Ethnic Conflict: reasons and solution, Kirkuk as a case study
Ethnic Conflict study is complex and much empirical and theoretical experience is deemed necessary in attaining a desirable outcome. People generally contend over things that are scarce as they are important and valuable, including territory, political power, jobs, education opportunities, capital. Groups also contend over matters of collective dignity and respect, such as the relative status of language and religious institutions.
The reasons for ethnic conflict can be generally summarized (Esman 2004) in the following points:
It is one of the common and key reasons of the most of the world conflicts which represent itself in many forms, such as the problem over the status of territory, political inequality and exclusion, persecuting minorities. To solve the political problems, two ways are generally considered:
1- Resorting to all types of violence
2- Utilising peaceful pressure aiming at political equality realization which is one of the important means of stability in any country.
A number of scholars have argued that ethnic conflicts, at their roots, are for having access to economic resources. In other words, they extend the roots of all political struggles to economic reasons and think that the dominant political parties will use their power to secure economic advantages to their members and adherents at the expense of their adversaries. They also think that political language is often used to express economic inequalities.
Among the economic issues that may be in dispute are employment discrimination in government institutions, having no equal opportunities to access higher education, imbalance allocation of services such as health facility, roads, electric power, water supply, etc. The outcome of economic inequality is the resentment among those who have been excluded.
Culture plays a critical role in tensions and conflicts. Language and religion, as two components and features of culture, can have greater roles in escalating or de-escalating of conflicts.
However, some other factors play significant roles in precipitating conflicts:
- When a group perceives affronts to its community honour and dignity
- When there is a tangible threat to the interests of an ethnic community by another ethnic group or by government. In spite of the fact that sometimes persecuted ethnic groups may not be able to challenge those hostile actions as they are too weak or they are poorly organized, there is no any guarantee that those groups will bear and remain standstill forever.
When the above-mentioned reasons exist, then only a trigger can transform ethnic conflict to its worst level, i.e. violence and ethnic fighting. The triggers can be one of the followings: some political leaders’ provocative orientations that cause disturbance among other groups, unsuccessful elections, and unexpected changes in the security of the region and rapid increase of violence through rioting.
How do groups perceive each other is vital in understanding whether their relationship is peaceful or violent, ready for compromise or not, suspicious of the any moves for the opposite number or takes them insensitively. Accordingly, three perceptions are mentioned below:
1- The essentialist perception within which the groups feel threatened physically, culturally, and socially and thereby consider compromise as a sign of the groups’ weakness.
2- The pragmatic perception in which the conflict of interest is still a vital issue but compromise seems plausible, especially on the margins.
3- The reciprocative perception in which the groups work mutually to transform the relationships into the common good of all, mainly by utilising the state as a mediator (Sisk 1996).
The problem of Kirkuk
The problem of Kirkuk is not isolated, but an extension of the other troubles in Iraq. Therefore, how the groups and components in Iraq view each other has its reflection on Kirkuk. Mentioning the various groups’ conception of each other, three perceptions were referred to. Though not with accurate data in hand, this works realises that Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Christians, and other constituents of the city are mostly essentialists. Any action, activity, and move from any group is sensitively dealt with and suspiciously treated. The political distrust might have caused this perception, which in turn is the consequence of the undesired history of peaceful coexistence that has been prevalent since, at least, the creation of the Iraqi state after WWI. Indeed, the effectual existence of such perception approximates the likelihood of any resolution into impossible; however, this should not drive uspessimistic. The stalemate in Kirkuk should not be merely confined to the existence of a number of ethnicities in it, but rather it should be sought for in inability of ethnic conflict management. One can easily identify a number of multi-ethnic and multicultural states, and even mixed cities, living peacefully and not for a short amount of time.
As mentioned above, political and economic injustices escalate the scale of conflict, sometimes to a violent one. In Kirkuk, these sorts of injustices exist and are perceived, and this issue has also been asserted in the third point of the Kurdish oppositions’ recent statement (Goran, Yakgrtu, and Komal) in Kirkuk on February, 8, 2012. If that is the hesitation of three Kurdish parties against a dominant Kurdish administration in Kirkuk, then the Turkmens, Arabs, and Christians worries are certainly greater.
Resolving the problem in Kirkuk seems to be quite uneasy owing to its deep historical roots and its being of those conflicts that revolve around what Engstrom (2011) calls ‘Basic Human Needs’ which are in essence non-negotiable, such as security, identity, recognition, and autonomy. Besides, the external regional actors’ intervention plays a negative role in reaching a desired solution.
In a multi-ethnic country, de-escalation of the conflicts depends very much on the nature of the conflict. If the conflict is largely one of competing interests, implementation of democratic principles may serve to promote peaceful cohabitation. But if the conflict is rooted in needs, the advancement of democracy is unlikely to facilitate the resolution of the conflict. This factor appears to be one of the reasons impeding the full implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution so far.
With all the reasons mentioned, the political entrepreneurs and elites can play a vital role, either negative or positive, in mobilising their ethnic fellas along religious, ethnic, and sectarian lines (through provoking ethnic, religious and sectarian sentiments of their followers) i.e. although the citizens of Kirkuk are of considerable importance in deciding upon the destiny and future of their city and in untying the Gordian knot of not coexisting together, political leaders, when they want to, can abort this collective dream.
Finally, the Kurdish political leadership should be fully aware of the fact that, if they do not reach an agreement with the components and parties in Kirkuk and the relevant parties in Iraq, there is a strong possibility that the United Nations would intervene. The past UN interventions in such problems can indicate that they mostly try to find and adopt a middle-way solution. In such a solution Kirkuk might become an independent federal region, such as Brčko District in Bosnia and Åland Islands in Finland.
In general there are three expected scenarios in deciding upon the future of Kirkuk:
1- to be incorporated into the Kurdistan Region
2- to become an independent federal region
3- To be incorporated into the centre (Baghdad)
General Outlines of resolving the problem of Kirkuk
In any solution, the following points should be considered:
1- The key principle of any solution is to reverse the consequences that have been created due to conflict reasons. For instance, if some people were dismissed from their jobs due to their ethnic affiliations, they should be re-employed and compensated for their losses as well.
2- No religious or ethnic groups should be marginalized. On the contrary, they should be urged to be an integral part of the solution. As mentioned earlier, such conflicts are associated to the basic human needs such as identity and security that are non-negotiable.
3- Any solution should emerge from inside Kirkuk and political elites should be prevented from settling down their disputes, which are irrelevant to Kirkuk, at the city expense.
4- Civil society organizations’ task would be to familiarize all the components of Kirkuk to the peaceful coexistence concepts. This can be done in three ways:
First: Gathering a number of influential officials from all various constituents of Kirkuk together for the sake of establishing a friendly atmosphere and building mutual understanding.
Second: Trying to approach prominent figures of different Kirkuk components through holding continuous workshops for (religious scholars, writers, intellectuals, noblemen, artists, etc.)
Third: Attempting to bridge the cooperation gap among political and administrative officials of the city on the one hand and grassroots on the other. This point is quite fundamental in changing groups’ attitudes toward each other, at least from an essentialist perception to a pragmatic perception that may make a solution probable.
5- To safeguard and guarantee any future agreement among ethnic groups of Kirkuk, it is recommendable that the UN will play the role of the arbiter to assure all parties compliance to any agreement.
A proposed solution by ‘Escobar’
A study carried out by a team led by ‘Gabriel Escobar’ and published by Columbia University in 2011 suggested ‘Birthright’ as a solvent to the dilemma of Kirkuk. Birthright is defined by the team as a legal status allowing the residents of Kirkuk to enjoy all the rights available to the residents of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), despite the rights guaranteed by the Iraqi Constitution. Accordingly, Kirkuk is to be run jointly “dual nexus” among KRG, the Government of Iraq (GOI). Kirkuk’s residents will be able to vote in KRG elections, join the Peshmerga forces, and be employed by KRG.
Kirkuk will formally be unincorporated province and have legally binding ties to both GOI and KRG. The constitutional powers will be divided among KRG, GOI, KPC, with exclusive powers to each and shared powers among all. Additionally, with the decentralisation of power, a de-politicised governance might be established and thus reducing ethno-regional inequalities.
With the present conditions in Kirkuk, the team holds census as inappropriate and adheres to 32-32-32-4 proportionality, consequently Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs participate in the elections with equal incentives. The team mentions some benefits of this proposal:
1- it paves the way for a coming successful election
2- the establishment of a joint administration that can facilitate census
3- Election fraud will no longer drive ethnic tension among the concerned communities in Kirkuk, for an Arab can only cheat another Arab, a Kurd another Kurd, Turkmen another Turkmen, and so forth.
The team believes that the above mentioned points should all be carried under the supervision of the United Nations.
Note: having Escobar team’s proposal should not be understood as any sort of preference to it or agreement with it.
Engstrom, J. (2011) ‘Democracy and Democratisation’ in K. Cordell and S. Wolff (eds), Routledge Handbook of Ethnic Conflict. London: Routledge.
Esman, Milton (2004). An Introduction to Ethnic Conflict. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Sisk, T. (1996) Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts. Washington: United States Institute of Peace.
www.sipa.columbia.edu/…/KirkukJointAdministrationReportv5.pdf accessed 25/02/12
Jalal Hasan Mistaffa Nawshirwan Hussein Saeed
PhD student at Newcastle University PhD student at Newcastle University
Politics Department Politics Department
The Kurdish Center for Political Analysis:
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