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A New Nuisance in the Post-Cold War Era: Ethnic Conflicts
Jan 1, 1994

With the collapse of the USSR, the concept of a New World Order began to be heard more frequently in the world’s media and in the speeches of its leaders. The concept emerged against the background of the ending of the Cold War between two polarized political, ideologies, the capitalist and the communist, headed by the USA and the USSR respectively. Supposedly, the New World Order was ushering in an era of world peace.

Although the disintegration of the Soviet Union has, largely, put an end to the end of Cold War, the world has not become more peaceful. The bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia and other savage conflicts have signaled the emergence of a new nationalism. In this context, to justify the use of force we frequently hear talk of self-determination and the rights of peoples.

Membership of the United Nations has increased sharply only twice in its history. The first time was in the late fifties and early sixties, at the people of the decolonization following the retreat of the Western imperial powers. The second time was after the disintegration of the Soviet empire and then, a little later, of Yugoslavia. In the latter case, the new sovereign nation-states were not colonies achieving a new independence.

It is thought that the latest increase in the number of nation-states will encourage distinct communities within larger states to seek some measure of independence. Although the legal right for self-determination as the basis for the use of force to gain independence is not new, it would be wrong to deny that the use of force is now perceived as a likely means of realizing full independence or some degree of autonomy. That perception is surely one of the strongest reasons behind many of the conflicts currently stretching taking place in Bosnia- Herzegovina, Nagorno-Karabakh, Palestine, Kashmir, Northern Iraq, Somalia, Dniester region of Moldova, the Abkhazian region of Georgia, etc. These are only some of the hot spots which have one, or more than one group of people engaged in armed struggle for independence. Of course the list could easily be enlarged.

Language is certainly a decisive factor in the assertion of ethnic identity. According to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dallas, Texas, there are 6,170 languages spoken in the world at this time (Grimes (ed). 1988, p.vii: quoted in Moynihan, 1933, p.72) However, there are only 184 states in the world, the latest additions being Eritrea, Monaco and Andorra.

The steady increase in the number of nation-states indicates that the process of state-building is far from over. International analysts John O’Loughlin and Herman van der Wusten expect the number to reach around 250 by the middle of the next century (O’Loughin and Van der Wusten, in Taylor (ed). 1993, p.l08). The way that number will be attained is likely to be by using force. That likelihood alone is enough reason for taking the issue very seriously. For, as the number of nation-states increases, so too do the chances of war between them as the conflicts of interest between the states become more complicated.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a self-evident truth that wars, strictly speaking, could only be engaged in by established states. Other terms were used to describe other forms of violence such as insurrection, civil unrest, piracy, or rebellion. At most, there was ‘civil war’ where the adjective modified the idea and the law which applied.

Especially after the Second World War, opinions about what constitutes war and which entities in the international arena may wage war have altered. The swift break-up of colonial empires and the increasing consensus that there was a right of peoples to self-determination have led some to the view that wars of national liberation are international wars, albeit they are not inter-state wars (Wilson, 1988, p.134). It can he convincingly argued that the rules governing the Legitimacy of resort to force (jus ad bellum) and the rules governing the conduct of hostilities (jus in bello) have changed markedly since the Second World War and especially since 1960.

As the ethnic conflicts spread around the world, they are becoming another source of human misery in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is a reality of our time that secessionist, irridentist, and national liberation wars are the greatest killers-either directly through bloodshed or indirectly through hunger or disease stemming from such wars (Farley, 1986, p. 139). O’Loughlin and Van der Wusten hold that the causes of wars after the 1990s will most probably be ethno-nationalist disputes (Taylor (ed.), 1993, p.106), that is, related to national liberation or separatist movements. For the last two years, we have been witnessing through the nastiest example of such a conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Unless a remedy is found to these ethnic disputes, the peoples of the earth will not experience in the foreseeable future the peace that seemed to be, to so many, the promise of the end of the Cold War era. 


  • FARLEY, Lawrence T. (1986) Plebiscites and Sovereignty: the Crisis of Political Illegitimacy, Westview Press, London.
  • GRIMES, Barbara F.( ed) ( 1988) Ethnologue:Languages of the World. Summer Institute of Linguistics. Dallas.
  • O’LOUGHLIN, J. & VAN DER WUSTEN, H. (1993) ‘Political geography of war and peace’, in Taylor(ed.)
  • TAYLOR, Peter J. (1993) Political Geography of The Twentieth Century, Belhaven Press, London.
  • MOYNIHAN, DANIEL P. (1993) Pandemonium:Ethnicity in International Politics, Oxford Univercity Press.
  • WILSON, Heather A. (1988) International Law and the Use of Force by National Liberation Movements, Clarendon Press.