historians to discuss relations between the two nations and reconcile them.

Ben Kiernan, head of the Cambodia Genocide Project at Yale University and the world's leading exert on that topic, is a professor of history at Yale. He is the author of The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 (New Haven" Yale University Press, 1996) and How Pol Pot Came to Power: A History of Communism in Kampuchea, 1930-1975 (London: Verso, 1985).

Misha Glenny, formerly a correspondent for the BBC, is now finishing a major history of the modern Balkans. He is the author of the best selling The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War (New York: Penguin, 3rd edition in 1996) and The Rebirth of History: Eastern Europe in the Age of Democracy (Harmondsworth; Penguin, 2nd edition, 1993).

Anthony Oberschall is professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of Social Movements: Ideologies, Interests, and Identities (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1993).

Resat Kasaba, professor of international studies at the University of Washington, is the author of The Ottoman Empire and the World Economy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988).

Herbert Kelman holds a chair in social psychology and ethics at Harvard. He is the author of Crimes of Obedience: Toward a Social Psychology of Authority and Responsibility (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

Clark McCauley is professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College and is the editor, with Y.T. Lee and Lee Jussim, of Stereotype Accuracy: Toward Appreciating Group Differences (Washington: American Psychological Association Press, 1995).

Ed Cairns is professor of psychology at the University of Ulster, Colraine. He is the author of Children and Political Violence (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

Gerard Prunier is the world's foremost expert on the Rwandan genocide. He is at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in Paris, and the author of The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

Crawford Young is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is one of America's foremost Africanists and author of The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) and Ideology and Development in Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

John Reed holds a chair in sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is the foremost sociologist of the American South. He is the author of Surveying the South: Studies in Regional Sociology (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993),  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), and most recently, with Dale Reed, he wrote the popular 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South (New York: Doubleday, 1996).

Jomo K.S. is one of Malaysia's foremost economists, professor of economics and administration at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, and author of Southeast Asia's Misunderstood Miracle: Industrial Policy and Economic Development in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia (Boulder: Westview, 1997).

Ian Lustick chairs the political science department at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of Unsettled States, Disputed Lands: Britain and Ireland, France and Algeria, Israel and the West Bank (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

Paul Rozin is professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, with Allan Brandt, of Morality and Health (New York: Routledge, 1997).

Miguel Angel Centeno is professor of sociology at Princeton and the author of Democracy Within Reason: Technocratic Revolution in Mexico (University Park: State University of Pennsylvania, 1994).

Don Foster is professor of psychology at the University of Capetown and the author of Detention and Torture in South Africa: Psychological, Legal, and Historical Studies (New York: St. Martin's, 1987).

Geoffrey Robinson is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).

Melvin Konner is professor of anthropology and in the medical school at Emory University. He wrote Why the Reckless Survive and Other Secrets of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1990) and Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit (New York" Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982).

Dean Pruitt is Distinguished Professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and the author, with Peter Carnevale, of Negotiation in Social Conflict (Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole, 1993).

Miles Hewstone is professor of psychology at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and the author of Causal Attribution: From Cognitive Process to Collective Beliefs (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).

Corann Okorodudu is professor of psychology at Rowann College. She helped Rachel Davis Dubois write the autobiographical All This and Something More (Bryn Mawr: Dorrance, 1984).

Ronald Fisher is professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan and the author of The Social Psychology of Intergroup and International Conflict (New York" Springer Verlag, 1990) and Interactive Conflict Resolution (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996).

Inger Agger works at the Centre for Development Research in Copenhagen and is the author of Bla Vaerelse, translated into English as The Blue Room: Trauma and Testimony Among Refugee Women, a Psychosocial Exploration (London: Zed, 1994).


About the Asch Center


Solomon Asch

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