5.4.6   Avoiding Ethnic Conflict

As described in the previous chapter, there is a potential for conflict between different ethnic communities in a pluralist society (4.4.5).  Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century, and numerous more recent conflicts in the Middle East, are just some examples of how dangerous it is to let ethnic conflict get out of hand.  The law can play a part in preventing that from happening:

·     People’s human right to freedom of worship ( can be guaranteed.

·     Equal treatment of all ethnic groups can be legally enforced, to avoid the inevitable resentment caused by discrimination.

·     Violence, incitement to violence, or the threat of it, can all be prohibited.    

The role of the law is more complicated, though, when it comes to free speech.  The previous section (5.4.5) identified several legal constraints on freedom of speech, to prevent people from causing direct harm to each other, but some forms of divisiveness are likely to foment ethnic tensions in the future – even though it cannot be proved that any individual person has been harmed at the time.  Free speech, although necessary for resolving ethnic tensions, can also create them (4.4.6). 

A desire for freedom of speech must be balanced against the desire for a peaceful society.  If the law is to be used to counter ethnic conflict, it must be clearly definable, it must be enforceable, and it must avoid suppressing constructive criticism.  There are at least three categories of speech which might be thought to meet these criteria:

·     Defamation of a belief or all its adherents can be prohibited (  Several countries have blasphemy laws.

·     It is also possible to ban the circulation of lies with intent to defame an ethnic group (, or at least to require an explicit acknowledgment of the doubtful nature of material being circulated. 

·     Preaching intolerance is comparable to incitement (

(This is an archive of a page intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  The latest versions are at book contents).