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Human Rights Quarterly 22.4 (2000) 1103-1107

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Book Review

International Law and Ethnic Conflict

International Law and Ethnic Conflict, edited by David Wippman (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998) viii + 354 pp.

This timely collective work presents a variety of views on important and controversial issues. Do ethnic minorities have rights in international law? Are rights for ethnic minorities necessary, over and above a norm of non-discrimination? If ethnic minorities enjoy rights, are these rights collective, to be exercised by the group, or do they adhere to individual members of the group? If rights adhere to a group, how is the will of the group to be determined? Should international organizations intervene, militarily if necessary, to protect ethnic minorities?

Another series of questions relates to political status. Does an ethnic minority have a right to political autonomy within the state it inhabits? Does an ethnic minority have a right to secede? May an ethnic minority that desires secession resort to armed force?

These questions have been central to many of the ethnic conflicts that have captured headlines since the early 1990s. International Law and Ethnic Conflict addresses them. Its analysis illuminates conflict situations like those in Kosovo, East Timor, and Chechnya. The book grew out of a 1995 conference at Cornell Law School that drew together a distinguished group of analysts of the subject.

Editor David Wippman has, appropriately, divided International Law and Ethnic Conflict into two sections: theory and practice. The "theory" section addresses the concept of nationalism: whether it is a positive or a negative phenomenon, whether a striving for ethnic rights is inconsistent with the liberal notion of equality of all persons in a given political system. The "theory" section also asks how ethnicity and human rights are inter-connected, and how ethnic conflict relates to territorial claims.

As one reads the essays in this section, one begins to think about how these matters have played out in practice. The second section addresses that aspect, focusing on particular situations and on how the United Nations and regional organizations have sought to cope with ethnic conflict.

The two sections complement each other effectively. One needs to consider [End Page 1103] the questions the book poses in the abstract, if one is to derive answers that may be used in future conflicts. At the same time, one cannot discuss these issues without asking how the various possible approaches have worked on the ground. A solution that may seem appropriate in principle may be impracticable. For example, military intervention to save a people being subjected to mass killing is appealing to many, but a review of past practice may suggest that such interventions rarely succeed.

The essayists represented in International Law and Ethnic Conflict struggle with the question of whether ethnic groups should be given protections that are not available to the citizenry generally. They acknowledge a tension between, on the one hand, promoting the rights of a minority group and, on the other, providing for equality for all under the law. Fernando T├ęson calls rights for an ethnic group "special group rights." He disputes whether there should be a right to be governed by members of one's own group. Steven Ratner, who regards group rights more favorably, argues that democracy alone may be insufficient to guarantee the rights of minorities.

Lea Brilmayer approaches the matter from the standpoint of justice, viewing promotion of group rights as "corrective justice" for the group. In her analysis, the aim is less the right to be governed by members of one's own group than it is to find redress for wrongs suffered by the group in the past. She expresses concern that international-legal institutions are generally ill-equipped to achieve such corrective justice, yet she views the goal as worth pursuing.

Anne-Marie Slaughter notes that one institutional arrangement is gaining momentum, namely procedures for trial at the international level of persons who commit atrocities in the course of ethnic warfare. She points out that the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia has a kind of "removal jurisdiction...


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