Ethnic Groups and Human Rights

“Ethnic Groupings and the Discourse of Human Rights”

by Chip Gagnon, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Politics, Ithaca College
Published in the SSRC Program in Peace and Security Newsletter, May 1998

The massive atrocities perpetrated in the recent wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina highlight some troubling questions related to human rights as a security issue, and in particular the relationship between human rights and the concept of “ethnic groups.” First, while the wars themselves, especially the targeting of civilians, were egregious violations of human rights, they were paradoxically carried out and justified in the name of the human rights of particular ethnic groups. Second, these cases demonstrated the blurring of lines between wars and violations of human rights inherent in so-called “ethnic conflicts.” Third, while the international community and the west in particular has been quite insistent in pressing issues of human rights globally, they were very reluctant to actually take any significant action that would have relieved the human rights abuses undertaken in the name of ethnic groups. The key to resolving these questions is to recognize the contradictions between an essentialist understanding of ethnic groupness on the one hand, and the focus of human rights of the individual on the other. The solution is thus to problematize essentialized notions of ethnic groupness.

The wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were not the result of ancient hatreds bubbling up from below, nor were they caused by ethnic elites using violence to mobilize the masses by pushing the “ethnic button.” Rather, the wars were a strategic and rational strategy on the part of some elites to reconstruct ideas and realities of political community defined in very specific, antagonistic “ethnic” terms, in the face of democratization. To do so, violence was needed to destroy the existing, organic realities on the ground, especially in culturally (ethnically) heterogeneous areas of the country that had histories of peaceful coexistence and even high intermarriage rates. The wars also served to silence and marginalize those who had alternative, peaceful, democratic visions of political community. The wars were thus a way to construct very particular notions of groupness defined in ethnic terms, to construct correspondingly “hard” boundaries, to enforce them demographically on the ground (that is, to “ethnically cleanse” through murder and expulsion regions that previously had been ethnically mixed), and to silence and marginalize those who had a different vision. This focus on demographics, and the goal of destroying existing communities, explains the massive violations of human rights–only through such violence could these communities and realities be destroyed.(1)

What’s striking about the wars in the former Yugoslavia is that they were justified in the name of human rights. From the early 1980s, for example, conservative Serbian intellectuals and officials claimed that Serbs were the victims of “genocide,” and that their rights as Serbs were being violated in much of the rest of Yugoslavia. These claims and images came to dominate Serb portrayals of wars that were in fact provoked and fought on the orders of Belgrade and that targeted non-Serb civilians for the most horrendous kinds of abuse, up to and including attempted genocide, rape camps, using civilians as human shields, etc. Likewise, the Croatian regime used the discourse of the human rights of Croats in its campaign of abuse against Serbs in Croatia, and then again in its war against Muslims in Bosnia. In these cases too we saw egregious violations of the human rights of civilians merely because they were not Croats. Yet, ironically, these violations were being justified within a discourse of human rights. This is perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of these wars, and it demonstrate that the discourse of human rights has become so hegemonic that even those who violate human rights in the most horrible ways justify their actions within that discourse.

What is also striking about this war, and what it has in common with many wars taking place around the world, is that the traditional distinction between combatants and noncombatants has vanished. In particular, civilians now are the strategic targets of violence, they are the “resources” which are the objects of conflict, not for their economic potential, but for their political potential. The strategic goals of destroying existing communities and creating new, “hard” notions of ethnic groupness can only be achieved through the massive use of violence against civilians. So instead of a clear distinction between the (permitted) violence of war, which technically is not a violation of the human rights of combatants, and the (impermissable) targeting of noncombatants, the noncombatants become the strategic target, and human rights violations become the major strategy of the war. Since most “ethnic conflicts” are much more similar to these Balkan wars than to the wars that gave rise to the Geneva convention, this highlights the problematic distinction between permissable and impermissable violations of human rights.

This blurring, and the discourse of human rights used by the purveyors of conflict, help in part to explain the West’s response (or lack thereof) to the atrocities. While western governments did eventually denounce the most obvious violations, including concentration and death camps, mass rapes, and other forms of “ethnic cleansing,” these words were not really backed up with deeds. Western leaders were able to use the confusion caused by ethnic cleansers who deployed a discourse of human rights of “their” ethnic group to justify their inactivity. This in turn was possible because the West accepted the discourse of ethnic groups defined in monolithic and essentialist terms. From this perspective the “ethnic groups” had to feel secure and thus the war was a natural or inevitable (if regrettable) phenomenon. But this also means that every individual is reduced to an ethnic group member, and the rights of the putative groups are the focus of attention, rather than the atrocities which are meant to construct and enforce “groupness” itself.

The challenge presented by wars like these, defined as “ethnic conflicts,” is exactly this intersection of the discourses of human rights on the one hand, and an essentialist image of ethnic groups on the other. By accepting the latter, outsiders have also in effect accepted the subsumation of individual rights into “group” rights, with groups defined in very particular, politically determined ways. Thus the focus during the war as “ethnic conflict” was on Serbs as aggressors against Muslims. But this missed the underlying dynamic: that one of the major goals of the Serbian regime in these wars was to suppress dissent, diversity and heterogeneity–in short, the human rights–of Serbs, within Bosnia and Croatia but also (especially) within Serbia itself. By accepting an essentialist view of people as defined firstly or mostly as members of some “ethnic group,” and by not problematizing these notions of groupness, we miss the diversity of identifications that usually overrode “ethnic” in everyday life before the war, for example regional, community, extended kinship. If identities are formed intersubjectively, over the course of day-to-day interactions, then these identities were much more complex and much more salient than the overarching political identities as “Serbs” and “Croats”–more salient that is until violence was thrust into these communities to tear them apart. The goal of the war was exactly to replace these organic identities with a very different, political notion of “groupness.” After the violence, it is no longer possible to be a Serb the way one was a Serb before the war. The war thus subtly silenced and marginalized human rights as a political issue within the “group.”

The problem here seems to be that concepts of “ethnic groupness” are taken as a given. An alternative way to think about the tensions presented here is to realize that while cultural identities do exist, they do not in and of themselves create objective group identities, interests, or a sense of groupness. Instead, culture should be seen as the site of contestation over values and objectives. From this perspective it becomes clear that, just as within our own society, within every society exist indigenous (and often conflicting) senses of morality, ethics, and human rights. By accepting essentialized notions of groupness, we empower those who seek to silence moral and ethical voices of their own societies.

Thus rather than seeing human rights as a western value “we” are seeking to foster in “other” cultures or societies, we should recognize and support those indigenously-based notions of human rights and those who are their bearers. If the outside had been more sensitive to this pluralistic way of thinking about human rights, and politics in general, they would have seen through the discourse of ethnic groupness, and recognized this discourse for what it was, an attempt to monopolize the broader political realm, a means of silencing diversity, plurality, and human rights within those societies.


1. For details see Human Rights Watch, War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina, vols. 1 and 2 (NY: Human Rights Watch, 1992 and 1993).


This page last revised 01/02/02