Press Releases

    DSG/SM/125
    16 March 2001

    DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL NOTES SPECIAL PROBLEMS POSED BY ETHNIC CONFLICTS, IN OPENING REMARKS TO SEMINAR ON ALAND ISLANDS SETTLEMENT

    NEW YORK, 15 March (UN Headquarters) -- Following are the remarks of Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frèchette to the seminar on "The Aland Islands as an Example for Peaceful Governance" in New York on 15 March:

    The last decade has seen a resurgence of conflicts with ethnic or regional roots. As conflicts based on rival social or class ideologies have faded, those based on a sharpened and often exclusive sense of group identity have proliferated.

    This kind of politics poses special problems in States where peoples of different ethnic identity live side by side. In recent years, it has led to the fragmentation of several such States, and the appearance of separatist movements in many others, along with some of the most brutal fighting since the creation of the United Nations. We have all had to learn the odious expression "ethnic cleansing".

    The United Nations has been engaged, and will continue to be engaged, together with other organizations, in the search for solutions to conflicts of this nature. Where we can, we are working to prevent conflict; and where conflict has already occurred we are working to build peace, in many fragmented societies around the world.

    It is perhaps not too pretentious to say that we are in search of a global strategy for managing and cherishing human diversity. The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which we are holding this September, will be an important occasion for making progress in that search. And indeed, it should be a source of encouragement for all of us, after the long and bitter struggle against apartheid, that that Conference is being held in a free, multi-racial South Africa.

    Certainly, ethnic conflict is not a new phenomenon. Past ages have had to cope with it, and our search for ways of managing diversity should range widely in time, as well as space. We should be especially attentive to examples of disputes that have been settled successfully, without resort to violence, population transfer, or the break-up of States.

    The case of the Aland Islands comes readily to mind. The settlement reached under the auspices of the League of Nations, predecessor of the United Nations, has now lasted 80 years, and is no longer seriously questioned by any party.

    It averted a potential conflict between Finland and Sweden by preserving the territorial integrity of both countries, while allowing the Islanders to preserve their autonomy and the specific character of their community.

    The people of that time created an imaginative model, which promoted the coexistence of different linguistic communities within a larger, internationally viable State. The Aland Islands model is a highly sophisticated one, well worth examining in detail, with an eye on the conflicts of our own time to which this or that aspect of the autonomy formula might be applied.

    Among the elements particularly worth noting, I would mention the following:

    • Autonomy is not a one-step process, but constantly evolving;
    • Autonomy works better in conditions of economic freedom and prosperity;
    • It is easier to build confidence between communities when neither side is armed, and military forces are kept out of the area;
    • A political agreement -- even one that leaves all parties less than fully satisfied -- is more solid when it has a clearly defined legal basis, such as that provided in this case by the League of Nations; and
    • Most important of all, political conflicts do not have to lead to war. Another way can always be found when leaders and peoples on both sides understand, as those of Finland and Sweden did in 1921, how disastrous war would be.

    Later this afternoon Professor Woodward will be telling you whether the Aland example can bring peace to the Balkans today. Without trespassing too much on her subject, I will venture to suggest that by itself it cannot. I doubt if there is anywhere in the Balkans where the model as a whole could be simply transposed.

    But there may well be places in the Balkans, and well beyond the Balkans, where an understanding of what has been achieved in the Aland Islands, combined with many other elements, would make ethnic differences easier to manage. Perhaps the most important lesson the Aland example teaches us is that flexibility and imagination are always needed in applying general principles to particular situations. And certainly any zone of conflict could benefit from a dose of what I might call the Aland spirit -- a spirit of pragmatism, compromise, imagination and, above all, commitment to peace.

    It is in that spirit that I wish you all a very fruitful discussion, and look forward to hearing your conclusions.

    * *** *