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Federalism offers strong salve for ethnic conflict

EU official, Giuliano Amato, was among the speakers Keystone Archive

The threat of ethnic conflict hangs over many multicultural societies.

This content was published on August 30, 2002 - 17:36

The extent to which federalism can point the way to peaceful coexistence has been one of the main themes at the international conference on federalism in St Gallen.

Federalism is by no means a global panacea for the world's problems, says University of Melbourne professor, and a speaker at the conference, Cheryl Saunders. But it can be part if the solution.

"If you have a state divided between two cultural communities, you need to think creatively about how to give those groups some sort of ownership of the state," she told swissinfo.

"Look at Sri Lanka or Cyprus - at the end of the day there has to be a federal-type solution to reconciling the countries' internal differences."

Only part of the process

Federalism by itself cannot provide all the answers, although it goes a long way to resolving many of the ethnic differences in multicultural societies.

Political scientist, and a delegate to the conference, Wolf Linder says another key ingredient is shared interests among all sides concerned.

"Different sectors of society need to have common interests and projects," he says. "If they don't, there's no possibility of federalism succeeding."

Zdravko Mlovcic, the coordinator of the Enterprise and Development Agency in Bosnia-Herzegovina, says a "common goal" between Croats, Bosnians and Serbs has been important in securing the future political stability of his country.

While adapting other models of federalism from Switzerland, the United States or the European Union has played a part in the process, Mlovcic says his country still has to establish its own workable brand of federalism.

"We are in a critical period because nobody is completely satisfied with the distribution of power," he says.

"Federalism has not been imported as a magic solution, but rather to address the problem of how we get along with each other."

Alternative answers

But federalism is not always the only way forward for a country as it tries to leave the conflicts of the past behind.

There are alternatives. Saunders says South Africa is an example of a country that chose a different path although she concedes that the South African system is in many ways very close to federalism.

"The importance of establishing the principle of majority decision-making was so high in overcoming the problems of apartheid that it outweighed the establishment of a formal federal system."

Still the best solution

While federalism has not been part of the solution in South Africa, Mlovcic is adamant it has provided part of the answer to finding a viable political system for Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"The principle of power sharing between different groups is important," he says. "We tried an alternative - war - and now everyone is aware that we have no other choice."

Stability is still far from assured more than a decade after Yugoslavia fell apart, but progress is indisputable.

Mlovcic says good governance at all levels is vital, but it must be effective, efficient, transparent and less bureaucratic.

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

In brief

Over 500 delegates from more than 50 countries attended the four-day conference.

Keynote speakers included the Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien, the Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, the German president, Johannes Rau and India's defence minister, George Fernandes.

Over 40 per cent of the world's population live in federal states, where decentralised political structures play a key role in a number of policy areas.

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