Summary of "Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts"

Summary of

Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts

By Timothy D. Sisk

Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Timothy D. Sisk, Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts, (Washington, D.C.:United States Institute of Peace, 1996).This Book Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

In his introductory chapter, Sisk argues that the creation of sovereign states for every ethnic group currently demanding self-determination is impractical, if not impossible. Instead, demands for autonomy must be met within the political organization of existing states. The key to managing ethnic conflicts, then, is to develop power sharing political systems which can accommodate group demands for self-determination. In subsequent chapters Sisk explores the nature of ethnic conflicts, describes various types of power-sharing political systems, and investigates the international community's role in promoting such power sharing.

Chapter Two discuses some of the general features of ethnic conflicts. Ethnic conflicts will be easier to manage if the participants perceive their differences to be socially constructed, rather than innate and immutable. Conflicts will be less severe when there is some social, cultural or economic overlap between the groups. The relation of the state to the conflicting ethnic groups is also an important factor in the severity of the conflict. Ethnic outbidding is a common feature of ethnic conflicts. Would-be group leaders dismiss moderates as sellouts, and attempt to outbid each other with increasingly extreme positions. Sisk understands ethnic conflict escalation as the product of ongoing ethnic tension and precipitating events. De- escalation is best managed through protracted negotiations after the conflict has reached stalemate.

Chapter Three discuses the various forms that democracy can take in ethnically divided states. Sisk argues that democratic approaches offer the most promise for the long term management of ethnic conflict. Simple majority rule is not an effective form of democracy for ethnically divided societies. It simply disenfranchises minorities. Democratic forms which emphasize power-sharing show more promise. "Power sharing political systems are those that foster governing coalitions inclusive of most, if not all, major mobilized ethnic groups in society."[p. 4] Sisk discusses two forms of power-sharing democracy. In consociational democracies ethnic groups are treated analogously to confederated states. Groups have internal autonomy, and group leaders negotiate amongst themselves to manage conflict. Integrative democracies seek to encourage moderation in group leaders and to encourage intergroup cooperation at all levels of government.

Each approach to democracy has its characteristic techniques for managing conflicts. Chapter Four describes these techniques. Consociational techniques include granting groups territorial autonomy, employing proportional representation in administrative appointments and parliamentary elections, and recognizing group rights. Integrative techniques focus on creating a unitary, inclusive central state. This approach relies on ethnically neutral majoritarian decision-making, "ethnicity-blind" public policies, and adoption of an electoral system which encourages political and ethnic coalitions.

Chapter Five describes the factors which motivate conflicting groups to consider peace through power sharing. Generally, groups must be motivated by the fear of continuing or increasing violence. Power sharing is most likely to succeed where the groups have internal unity and organization, and where there is broad and deep support for peace.

In Chapter Six, Sisk explores the role of the international community in promoting and supporting power sharing approaches to managing ethnic conflicts. Sisk first notes that while there are often substantial problems with partitioning existing states, the creation of a separate state cannot be rejected out of hand. He also observes that the international community tends to overemphasize the usefulness of democratic elections in regulating ethnic conflicts. Elections can further polarize groups. The timing of international intervention is also a delicate matter. If the intervention is too early the parties may lack motivation to settle; if too late their animosity may be too deep to overcome. Generally the international community has intervened by offering conflicting parties blueprints for power sharing political systems, and linking adoption of those systems to various other issues. Those linkages serve as incentives and sanctions. Sisk notes that promoting a power sharing solution often involves taking sides in the conflict.

Sisk concludes the text by observing that there is no simple formula governing successful power sharing arrangements. Power sharing techniques may be useful even in the absence of a larger democratic political system. However, the author does identify four general conditions which favor power sharing as a successful solution to ethnic conflicts. First, moderate group leaders who have the general support of their groups accept power sharing arrangements. Second, the arrangements are not externally imposed. Third, power sharing arrangements provide for equitable distribution of resources. Finally, extreme elements of the initial arrangements can be gradually replaced with more integrative, liberal democratic arrangements.