Book Review: ‘Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World’

Disunited nations

‘Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World’, by K. Rupesinghe & V. Tishkov (eds), United Nations Publications.

Intra-national conflicts, such as those in the former Yugoslavia and USSR recently, have often been described in the media as the “boiling over” of “ethnic tension”. Yet we see little, if any, analysis as to what this “ethnicity” actually is and what really caused these conflicts. The value of this book is that it raises these issues and questions the over-simplistic, “cultural” or “ethnicity’’-based answers. As Assefa puts it a chapter about the Horn of Africa:

    “It is true that the region’s ethnic groups have their own prejudices and stereotypes about each other. But these attitudes hove not normally turned into conflict at the people-to-people level unless manipulated and organized by political leaders.” (p.39)

Studies of states in the former USSR and Yugoslavia point to economic backwardness as another more fundamental cause of these conflicts. A substantial part of this survey is, unsurprisingly, concerned with creating new laws and mechanisms that the writers hope will help end such civil wars. While these plans seem to fly in the face of what they show to be the real causes of the problem, the United Nations remain a useful information source for socialists, if not a particularly successful global peacekeeper.

Dan Greenwood

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