Managing internationalized ethnic conflict: evaluating the role and relevance of mediation

Managing internationalized ethnic conflict: evaluating the role and relevance of mediation

Jacob Bercovitch

For more than four decades the cold war shaped every facet of the international environment. It created an incompatibility of goals and interests between the two superpowers–the Soviet Union and the United States–and their spheres of influence and led to tensions and conflicts at both the international and intranational levels. While there was exceptional stability at the superpower level, the third world became the location of the majority of conflict, with the after-effects of colonialism–namely internal division and economic decline–leaving many third world countries ripe for external interference and suppressed internal conflict. The United States and the Soviet Union were only indirectly engaged in conflict, allowing or encouraging their respective client states (mostly in Asia and Africa) to go to war against each other.

Conflict management during this period was characterized mostly by deterrence, suppression, and diversion (proxy conflicts) rather than resolution. The United States and the Soviet Union intervened unilaterally in a number of conflicts, but their interventions served limited interests, mostly those of leaders or groups supported by either superpower. Conflict suppression in the superpowers’ spheres of influence, under the umbrella of deterrence, served, paradoxically, to intensify latent demands for political identity.

With the end of the cold war and the associated changes in the social, economic, and political environments, much has been made of the nature of conflict in this new world. The bipolar international system changed into a very different system; east-west security and alignment tensions decreased, and with this came the expectation that a prolonged period of stability would characterize the new system. The great powers, acting through the international community, would effectively prevent any conflict from breaking out. The end of the cold war marked the end of conflict, the “end of history” even. An long era of peace was what we all expected at the dawn of the 1990s.

But what we have seen since 1991 is not a decrease but an increase in the number and intensity of conflicts. The post-cold war period is characterized by an explosion of nationalism, the accentuation of national identity, and the eruption of violent conflicts in places as diverse as Angola, Burma, Sudan, Iraq, Russia, Turkey, Ethiopia, Bosnia, and many others. These conflicts, largely generated within state boundaries, have become known as ethnic conflicts or ethnonational conflicts (a superfluous term, as it happens). By one account, only 7 of 111 militarized conflicts in the twelve years after 1989 were of the traditional interstate kind, and even these may have had a strong internal or communal dimension (see table 1). (1)


The term “ethnic conflict” is broadly used to describe a wide range of internal conflicts. More specifically, we should note that if we wish to describe a group of people as an ethnic group, the group must have a sense of collective and separate identity, common ancestry, a shared culture and history, and an attachment to a specific piece of territory. (2) An ethnic conflict is thus a conflict that involves two or more groups that perceive themselves as different and are seen by others as different. Peoples, nations, communities, or minorities can all be seen, and are seen, as ethnic groups, and all do find themselves involved in various conflicts. Ethnicity is one of the features that distinguish groups and actors; it is one of the features that produce differences, difficulties, and conflict. Despite its prominence, however, ethnicity is but one of the possible causes of conflict.

Ethnic conflicts arise when groups with a separate sense of identity perceive their governing structure to be incapable of addressing their basic needs. When such needs are denied or are not met, grievances are formed, and demands that the situation be redressed become more and more voluble. Perceived deprivation and the desire to remove it are characteristic of the development and conduct of ethnic conflict.

Although the structure of ethnic conflict is often described as unique, we must recognize that ethnic conflicts are not a new phenomenon, notwithstanding the proliferation of articles and monographs focusing on ethnic conflicts in the post-cold war era. An examination of ethnic conflicts in 1991-96 reveals that many of the so-called new ethnic conflicts in that period had in fact been going on for fifteen or more years. (3) A large number of ethnic conflicts under way in the 1980s remained active during the 1990s. This is often forgotten by many with minimal acquaintance with the theoretical literature on conflict. Conflicts over ethnicity have been with us for a long time, and they will remain with us as long as political boundaries do not coincide with ethnic groups.

Ethnicity, identity, and national attachments play a significant role in most conflicts, internal or interstate. We should thus be more cautious in disaggregating this category of conflicts and identifying them as separate from the overall process of international conflict. Ethnic identity is a social construction that is formed, changed, and re-formed by different circumstances and contextual conditions. Sometimes ethnic identity is given much prominence; at other times it is all but neglected. Just why this feature, rather than, say, ideological differences or territorial differences, should be the one that distinguishes between conflicts and receives so much attention remains to be discussed.

If we see ethnic conflict as a new wave sweeping across different regions of the world, engulfing them in convulsive fits of violence in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, then explanations of their causes and proposals for their management are likely to be quite different than if we view them over a much longer term. We have relied too much on the end of the cold war in our analysis of ethnic conflicts. Because ethnic groups and ethnic conflicts have been around for centuries, we cannot explain either their occurrence or their management merely in terms of some structural readjustment that took place ten years ago. (4) Ethnicity is not a new phenomenon; it may play a salient role in many conflicts, but that does not mean it plays a sufficient one. It takes a substantial effort to transform issues of ethnicity and identity into violent conflicts (not all or even most conflicts of identity become violent). We should be mindful of this transformation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I wish to suggest that most conflicts we refer to as ethnic conflicts do not usually remain confined to a single state, nor are they purely ethnic in nature. Most transform themselves into international conflicts, creating what I call an internationalized ethnic conflict. Thus, we have a set of internationalized conflicts that had their origins in some domestic disputes over identity or discriminatory structures or practices, but through a variety of mechanisms have quickly metamorphosed into the more familiar picture of an international conflict.

Many of the conflicts that occupy a prominent place on the international agenda today, such as those in Sri Lanka, Iraq (vis-a-vis the Kurds), Kashmir, Israel, or Afghanistan, began as ethnic conflicts, but quickly spilled over borders to involve more than one state. In a globalized age, state boundaries become increasingly more porous. Thus conflicts that start within a state’s borders may have consequences that affect the international system, or the international community may take measures that affect domestic conflicts. Either way, such conflicts rarely remain an internal phenomenon only.

There are a number of processes that may transform an ethnic conflict into an international conflict. (5) Ethnic conflicts can become internationalized when refugees migrate across borders, when one ethnic group is spread across several states, or when ethnic leaders in one state seek sanctuary in another. They can also become internationalized through terrorist activities or partisan interventions on behalf of one of the groups. Finally, there are a number of conflicts with significant ethnic components that become internationalized through international diplomatic activity (such as UN intervention or diplomatic efforts by individual states). Bearing in mind the nexus between internal and international conflicts, I wish to suggest that it might be useful to think of different categories of conflict and examine how each manifests itself and is dealt with. Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of conflicts that affect us all. These are (a) internationalized ethnic conflict (conflicts that become internationalized through migration of refugees or spread of conflict), (b) internationalized civil conflicts (conflicts where external demands for territory, resources, or regime change are superimposed on an ethnic identity), and (c) interstate conflicts (an international conflict that affects and exacerbates ethnic identities within a state). All three types of conflict have too often been subsumed under the rubric of ethnic conflict.

One of the features I wish to examine is the persistence of each form of conflict over a period of fifty years. In an empirical examination of 309 international conflicts in 1945-95, I found that 131 had a significant ethnic component and later developed into internationalized conflicts. (6) Their distribution in terms of the three categories cited above is presented in figure 1.



Clearly a substantial number of conflicts since 1945 can be described as internationalized conflicts with ethnicity as their salient focus. What are the main features and characteristics of such conflicts, and to what extent do these features affect their management? Internationalized ethnic conflicts are both very violent and protracted. Carment’s examination of international conflicts from 1945 to 1981 found that ethnic conflicts were characterized by a high level of violence in 40 percent of conflicts, compared with 30 percent of nonethnic conflicts. (7) Miall’s findings from the 1945-85 period reinforce this, with internal conflicts being four times more likely to be categorized as “major violent” than international conflicts during the same period. (8) The year 1994 saw the highest number of conflict-related deaths since 1971, with a total of over one million for the year, many of them civilian. (9) Today, more than 90 percent of all casualties are noncombatants, with violence directed against civilian populations evident in conflicts such as Chechnya, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. (10)

An analysis of our data set of 131 conflicts with a significant ethnic component reveals that most of those (106) involved the highest hostility level in conflict (with hostility examined on a three-point scale, from display of force to war), and a very substantial number (59) had gone on for three years or more (see figures 2 and 3).


Contrary to the conventional wisdom, as readers can see from figure 4, internationalized ethnic conflicts have taken place mostly in Africa and the Middle East (73 of 131). Moreover, as I show in figure 5, systemic change (at least up until 1995) does not have much of an impact on the occurrence of these conflicts.


Internationalized ethnic conflicts are characterized by a high level of perceived cultural differences. In ethnic conflict cultural, linguistic, or religious distinctions play a vital role in shaping the disputants’ ways of thinking and influencing their perceptions of themselves and others. The first fact of ethnicity is the application of systematic distinction between insiders and outsiders in a process of inclusion and exclusion that defines the group. The ability of a protest group to develop and sustain a dispute with the government depends on the group’s perceiving both a distributional element and an identification element. Without distributional deprivation, identification remains a positive factor and not a motivation for conflict; without an identification element, distributional inequalities remain unfocused and nonmobilizing. Ethnicity provides a focus around which individuals can unite and construct and maintain a community based on certain features that are perceived to be shared within the group. Internal unity and cohesiveness depend on a group’s ability to clearly define itself as an entity, an in-group, and to distinguish itself from the out-group(s).

Another feature of internationalized ethnic conflicts is that they are rarely bilateral. Ethnic conflicts usually spawn a multiplicity of groups, alliances, and subgroups. Often these groups spill over to other countries, involving those countries in the conflict. It is also very difficult to establish proper leadership or control channels in conflicts where so many diffuse and ill-defined groups coexist. This clearly compounds the problems that policymakers or conflict managers face.

Internationalized ethnic conflicts are typically fought over specific issues that are predicated on loyalties, individual beliefs, group identities, ethnic relations, and perceptions of separateness and discrimination. Ethnic issues are, like other value-related issues, intangible and intractable and do not lend themselves easily to political compromise or a negotiated settlement.

Unlike traditional interstate conflicts, which usually end in negotiation and a settlement of sorts, internationalized ethnic conflicts often end in expulsion, surrender, or extermination. Most internationalized ethnic conflicts either continue for a long time or end and re-emerge again within twenty-four months (see figure 6). Zartman found that less than a third of ethnic conflicts in the twentieth century led to negotiations. (11) In a much discussed paper, Kaufman argued that there is only one possible outcome to violent ethnic conflict, and that is permanent separation of the parties. (12) Paul Pillar’s study shows that about two-thirds of interstate wars terminated through negotiation, compared to about one-third of internal conflicts. (13) Steadman, after eliminating colonial wars and other “special” cases, found that the incidence of ethnic conflicts’ terminating by negotiation declined to approximately 15 percent. (14)



Gurr’s project provides a useful classification of political actors in internationalized ethnic conflict. The actors in question are defined as ethnopolitical actors. (15) Two criteria must be met for an actor to be defined as such: (a) the actor must collectively suffer, or benefit from, discriminatory policies, and (b) collective action, mobilization, and defense of their own interest are undertaken by such actors. Many shared attributes, of which ethnicity is one, may lead to collective actions, however.

Gurr makes a basic distinction between two broad categories of ethnopolitical groups: national peoples and minority peoples. “National peoples” includes ethnonationalists (regionally concentrated people who pursue autonomy), national minorities, and indigenous peoples. “Minority peoples” includes ethno-classes (ethnically distinct people, occupying a distinct social status), communal contenders (culturally distinct people who seek a share in state power), and religious sects. On the basis of these criteria Gurr identifies 275 ethnopolitical groups, the majority of which are communal contenders (68) or indigenous peoples (66).

I have tried to examine the extent to which these groups have engaged in internationalized ethnic conflict in the 1945-95 period. Figure 7 shows that ethnonationalist groups and communal contenders have been involved in more than 78 percent of the 131 conflicts. Clearly, any approach to conflict management has to take into account the nature and identity of the parties in conflict.


One further dimension that needs to be investigated pertains to the issues that mobilize ethnopolitical groups to engage in conflict. Issues in internationalized ethnic conflict represent the political articulation of some grievance, demand, or strategy. Here I use ten categories of such issues to distinguish several types of ethnic conflicts:

1. Secessionist conflicts occur when an ethnic group claiming a homeland attempts to withdraw, with its territory, from the state.

2. Irredentist conflicts are characterized by the movement by members of an ethnic group party to retrieve territory that had once been (or is considered to have been) part of their territory.

3. Autonomy conflicts reflect an ethnic group’s desire for the right of self-government of their ethnic group.

4. Decolonization conflicts are predicated on the desire of an ethnic group to gain independence from a colonial power.

5. Religious conflicts are founded on concerned ethnic parties that are organized in defense or promotion of their religious beliefs.

6. Political voice conflicts concern the distribution of political influence among different ethnic groups.

7. Ideology conflicts involve ethnic groups’ mobilizing to contest the dominant political or economic ideology.

8. Resource conflicts are characterized by different ethnic groups’ contesting the distribution and control of resources.

9. Political control conflicts concern conflict between parties over total regime and control of authority changes.

10. Genocide conflicts are those in which the government adopts a policy of deliberately killing members of a specific ethnic group.

When we examine the empirical evidence, we find that most internationalized ethnic conflicts are fought over issues of secession, autonomy, and ideology. All are intangible issues that do not easily lend themselves to a resolution.


Managing internationalized ethnic conflict is a difficult and complex process, but it is not much different from managing any other kind of conflict. Rather than devise a variety of constitutional accommodations (ranging from autonomy to federalism), I suggest we think of how to deal with them in terms of the three basic methods of conflict management that apply to all conflicts. Parties in any conflict may resort to different levels of coercion (physical and psychological) to manage their conflict. They may settle the conflict peacefully through such forms as bargaining and negotiation on their own initiative, or the conflict may be managed through the intervention (binding or otherwise) of some third party. An analysis of all conflict management activities in our 131 cases of conflict reveals that the practice of external, noncoercive intervention by third-party mediation was the most popular method of dealing with internationalized ethnic conflict (see table 2).

Noncoercive interventions can be defined according to the third party’s degree of involvement in the conflict management process. (16) Fisher and Keashley provide a framework for describing such efforts. (17) Using their terminology, it can be said that conciliation involves a trusted intermediary who provides an informal communication link between the parties with the purposes of identifying the issues, reducing tensions, and encouraging the parties to shift their negotiating positions. Arbitration and adjudication involve a legitimate and authoritative third party that renders a binding judgment to the parties. Consultation, or problem solving, involves a third party’s facilitating analysis of the conflict and the development of alternatives through communication, diagnosis of the conflict, and understanding of conflict processes. The fourth form of intervention is peacekeeping, which involves the provision of military personnel by a third party, or parties, to supervise and monitor a cease-fire, to undertake humanitarian activities, or to attempt to prevent open hostilities between the parties. The final form of third-party intervention, mediation, involves the intervention of an intermediary who attempts to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the substantive issues in the conflict. In this article I wish to focus on the role and relevance of mediation in internationalized ethnic conflicts.


Mediation is an important method of dealing with conflict. For many masons it is a favored form of peaceful third-party intervention. Unlike conciliation, mediation allows a mediator to take a more active formal role in the process. Mediation may also include more informal forms of third-party intervention such as the provision of good offices, inquiry, or fact finding. At its best, mediation can help the parties address the substantive issues in a conflict. A mediator is able to steer the parties toward agreement through communication and diagnosis, and may press and reward the parties so as to have a degree of control over the context of the conflict and its process.

Mediation, in comparison with arbitration and adjudication, is a voluntary process in which a third party offers nonbinding assistance (in various forms) to the disputants to help them move toward a mutually acceptable agreement. Given the voluntary, noncoercive nature of mediation, and the polarized and entrenched nature of internationalized ethnic conflict, mediation provides, on the face of it, a non-threatening form of transforming, de-escalating, or settling such conflicts.

Mediation is best viewed as a process that is used worldwide in numerous kinds of conflicts and that can be systematically studied within the broader context of negotiation and conflict management. Definitions of mediation may focus on mediation behavior, mediator identity, or mediator resources. (18) Some definitions are broad; others are quite specific. No wonder one is driven to note that “the myriad of possible mediators and the range of possible mediator roles and strategies is so wide as to defeat many attempts to understand … the essence of mediation.” (19) Given the immense scope of mediation, we offer the following broad definition: Mediation is “[al process of conflict management where the disputants seek the assistance of, or accept an offer of help from, an individual, group, state or organization to settle their conflict or resolve their differences without resorting to physical violence or invoking the authority of the law.” (20)

Parties in conflict, whether domestic or international, have alternatives other than mediation. They choose it voluntarily because mediation embodies some international norms they wish to uphold, or because they expect greater payoffs from mediation than from other conflict management methods. Either way, mediation is an adaptive form of conflict management–an advantage in that each conflict situation is highly variable in terms of the nature of the parties, the issues, the dispute, and the mediator. Mediation must develop and respond to the context of a conflict if it is to be effective. In the next section I will examine the relationships between the specific characteristics of internationalized ethnic conflict and mediation outcomes.


A number of approaches to the study of mediation have dominated the literature. (21) Broadly speaking, these approaches represent the single case-study tradition, (22) experimental studies, interviews and observations, (23) and the systematic, empirical tradition. (24) This tradition examines a large number of mediation cases and tries to relate mediation outcomes to a wide array of independent variables describing the context and process of any conflict situation. Wall et al. refer to this aspect of the literature as aggregate outcome determinants. (25)

Which are the most important independent variables in affecting or determining mediation outcomes? The literature on mediation is consistent in identifying four factors as likely to have the most effect on mediation outcomes: (26) (a) issues in conflict, (b) conflict level or intensity, (c) mediator rank, and (d) timing of mediation. Let us review each of these in turn.

Issues in conflict are invariably seen as affecting mediation outcomes. Issues define the underlying causes of a conflict. They may not always be clear, but the parties’ perceptions of issues in conflict define the parameters of any conflict. When dealing with interstate conflicts, we study issues of territory, sovereignty, security, and ideology. Here, we are interested in the relationship between mediation and our tenfold classification of issues that characterize internationalized ethnic conflict.

“Conflict level or intensity” refers to the level of costs incurred by both actors in the conflict. Conflict costs can be computed to include material costs, human costs, or any other kind of costs (e.g., reputation). The idea here is that there is some relationship between conflict costs and mediation outcomes. Two contradictory strands characterize the literature; some argue that this relationship is direct, others that it is inverse. Which way does this relationship hold in the case of internationalized ethnic conflict?

The literature on mediation often alludes to the importance of the personal factor. (27) Although we can hardly evaluate the impact of mediators’ personal traits and attributes, we can perhaps analyze the extent to which different mediators, representing different bodies and organizations, can bring their organizational attributes and resources to bear. Do impartial mediators or high-rank mediators achieve greater success in internationalized ethnic conflict? Is rank related to outcome?

Finally, many use the notion of mediation timing as a predictor of a successful outcome. (28) To be effective, mediation must take place at a propitious moment in the life cycle of a conflict. But how exactly can we recognize a propitious moment? Some argue that it occurs early in a conflict; others that it occurs much later. (29) Timing certainly affects mediation effectiveness, but in what way?


To start, we compiled an original data set of all conflicts in the 1945-95 period. An international conflict was operationalized as a continuous dispute involving at least one state that resulted in a show of force and/or some fatalities (our fatalities threshold is ten). This produced a total of 309 conflicts for the fifty-year period. Of these, 131 met our criteria for internationalized ethnic conflicts (i.e., ethnicity was the main issue at stake between the parties).

We then proceeded to identify and code all nonroutine mediation attempts that were mentioned in public sources. Informal institutionalized mediations, which are carried out behind closed doors and on which there is no public information, were not included in the study. The public sources examined to develop the data were the Times (London), New York Times, Keesing’s Archives, Lexis Nexis, and various Internet sites, in particular those provided by the United Nations, the CIA, Minorities at Risk, and INCORE. Historical accounts were also examined when data were not available. The research revealed a total of 1,741 mediation events in the 131 qualifying conflicts during the period. These cases of mediation constitute our units of analysis here.

The dependent variable that we wish to explain–namely, mediation outcomes–may be classified using normative or behavioral qualities. Normative forms of classification (satisfaction, fairness, etc.) pose difficulties in terms of perception, as observers and the parties involved do not all agree on what is a fair outcome. I wish to suggest that it is better to think of some behavioral qualities of an outcome (e.g., a cease-fire, partial or full settlement of a conflict) as showing success. Where no change took place in the parties’ behavior as a result of mediation, mediation is considered to have failed. This is a strict behavioral criterion for success and failure. (30) It does not take into account the durability of the outcome, the motives behind the parties’ agreement, or any positive perceptual effects that mediation may have produced. An analysis of the overall data reveals that more than 50 percent of all mediation efforts in internationalized ethnic conflicts were unsuccessful (see figure 8). This is in line with the overall rate of success or failure in other kinds of conflicts. (31)


If we examine mediation outcomes in terms of the issues in conflict, we find that conflicts over religious issues seemed to be the most amenable to successful mediation. Although the observed count is fairly low, the result is interesting as it suggests that intangible issues in conflict can in fact be mediated effectively (see table 3).

To measure conflict intensity we used a six-point phase scale developed by Sherman identifying conflicts in terms of levels of escalation ranging from an evolving dispute to a settlement. (32) We found, much as we would expect, that most mediation cases take place in the hostilities and open violence phase of a conflict, but mediation is more likely to be effective if it is undertaken in the post-hostilities phase (see table 4). When an internationalized ethnic conflict is in its violent phase, there is much need for mediation but little chance that it will succeed. The relationship between violence and high fatalities holds for purely interstate conflicts as it does for internationalized ethnic conflicts.

One of the traditional hypotheses in the literature links specific mediator attributes and characteristics with outcomes. Usually, this hypothesis is framed in terms of a mediator’s impartiality. Young, for instance, claims that “a high score in such areas as impartiality would seem to be at the heart of successful interventions in many situations.” (33)

I am somewhat doubtful of the relevance of this attribute and would suggest that mediators’ resources, leverage, and political capacity are at least as important as perceived impartiality. These, after all, are the attributes that mediators require to change the parties’ motivation, incentive structure, and willingness to reach a settlement. Thus, I rank all mediators on a six-point functional scale ranging from individual mediators, through mediators from regional and international organizations, to state mediators and mixed teams of mediators. By looking at all cases of actual mediation (excluding cases where it was offered only), we find that most mediation activity in internationalized ethnic conflict was undertaken by state mediators and UN mediators, but there is no significant relationship between mediator identity or rank and the effectiveness of mediation in internationalized ethnic conflicts (see table 5).

Mediation timing is often linked to effectiveness. Fisher suggests that timing is more important than mediator identity or behavior. (34) Two views characterize the discussion on mediation timing. One view states that mediation is more likely to be effective if it is attempted early in a conflict, and certainly well before the parties experience increasing costs and their positions become entrenched. (35) Another view contends that mediation is more likely to be successful if it is attempted later on in the conflict, once the parties have gone through some “hurting behavior” and are then prepared to revise their motivations and expectations.

By looking at all mediation attempts in internationalized ethnic conflicts and identifying their onset on a scale that distinguishes seven points of mediation initiation (in terms of months elapsed from the moment conflict began), we see that most mediation attempts occur three or more years after a conflict has begun, but we discern no other significant pattern in the data (see table 6). Mediation attempts that take place four to six months or twenty-five to thirty-six months into the life of a conflict seem to have a better chance of success than mediation attempts undertaken at other times. Perhaps there is some “window of opportunity” for mediation in internationalized ethnic conflicts, but this needs to be investigated further.


In this article I argued that, at least with respect to internal conflict and its management, the post-cold war era is really not all that different from the period before it. I have also argued that many of the conflicts we designate as ethnic conflicts are in fact conflicts that begin within one nation and become internationalized. Internationalized ethnic conflicts are generally acknowledged as the most difficult and complex conflicts to manage. Yet these conflicts too can be de-escalated or be made less violent by third-party mediation. Given their complexity, preponderance of intangible issues, the absence of elements of compromise, the absence of valid spokespersons for either side (often this is the very cause of conflict), and the fact that these conflicts have their origins in internal affairs where mediation can only be seen as meddling, I think it is interesting to note that external, noncoercive intervention in the form of mediation is by no means an obscure practice. If anything, mediation appears to be the favorite approach of the international community (perhaps it entails the least cost?). Its effectiveness in dealing with such conflicts is no different from its effectiveness in interstate conflicts (we get much the same pattern of results in interstate conflicts).

The obstacles to mediation may be formidable, and the clamor for preventive diplomacy may yet be translated into actual policy guidelines, but at present we must recognize the tremendous contribution that mediation makes to the management and resolution of internationalized ethnic conflicts. It seems that the major shift in the international system in 1991 has not made the practice of mediation any less relevant. Using an empirical analysis we are able to test hypotheses and demonstrate the conditions under which mediation may be effective in internationalized ethnic conflicts. The results suggest that both scholars and practitioners should pay considerable attention to a traditional instrument of diplomacy that has worked well for many years–the practice of mediation. Our knowledge of mediation is in no way invalidated by the new conditions in international relations.

TABLE 1. Number of Interstate and Internal Conflicts

Begun Each Year, 1989-2000

Type of

conflict Internal Interstate Total

1989 43 3 47

1990 44 3 49

1991 49 1 51

1992 52 1 55

1993 42 0 46

1994 42 0 42

1995 34 1 35

1996 33 2 36

1997 30 1 34

1998 33 2 37

1999 33 2 37

2000 30 2 33

All years 95 7 111

Source: Adapted from Sollenberg, M. and Wallensteen, P. “Major

Armed Conflicts.” Journal of Peace Research 38 (2001): 629-644.

TABLE 2. Attempts to Manage 131 Ethnic Conflicts,

1945-95, by Conflict Management Type

No. Percentage

No management 20 .8

Mediation (a) 1,741 70.6

Negotiation 614 24.9

Arbitration 9 .4

Referral to an international

organization 56 2.3

Multilateral conference 27 1.1

Total 2,467 100.0

(a) Mediation includes offered only.

TABLE 3. Mediation Outcomes by Issues in Ethnic Conflicts

Conflict management outcome

Success Failure

Ethnic conflict issues No. Percentage No. Percentage

Secessionist 276 38.5 440 61.5

Irredentist 44 31.7 95 68.3

Autonomy 42 47.7 46 52.3

Decolonization 5 18.5 22 81.5

Religious 13 68.4 6 31.6

Political voice 62 47.3 69 52.7

Ideology 115 45.1 140 54.9

Resources 3 100.0

Political control 70 49.3 72 50.7

Genocide 39 48.8 41 51.3

Total 666 41.6 934 58.4

Ethnic conflict issues Total no.

Secessionist 716

Irredentist 139

Autonomy 88

Decolonization 27

Religious 19

Political voice 131

Ideology 255

Resources 3

Political control 142

Genocide 80

Total 1,600

TABLE 4. Mediation Outcomes, by Conflict Phase in Which Attempt Was


Conflict management outcome

Success Failure

Dispute phase No. Percentage No. Percentage

Dispute 3 100.0

Crisis 3 15.8 16 84.2

Hostilities 557 41.7 779 58.3

Crisis Post hostilities 100 42.9 133 57.1

Dispute Post

hostilities 5 62.5 3 37.5

Settlement 1 100.0

Total 666 41.6 934 58.4

Dispute phase Total no.

Dispute 3

Crisis 19

Hostilities 1,336

Crisis Post hostilities 233

Dispute Post

hostilities 8

Settlement 1

Total 1,600

TABLE 5. Mediation Outcomes in Internationalized Ethnic Conflicts by

Mediator’s Identity

Conflict management outcome

Success Failure

Functional mediator

identity No. Percentage No. Percentage

Individual 12 38.7 19 61.3

Regional organization 86 41.0 124 59.0


organization 206 40.4 304 59.6

Functional NGOs 19 38.0 31 62.0

State 244 41.9 339 58.1

Mixed 99 45.8 117 54.2

Total 666 41.6 934 58.4

Functional mediator

identity Total no.

Individual 31

Regional organization 210


organization 510

Functional NGOs 50

State 583

Mixed 216

Total 1,600

TABLE 6. Timing: Mediation Outcomes in Internationalized Ethnic

Conflicts by Months of Conflict Elapsed When Attempt Began

Conflict management outcome

Success Failure

Months elapsed No. Percentage No. Percentage Total no.

0-1 5 21.7 18 78.3 23

1-3 6 50.0 6 50.0 12

4-6 6 54.5 5 45.5 11

7-12 23 33.3 46 66.7 69

13-24 19 27.1 51 72.9 70

25-36 34 51.1 32 48.5 66

36+ 573 42.5 776 57.5 1,349

Total 666 41.6 934 58.4 1,600


The author is grateful to Jud Fretter, Alison Houston, Pat Regan, Alan Kuperman, Bill Dixon, Tamsin Quinn, and Shirin Kaleel for their helpful comments and suggestions.

(1.) See M. Sollenberg and P. Wallensteen, “Major Armed Conflicts,” Journal of Peace Research 38 (2001): 629-44.

(2.) I rely here on A. Smith, “The Ethnic Sources of Nationalism,” in Ethnic Conflict and International Security, ed. M. Brown (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

(3.) See T. Quinn, “The Nature and Management of Ethnic Conflict” (MA thesis, University of Canterbury, 1999).

(4). This argument is made by D. Lake and D. Rothchild, “Containing Fear: The Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflicts,” International Security 21 (1996): 41-75.

(5.) Two useful accounts that trace these are R. Ganguly and R. Taras, Understanding Ethnic Conflict (New York: Longman, 1998), and T. R. Gurr, People Versus States (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2000).

(6.) See J. Bercovitch and R. Jackson, International Conflict: 1945-1995 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1997).

(7.) D. Carment, “The International Dimensions of Ethnic Conflicts: Concepts, Indicators and Theory,” Journal of Peace Research 30 (1993): 137-50.

(8.) H. Miall, The Peacemakers (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992).

(9.) See R. L. Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditure 1996, 16th ed. (Washington, DC: World Priorities, 1996).

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) I. S. Zartman, Elusive Peace: Negotiating an End to Civil Conflicts (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995).

(12.) See C. Kaufman, “Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars,” International Security 20 (1996): 136-75.

(13.) P. Pillar, Negotiating Peace: War Termination as a Bargaining Process (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).

(14.) See S. J. Stedman, Peacemaking in Civil War (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1991) and B. Walter, “The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlement,” International Organization 51 (1997): 335-64.

(15.) See T. R. Gurr, Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflict (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1993) and Minorities at Risk Project, .

(16.) On this, see S. Touval, The Peace Brokers: Mediators in the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1948-1979 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

(17.) See R. J. Fisher and L. Keashly, “The Potential Complementarity of Mediation and Consultation within a Contingency Model of Third Party Intervention,” Journal of Peace Research 28 (1991): 29-42.

(18.) For a discussion of these, see R. J. Fisher, “Pacific, Impartial Third-Party Intervention in International Conflict: A Review and an Analysis,” in Beyond Confrontation: Learning Conflict Resolution in the Post-Cold War Era, ed. J. A. Vasquez et al. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

(19.) A. Meyer, “Functions of the Mediator in Collective Bargaining,” Industrial and Labour Relations Review 13 (1960): 159-65.

(20.) J. Bercovitch, J. T. Anagnoson, and D. L. Willie, “Some Contextual Issues and Empirical Trends in the Study of Successful Mediation in International Relations,” Journal of Peace Research 28 (1991): 7-17.

(21.) For review see J. Bercovitch and A. Houston, “The Study of International Mediation,” in Resolving International Conflicts, ed. J. Bercovitch (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996).

(22.) See, for instance, C. M. Ott, “Mediation as a Method of Conflict Resolution: Two Cases,” International Organisation 26 (1972): 595-618.

(23.) See D. Kolb, The Mediators (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983).

(24.) See J. Bercovitch, “International Mediation: A Study of Incidence, Strategies and Conditions for Successful Outcomes,” Co-operation and Conflict 21 (1986): 155-69.

(25.) See J. A. Wall, et al., “Mediation: Current Review and Theory Development,”_Journal of Conflict Resolution 45 (2001): 370-91.

(26.) See D. A. Henderson, “Mediation Success: An Empirical Analysis,” Ohio State Journal of Dispute Resolution 11 (1996): 105-48.

(27.) See for instance, O. Young, The Politics of Force (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

(28.) On this issue, see F. Edmead, Analysis and Prediction in International Mediation (London: Unitar, 1971), and D. G. Pruitt, Negotiation Behaviour (New York: Academic Press, 1981).

(29.) F. S. Northedge and M. D. Donelan, International Disputes (New York: St. Martin’s, 1971).

(30.) I am relying here on the argument advanced in E. B. Haas, Why We Still Need the United Nations, Policy Paper no. 26 (Berkeley: University of California, 1986).

(31.) See Bercovitch, “International Mediation: A Study of Incidence, Strategies and Conditions for Successful Outcomes.”

(32.) See F. Sherman, “Pathways to Peace: The U.N. and the Road to Nowhere” (Ph.D. thesis, Pennsylvania State University, 1987).

(33.) See O. Young, Intermediaries: Third Parties in International Cases (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 127.

(34.) Fisher, “Pacific, Impartial Third-Party Intervention in International Conflict.”

(35.) Edmead, Analysis and Prediction in International Mediation.

Jacob Bercovitch is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. In 2002 he was a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, in Washington, D.C. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, in San Francisco.

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