Overcoming Ethnic Division in Iraq: A Practical Model from Europe

Overcoming Ethnic Division in Iraq: A Practical Model from Europe

The problem is that after the long strategic use of fostering ethnic conflicts by Saddam Hussein to maintain power, the real struggles will come out fully only after the transition of power.


 As most international observers have pointed out, among them Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld in The Washington Post, Adeed and Karen Dawisha in Foreign Affairs, and Zareed Fakaria in The Gazette, the problem of ethnic division in Iraq is increasing from day to day. With more than 20 languages spoken, 3 major ethnic groups (Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds) and at least 8 minor ethnic groups (Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Mandaens, Yezidis, Turkmen of Iraq, Iraqi Jews, orthodox Christians) mixed among the major groups, the management of ethnic divisions will indeed play a decisive role for the destiny of democratization.

The problem is that after the long strategic use of fostering ethnic conflicts by Saddam Hussein to maintain power, the real struggles will come out fully only after the transition of power to the first elected Iraqi self-administration in June. In the meantime, we see the first clear signs that the struggle between ethnic groups in Iraq has already begun. For example, the Sunnis have formed - for the first time ever - their own united national ethnic council to confront the other ethnic groups in the forthcoming struggle for power; and the Kurds have asked for a far reaching regional autonomy.  Ethnic confrontation, due to the bloody oppression by Saddam, will become virulent without any progress or learning experience in the past decades; that means it will start at a point where it was "ended" artificially more than 40 years ago.


The past decades have shown us that cultural and ethnical struggles are always "deep" struggles: that means they easily run out of control, because they deal with value systems, traditions and beliefs. Their solution requires a rise in collective consciousness and awareness, which is very hard to achieve once they have begun causing victims. So the decisive point will be to find systemic institutional solutions before ethnic conflicts will break out openly and on a larger scale as, for example, pogroms between Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds in Northern Iraq have been in the last months of 2003.

Despite the repeated warnings of Samuel Huntington and others, many are still not aware that most of the current conflicts in the World are the result of struggles between different cultural and ethnic groups or between national minority groups in dispute with the majority groups within their state. The fiasco in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s is only one - although the best known - example of the world-wide increase in separatist nationalism.

So how to deal with the forthcoming ethnic conflicts in Iraq? How to guarantee that Iraq will no longer be in the hands of one or two ethnic groups, but all citizens in its territory? And, most important of all: are there concrete, tried solution models that we can rely on?

Local self-administration, as suggested in most comments, will not be the magic solution to ethnic tensions, especially not in those regions where ethnic groups live mixed on a relatively small space like in northern and north-eastern Iraq.

The European Union has also managed a reduction of problems in some parts of Yugoslavia which have had historically fervent ethnic tensions. The best example for the positive handling of ethnic divisions found in Europe is the unique regional autonomy of the province of South Tyrol in northern Italy.

South Tyrol is a little area approximately the size of New York City along the mountainous alpine border between Italy, Austria and Switzerland. With a total population of 450,000, it has a high degree of political and cultural autonomy, and its model presents a working and practical solution to multi-ethnic co-existence. Here, the German speakers are the majority (69%) and have the majority in the provincial parliament, which disposes of an autonomous legislative and executive power. Italian state population amounts to 27%, and a third ethnic group, the Ladins, represent 4%. The primary competences of the provincial government include: the organization of provincial authorities and their staff, the obligation to bilingualism for all public employees, the protection and care for historical, artistic and ethnic values, provincial planning and building directives, conservation of the landscape, community easements, trades and crafts, fairs and markets, mining (including mineral and thermal waters), hunting, shooting and fishing, alpine agriculture, roads and public works, communication and transport, tourism and catering industry, agriculture and forestry, public care and welfare. There are special measures to protect and preserve the various languages (German, Italian and the ancient raetoromanic Ladin) and the different cultures; most important, the province of South Tyrol has separate school systems for the three language groups. The province furthermore spends a substantial amount of money on German, Italian and Ladin cultural activities. In order to ensure the independent cultural development of each linguistic group, each has its own administrative and organizational domain: that means that there are three parallel cultural ministries, one for each group, which are completely independent from each other and receive their part of the tax revenues according to the number of population they represent. Nevertheless there are a number of areas, for example, in music and art, where close cooperation between all three linguistic groups results in mutual enrichment. The Italian ethnic group cooperates closely with other Italian provinces and regions, while the German ethnic group maintains active contacts with the German cultural world.

"Three things are important to us: the parity of the German and Italian languages before the courts, the ethnic representation system in the public sector and the provision of mother language television programs" says Mr. Bruno Hosp, the South Tyrol Provincial Minister for Culture and Science of the German and Ladin ethnic groups, and his Italian colleague, Luigi Cigolla, Minister for the Italian group, agrees. Furthermore, over 90% of the tax revenue generated in the Province is returned by the Italian government to the Province, and spending within the region is controlled by the locally elected parliament. South Tyroleans receive different color identity cards than those of other Italians and the street signs and other public communications are bilingual.

In addition, the United Nations plays an important role for the South Tyrol autonomy. They made available legal mechanisms to the South Tyrolese to ensure Italy complies with international treaties affecting the region, and require that Italy consult formally or informally with other members of the UN and the European Union before taking any action which may affect regional autonomy. The result is that the Italians cannot forbid the use of German (as they did under fascism in the 1920s) and cannot create economic projects to persuade Italian speakers to come to the provinces thereby possibly weakening the minority culture. Italy must, moreover, consult with other states and abide by treaties signed with the minority groups or risk alienation by the European Union which is something that neither country can afford for economic reasons. The former member of the European Parliament Ria Oomen-Rujiten from the Netherlands represents the opinion of many other international politicians and experts - among them representatives of the Chechens and the Dalai Lama, who not only came to study this model for Tibetan autonomy purposes, but sent his collaborators for in-depth studies for a longer period and is among the leaders of different countries who seek systemic counselling from South Tyrol.  She contends that "South Tyrol, after a violent past of ethnic division, today is the best example for the peaceful co-existence of different ethnic groups which we have in Europe."

The success of the South Tyrol model, in contrast to the devastation that has accompanied other ethnic conflicts, reveals that it is a good example of autonomous integrated regional organization between different cultural and ethnic groups on a micro-scale. Can these arrangements be copied and succeed in Iraq, or at least help as an inspiration and orientation for the co-existence of the three bigger ethnic groups with the eight smaller ones?

The best solution in Iraq, as it can be seen today, will be federalization between the three bigger ethnic groups with regional autonomies following the South Tyrol model for the smaller ethnic groups. But you could also think of some basic aspects from the South Tyrol model taken for the whole of Iraq, such as differentiated regional tax autonomy, distribution of money according to percentages of ethnic population, guarantees for ethnic representation in the local and state parliaments and systematic cultural cross-border cooperation as an alternative to ethnic separatism. Furthermore, in areas with a high interdependence of different ethnic groups, it may be wise to install parallel cultural and school administrations, and give national and international guarantees for cultural autonomy. Concerning all these proposals, the South Tyrol autonomy should not be seen as a model to copy, but as an example of concrete success that can help to find appropriate, original local solutions in Iraq according to the practical needs of every single situation.

As many observers point out, the American democracy model of the "melting pot" alone may indeed not be prepared best for dealing with the "deep", complex ethnic divisions we find in current Iraq. Maybe it warrants to try cooperation from the European experience. The South Tyrol model is one option. The US administration should study it. In the end - there is nothing to loose, only to win.