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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


International Law and Ethnic Conflict
Edited by David Wippman

(Cornell University Press, 1998)
Hb.: $39.90/29.50; ISBN 0-8014-3433-5.



Horrific human rights abuses, crucial questions of self-determination, and a greater willingness by external states and international organizations to intervene in ethnic conflicts make the issue of the relationship between international law and ethnic conflict quite pregnant in the post-Cold War period. This edited volume addresses a wide range of subjects from the legal theory behind the international law of nationalism and self-determination; to practical matters such as applications of the 1949 Genocide Convention, the involvement of international organizations in ethnic conflicts, internal political structures, refugees, and citizenship.

If one is looking for a reference book on the tenets of international law and their application to ethnic conflicts, this is not it. Instead, the essays in this volume largely take the legal realist position (not to be confused with political realism) which strives to go beyond treaties, conventions, and other international texts and injects into the law the conceptual framework, beliefs, desires, and prejudices of the international lawyers themselves. Although most of the articles take widely accepted law as their starting place, they take an expansive view on what international law should proscribe or guarantee. Some of the prescriptions seem to go too far and lack firm political grounding; nevertheless, they will spark debate.

The book is divided into two main parts: ethno-nationalism and legal theory; and institutional and policy responses to ethnic conflict. The second is far more practically minded than the first; though even in the second section, some of the articles are less applications of law than proposals for new law or new applications (e.g., Ruth Wedgwood's argument for prohibiting the use of force within states). In terms of legal theory, the articles by Lea Brilmayer, Fernando Teson, and Anne-Marie Slaughter seem to belong more in the realm of philosophy, but have definite relevance to which groups are awarded with sovereign statehood and why. Nathaniel Berman's historical approach to the (still developing) international law of nationalism is fascinating and enlightening. Steven Ratner's examination of where to draw borders is among the best in the volume. David Wippman's introduction and Tom Farer's conclusion nicely frame the relevant debates and provide some coherence to the project, though focus essays preceding each section should have been included.

Overall, this is a good book by the top international legal scholars. The less theoretical chapters are appropriate for undergraduates, but the book seems more designed for graduate students and professionals in the fields of international law and ethnic conflicts.


Thomas Ambrosio
Western Kentucky University




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