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History of Ethnic Conflict

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Chechen man prays during conflict in Grozny.

Chechen man prays during conflict in Grozny.

What Is the Definition of Ethnicity?

Ethnicity refers to a (subjective) sense of shared identity based on objective cultural and/or regional criteria. The term ethnicity refers to a group of people who perceive themselves as separate and distinct from other groups because of cultural differences. There are a total of five relatively specific cultural traits that ethnic groups identify themselves with. These traits include language and/or dialect, social customs, religion, physical appearance, and region of residence.

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1990s saw an eruption of dozens of ethnic wars. With nearly 862 different ethnic groups globally, conflict was inevitable on the global stage. The Middle East, Eastern Europe, and even Africa witnessed some of the most devastating acts of ethnic conflict to date. Some of the most notable ethnic clashes included conflicts in Rwanda, Darfur, and Yugoslavia.

Genocide memorial in Rwanda.

Genocide memorial in Rwanda.

Genocide in Rwanda

The Rwandan conflict (1992) was a result of internal conflict between the Hutus (cultivators) and Tutsis (herdsmen) in Rwanda. In a clear case of genocide, the Hutus murdered over 800,000 Tutsis in only 100 days (mostly through the use of machetes) and eliminated nearly 70 percent of the Tutsi population in Rwanda. In addition to nearly a million deaths, approximately two million Rwandans were displaced because of the conflict and were forced to reside in numerous refugee camps across the region.

The conflict was a direct result of social divisions that had been implemented by colonial German and Belgium rulers in prior years. Colonial authorities often favored Tutsi citizens over the Hutus when it came to assigning administrative duties to the local population. The colonial rulers (Germany) believed that the Tutsis were ethnically superior because it was believed that they were direct descendants of Ethiopia, and they promulgated this belief in many of their social, economic, and political policies in Rwanda. Belgian forces continued many of these policies after they took control of Rwanda during the First World War.

Through the implementation of identification cards, Tutsis continued to maintain many of their social privileges within Rwanda, whereas Hutus were largely excluded from political office or administrative functions due to their low social-class ranking. As a result of colonial policies such as these, the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis was inevitable by the end of the 20th century, as years of resentment boiled over into full-fledged hostility.

Map of the social and political division that exists in Sudan.

Map of the social and political division that exists in Sudan.

Conflict in Darfur (Sudan)

Darfur saw yet another internal conflict between its eastern and western populations. The civil war that erupted between Arabs and non-Arabs (in 2003) resulted in over 200,000 dead and nearly 2 million people that were displaced from their homes (just in the early 2000s). The Janjaweed (Darfuri Arab militias) looted, burned, raped, and killed entire black villages, all of which were a direct result of racial divisions and hatred.

The conflict began in 2003 and continues to the present day. As of 2019, it is estimated that the number of individuals killed has risen to 480,000 people (a figure that continues to grow each year). Conflict, however, has been brewing for several decades and can trace its origins to Sudanese independence from Britain in 1956. As non-Arab groups garnered tremendous social, economic, and political power following independence, competition between Arabs and non-Arabs resulted in the militarization of Sudan and the development of regional tensions that hit an all-time high in the early 2000s. With the Sudanese government providing direct aid to the Janjaweed, the conflict is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon, as campaigns against civilians continue to be carried out on a regular basis.

Photo of Yugoslavian conflict in Bosnia: Siege of Sarajevo.

Photo of Yugoslavian conflict in Bosnia: Siege of Sarajevo.

The Breakup of Yugoslavia

Finally, the Yugoslavian crisis between the Muslims, Croatians, and Serbians in the region was yet another conflict that resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people. It was a conflict in which leaders manipulated identities for their own political gain. Using an instrumentalist approach, Slobodan Milosevic stirred up ethnic conflict during the 1990s so that he could remain in power. Milosevic deliberately fostered a racist nationalism that resulted in the replacement of most of Yugoslavia with a state that had a clear Serbian majority (ethnic cleansing).

The conflict shared many similarities with the conflict in Darfur, where the Khartoum (government) used its policy of “Arabization” in an effort to bolster/restore its hegemony. Despite the breakup of Yugoslavia into numerous nation-states, ethnic conflict continues to persist in the region as additional ethnic groups continue to pursue independence and nation-state status. Economic and political damage caused by years of conflict has only hurt the fragmented region further and is unlikely to resolve itself in the coming years.

Quote About Genocide

"You have to understand what caused genocide to happen. Or it will happen again."

— Tim Walz

Current Theories About Ethnic Conflict

Each of the ethnic conflicts that erupted throughout the last 30 years was the result of multiple factors. Each can be traced to either historical hatred, competition over economic resources, anarchical situations in collapsed states, ethnocentric beliefs, sectarian (intra-religious) differences (ex: Shia and Sunni Muslims), and/or to leaders’ manipulations of identities for political gain. There have been multiple theories developed to explain ethnic conflicts. Five of these theories include the theory of relative deprivation, the social identity theory, the idea of “ethnocentrism, the concept of an instrumentalist approach, and the modernization theory.

The theory of relative deprivation suggests that groups who perceive themselves as worse off than others will mobilize and take action. This theory suggests that when groups realize they are receiving less than they deserve and that others are receiving more, it will motivate groups to take political action. Perceived disadvantages and discrimination (real or imaginary), according to this theory, are underlying causes of ethnic clashes.

Another set of theories, the social identity theory and the idea of ethnocentrism, suggests that group membership promotes self-esteem and creates favorable group biases. Categorizing people into in-groups and out-groups, however, often leads to the formation of group boundaries and the development of an in-group bias, or ethnocentrism, in which people view their own ethnic group as superior to others. Biases and stereotypes, however, can often lead groups to develop a dehumanized view of other groups. Once this occurs, killing members of out-groups is not that uncomfortable since they are seen as less than human. This case is illustrated perfectly by the Rwandan conflict, in which millions died as a result of splitting society into two separate social groups (Hutus and Tutsis).

Yet another theory that can be used to explain ethnic conflict can be seen with the concept of an instrumentalist approach. This theory/concept focuses on the role that elites play in highlighting and/or creating ethnic identities to meet political goals. Leaders within states may use ethnic identities for the same reasons that leaders of states may go to war: to divert attention and enhance their legitimacy. Manipulating identities for political gain is not difficult, especially when there is a history of opposition/hatred and/or severe economic problems in a country. Yugoslavia, Darfur, and Rwanda all experienced this sort of political manipulation in one form or another.

Finally, one last theory that can be used to explain ethnic conflict can be seen with the modernization theory. This theory suggests that economic modernization erodes ethnic and religious attachments, therefore, dissolving ethnic clashes. History has not been kind to this theory, however, since modernization has been proven to increase ethnic conflict instead. Modernization increases contact between ethnic groups who begin to increasingly compete with one another over the same economic riches.

It also threatens religious traditions, leading many to fight to preserve them. While analysts at one time argued that economic progress and modernization would help stop ethnic strife, it is now widely viewed that it only increases ethnic conflict instead. One could even argue that modern-day Iraq is suffering from the effects of modernization as we speak, given the efforts of Europe and the United States to implement a modernized system of governance and technology in the area.


In closing, understanding ethnicity and the factors that promote ethnic conflict are important to consider as they provide a basis for efforts aimed at preventing conflicts in the near (and distant) future. In order to dissipate conflict, one must first understand what causes it in order to prevent it.

Thus, an analysis of prior ethnic wars/conflicts is crucial for modern historians, political scientists, and societies at large in their never-ending pursuit of peaceful resolutions on the world stage. Only time will tell whether our efforts at understanding social division and conflict have proven beneficial.

Works Cited:


Wikipedia contributors, "Bosnia and Herzegovina," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 11, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Darfur genocide," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 11, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Ethnic conflict," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 11, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Rwandan genocide," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 11, 2019)

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Larry Slawson