Beyond Rights: Legal Process and Ethnic Conflicts

Unresolved ethnic conflicts threaten the stability and the very existence of multi-ethnic states. Ethnically divided states have struggled to build structural safeguards against such disputes into their political and legal systems, but these safeguards have not been able to prevent all conflict. Accordingly, multi-ethnic states facing persistent ethnic conflicts need to develop effective dispute resolution systems for resolving those conflicts. This presents an important question: what kinds of processes and institutions might enable ethnic groups to resolve their conflicts with each other and the state? This Article explores that question, reviewing the interdisciplinary literature on ethnic conflicts, the legal literature on legal process and conflict resolution, and a case study of ethnic conflicts and conflict resolution in Ethiopia. At crucial moments in the development of an ethnic conflict, legal processes such as mediation, arbitration or constitutional interpretation might play a role in resolving the dispute. But ethnic conflict resolution institutions and processes must be carefully designed to take account of the variety, complexity and dynamics of ethnic conflicts, and to address the substantial number of ethnic groups and interests that diverge from the “minority rights” legal model. Ultimately, the Ethopian example calls on us to consider whether and how legal processes might be able to ameliorate the threat posed by ethnic conflict.