Ethnic accommodation in unitary states

Authored by: Frans Schrijver

Routledge Handbook of Ethnic Conflict

Print publication date:  October  2010
Online publication date:  October  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415476256
eBook ISBN: 9780203845493
Adobe ISBN: 9781136927577


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The unitary state is the most prevalent state system worldwide, and just like federal states, many of the world’s unitary states are places of ethnic conflict. We can connect the common distinction of state systems between unitary and federal states (Elazar, 1997) with ethnic conflicts in two ways: in the first place, it provides a context, a state structure as arena in which ethnic conflicts are fought and solutions are introduced. Ethnic conflicts are located somewhere, and whether they are located in unitary or federal states matters; difference in state structures influence the actors in the conflict. Second, the distinction between unitary and federal is part of the accommodation of ethnic conflict itself. Federalism is not just a context, but is itself an instrument of pacification and managing ethnic difference (McGarry and O’Leary, 1994). And, arguably, also the unitary state has been used as instrument in response to ethnic conflicts and tensions. Particular historical examples of unitary states have been specifically designed to create national unity and end ethnic conflict by merging rival ethnic identities into one homogenous state identity. The French republic, with its state organisation as ‘instruments of unity’ (Lacoste, 1997) aimed at standardisation and uniformity as introduced after the 1789 revolution, is perhaps the most well known example of the unitary state as instrument of ethnic homogeneity. However, to regard all unitary states as such would be a simplification, and unitary states can be contexts for the recognition and accommodation of ethnic differences too.

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