Summary of "Autonomy: Flexible Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts"

Summary of

Autonomy: Flexible Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts

By Ruth Lapidoth

Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Ruth Lapidoth, Autonomy: Flexible Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996).

Lapidoth analyzes the concept of autonomy, and assesses its usefulness in resolving ethnic conflicts. This text is divided into thirteen chapters in four parts, with an Introduction and an index. In her Introduction, Lapidoth observes that "Autonomy is a means for diffusion of powers in order to preserve the unity of a state while respecting the diversity of its population."[p. 3] Ethnic conflicts are on the rise, and autonomy is often suggested as a solution to such conflicts. Ethnic and regional groups are increasingly demanding autonomy for themselves. However, while granting groups autonomy has succeeded in resolving some conflicts, it has failed to resolve others.

The chapters of Part One examine the sorts of problems that autonomy is supposed to resolve. Autonomy has been suggested as a way to protect minority groups. One difficulty is that there is no generally accepted definition of a minority. While rights to minority autonomy are recognized in principle in international law, minority groups have only been granted autonomy in exceptional cases. Indigenous populations have had more success in demanding autonomy. The modern era has introduced the notion of the right of all peoples to self- determination. However the content and consequences of such a right remains ambiguous and disputed. Peoples are not congruent with state boundaries. A generalized peoples' right to self- determination may be in tension or outright conflict with states' traditional right to sovereignty.

In Part Two, Lapidoth analyzes the political concept of autonomy. In its broadest sense, autonomy refers to self-rule. Lapidoth distinguishes between territorial autonomy, personal or cultural autonomy and sovereignty. In chapter three Lapidoth explains, "A territorial political autonomy is an arrangement aimed at granting to a group that differs from the majority of the population in the state, but that constitutes the majority in a specific region, a means by which it can express its distinct identity."[p. 33] Such groups may be granted power over cultural, economic and social concerns within their territory.

Chapter four discusses personal autonomy. When group members are dispersed geographically throughout the population, they may be given personal autonomy. For example, Jews in Europe have occasionally been granted personal autonomy to manage their own affairs according to Jewish law, authority, and tradition. Such autonomy is usually limited to issues of culture, education, language, and religion.

Many fear that granting autonomy to groups undermines the sovereignty of the state. In chapter five Lapidoth notes that the traditional sense of state sovereignty--as possessing absolute authority within the state's boundaries--has already been eroded by the modern global economy, by the recognition of universal human rights, and by the development of international law. Group autonomy may threaten the classic notion of state sovereignty, but that notion is already largely outdated. Lapidoth concludes this part of the text by contrasting regimes of autonomy with other arrangements for diffusing political power. She discusses federalism, decentralization, self-government, self-administration and associate statehood.

Part Three examines a number of cases of group and regional autonomy, focusing particularly on aboriginal groups. Chapter seven discusses cases of autonomous regimes prior to World War I. Lapidoth describes European ministates such as Liechtenstein and Monaco, and United Kingdom Crown Dependencies such as the Channel Islands. Chapter eight discusses autonomies set up after WWI, including the Aland Islands of Finland, the Memel territory of Lithuania, and Latvia and Estonia. Chapter nine discusses cases from after World War II. Cases discussed include West Berlin, Eritrea, Puerto Rico, and the Palestinians in Israel.

In Part Four Lapidoth draws on the conceptual analysis and the cases to suggest some issues to be considered in establishing autonomous regimes. The regime's basic institutions must be defined. The types and scope of the regime's powers must be decided upon. Relations between the central government and the regime must be specified, including procedures for dispute resolution. Lapidoth concludes by listing sixteen factors which influence the success of autonomy as a response to ethnic conflict.