What Is Ethnic Violence, and Can It Be Prevented?


SEATTLE, Washington — Ethnic violence can take many forms and exists all over the world. It has been present throughout human history, yet what is ethnic violence compared to other types of conflict, and how can its horrific and dehumanizing consequences be halted?

Dr. Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University, a professor of political science, argues that the term “ethnic” can be understood in a narrow definition including solely “linguistic” or “racial” groups, or more broadly as to include religion, tribe and caste in group distinction.

Ethnic conflict must also be distinguished from ethnic violence. Conflict can arise in the form of peaceful protests, or institutionalized discrimination that disadvantages certain groups. However, these struggles differ from murderous riots or organized genocide. The philosophical differences between conflict and violence exist on a conceptual spectrum, but the effects of these divisions in society are real.

The Holocaust is the most widely recognized example of ethnic violence, and resulted in the murder of six million Jews, along with five million Slavs, European Roma, disabled persons, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals and political and religious nonconformists. In the Rwandan genocide of 1994, 800,000 people were murdered because of an ethnic Tutsi-Hutu divide. This was a carefully orchestrated massacre that lasted for 100 days.

Ethnic violence is still occurring in many places today, and in some cases little is being done about it. In Myanmar (also known as Burma), clashes between Rohingya militants and Buddhist nationals have included the burning of villages, murders, and raping of women. Government has been ineffective in stopping these acts. In South Sudan, a political and ethnic conflict has led to hundreds of killings, and the failure of the U.N. Security Council to enact an arms embargo could mean an epidemic of atrocities that will target mostly civilians.

The literature on ethnic violence ranges widely. Hunger or economic crisis can compound existing tensions and be the ignition spark of a crisis. However, ethnic tensions can rise unnoticed over the course of decades. Some explanations are much more ingrained in the architecture of civil society. When European powers colonized Africa, many existing ethnic boundaries were disregarded in favor of arbitrary borders created by bureaucrats for their own self-interest.  In Rwanda, Belgium instituted policies granting unrepresentative power to the Tutsi minority, creating nationwide strife.

Contemporary scholars have also cited globalization as a contributor to ethnic violence, citing weakening state boundaries and economic regulation, increasing refugee populations, widespread poverty, weapons proliferation and increasing uncertainty of personal identity. All this in combination has created an atmosphere where distinguishing between “us” and “other” seems of paramount significance for personal safety, yet is often resolved along the imagined importance of physical differences of the body.

The extensive collection of literature on ethnic violence shows that it does have the dehumanizing effect for victims and perpetrators alike. Lissa Malkii is a renowned anthropologist who worked extensively to document the genocidal violence enacted against the Hutu majority in Burundi in the 1970’s. Malkii says that in ethnic violence, “bodies of individual persons become metamorphosed into specimens of the ethnic category for which they are supposed to stand”. This is why such intimate yet degrading tactics are common in violent episodes of ethnocide, such as rape, torture or mutilation. It is an attempt to exert power over the identity of the ethnic “other”.

Varshney suggests that civic engagement through legitimate organizations can prevent violent episodes, especially in urban areas. Inter-group communication on an everyday basis is important, and the power of formal associations to bring different groups together, police neighborhoods, discredit false rumors and centralize communication is of paramount importance. These organizations can promote shared business interests among different groups, or exert a more powerful influence on political leaders.

Another innovative way of preventing ethnic violence is by using massive amounts of data to predict violent outbreaks. The New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) has modeled the geography of distinct groups alongside perceived ownership of the resources to predict the occurrence of violence. The resulting predictions have shown a 90 percent correlation with reported incidences.

In every atrocity, there are also individuals who go above and beyond the call of duty. Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a Rwandan luxury hotel, provided safety for more than 1200 Rwandans during the 1994 genocide. Individual acts of valor and compassion save lives, and this cannot be forgotten.

More research needs to be done in order to better understand how violence is perpetuated in different communities, and what methods are effective in preventing ethnic violence. Going forward, the differences between distinct communities must not be seen as a reason for violent oppression, but rather an opportunity for collaborative empowerment throughout all dimensions of the human experience.

Patrick Tolosky

Photo: Flickr


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