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Intergovernmental Organizations and International Governance of Migration and Ethnic Politics

Summary and Keywords

An intergovernmental organization, or international organization (IO), is an organization composed primarily of sovereign states (referred to as member states), or of other intergovernmental organizations. They are important aspects of public international law. IOs are established by a treaty that acts as a charter creating the group, and these treaties are formed when lawful representatives (governments) of several states go through a ratification process, providing the IO with an international legal personality. IOs also take part in issues regarding migration and the prevention of ethnic conflicts. Scholars create a general criterion in defining “politically significant” ethnic groups that can be used to help bring into focus ethnicity in regard to IO involvement. Only the groups that have suffered or benefited from discrimination and have been politically mobilized are included in this criterion. This standard is beneficial when considering IOs as they will only become involved in ethnic group/state relations for groups such as these. Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is an intergovernmental organization that provides services and advice concerning migration to governments and migrants, including internally displaced persons, refugees, and migrant workers. From its roots as an operational logistics agency, the IOM has widened its scope to become the leading international agency working with governments and civil society to advance the understanding of migration issues, encourage social and economic development through migration, and uphold the human dignity and well-being of migrants.

Keywords: intergovernmental organizations, international organization, migration, ethnic politics, international law, ethnic groups, migrants, economic development


The twentieth century will be remembered for many things. The rise and fall of both fascism and communism, the development of democracy, and the rise of the global village are only a few such examples. Somewhat lost in our understanding of politics in the last century is the decline of the role of the state in world politics. State sovereignty declined throughout the century while citizens’ expectations on the state increased. States were faced with the compounding problems of sovereignty being eroded both from below, through the explosion of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and from above, through the development of international organizations (IOs). Only a few scholars have truly explored this phenomenon and have questioned how we can “bring the state back in” (Evans et al. 1985). This essay will only focus on one half of the decline of state sovereignty issue, that being the power of international organizations. IOs continue to increase their scope and influence. They are being asked to do more in world politics and they are changing what states can and cannot do. There are no better illustrations of this newfound power than the influence IOs now have on the prevention and management of ethnic conflict, and in the field of migration. Both of these issues have long been the sole domain of the nation-state. The state has fought hard to maintain control over how it deals with both internal matters involving minorities and with the movement of people across its borders. We now see that even these priorities for states are moving outside of their spheres of influence. There is an expectation by migrants and ethnic groups that IOs should become involved in these issues around the world. By understanding the influence IOs have on these specific issues we see exactly how much sovereignty has already been lost by the state. If states have lost influence on matters within and across their borders, it may be too late to bring them back into the discussion as equal players with IOs.

This essay will examine what we in International Relations know about the role of international organizations in ethnic conflict prevention and migration. To do so the essay will be broken into three parts. It will first provide an overview of what we have learned in the discipline in regard to international organizations and ethnic conflict. To further understand the impact of IOs on ethnic conflicts a case study of four groups will be analyzed. Here, the role of the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s High Commissioner on National Minorities during the late 1990s and early twenty-first century will be examined. What is interesting in the case studies is that we are able to see what influences IOs have both when they become involved in a conflict and when they choose not to become involved. The case studies will rely on interviews taken in 2003 with those were involved or influenced by the High Commissioner. The year 2003 was an ideal period in which to speak to those involved in that this is when it is generally agreed the High Commissioner was coming to an end of his period of influence in Eastern Europe. The case studies also illustrate the type of work that needs to be done in order to further our understanding of the topic in academia. Second, the essay will address what we have learned about the role of international organizations in terms of migration. Finally, the essay will illustrate where IOs’ influence in these areas may be headed. It will also show how the somewhat disparate issues of migration and ethnic conflict will meld into one another over time. As noted, but it is important to reiterate, due to the basic truth that the European Union (EU) is the most advanced and intrusive IO in the world, the majority of the study will focus on EU-specific studies. This chapter will help identify the theoretical, normative, and analytical work that has occurred to this point which will provide the roadmap for research that is yet to be done.

A Brief Word on International Organizations, Ethnic Conflict, and Migration

Before any analysis of the development of the discipline can occur it is necessary to define and discuss some of the most relevant concepts and terms. In regard to ethnic conflict, two issues are problematic: what is an ethnic group and what constitutes conflict? As Gurr explains: “No International Organization certifies, counts or records statistics on communal groups, partly because the groups are difficult to define and observe, partly because their existence often is denied or their significance minimized by state elites” (Gurr 1993:5). This leaves the definition of the group up to the state, the group, and the IO. Simply, groups that are politically organized enough to be a factor in the state and are recognized by IOs constitute an ethnic group. Traditional criteria for an ethnic group include common language, homeland, culture, and belief. It is important to note that not all groups have every one of these traits, rather some combination thereof. Gurr uses two general criteria in defining “politically significant” ethnic groups that can be used to help bring into focus ethnicity in regard to IO involvement. For Gurr, while there are many national or ethnic groups, only groups that have suffered or benefited from discrimination and been politically mobilized are categorized in his Minorities at Risk data set discussed below (Gurr 1993; 2000). This standard is useful when considering IOs as they will only become involved in ethnic group/state relations for groups such as these.

Having defined politically significant ethnic groups, the next question is: what constitutes ethnic conflict? Ethnic conflict does not simply mean overt political violence. Again, it is useful to turn to Gurr and the Minorities at Risk (MAR) project for guidance. MAR defines ethnic conflict as both protest and rebellion ( It is in its most severe form open civil war or terrorism. However, it can also consist of mobilization through the political system, peaceful protests, etc. Any way in which a group expresses its concerns over its treatment within a state constitutes some form of ethnic conflict. The reason is simple: a protest today can be a riot tomorrow. A political party can quickly become a terrorist organization and vice versa. States and IOs must identify when problems are arising and how quickly they may escalate when determining when and how to react.

The term “migration” is simply defined but can be broken down into various typologies. The most basic definition of a migrant is someone who has moved from one country to another with the intention of staying in that new country (see The question then becomes: did the individual move there willingly (economic migrant, migrant worker, etc.) or unwillingly (refugee, asylum seeker, trafficked person). IOs are involved in all of these forms of migration but the ramifications for the individual and the receiving state are obviously very different and must be acknowledged.

The final issue that must be addressed is that of international organizations themselves. While there are dozens of IOs around the world, it difficult to provide a functional definition that is not overly simplistic. Clearly, all IOs are creations of states in order to accomplish a particular goal, whether it is militaristic (NATO), economic (NAFTA), issue-specific (Arctic Council or, as discussed below, the International Organization on Migration), or regional (European Union, African Union). States create these IOs and choose what role they will play in International Relations. It is important to understand the specific mandates the IO is given as this will determine what role they will play on issues surrounding ethnic conflict or migration. The two most discussed IOs in both the discipline as a whole and therefore this essay are the EU and the UN. These two organizations have vastly different mandates and charters. The UN, for example, is as Thakur (2006:9) notes, “the only truly global institution of a general purpose which approximates universality.” Its mandate is to be the “custodian of collective legitimacy […] through its resolutions, to articulate authoritative standards of state behaviour” (ibid.). Its various agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, are given direction through the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council while large-scale peacekeeping and enforcement is handled through the Security Council. This division of labor gives the larger voting block of poorer countries more say on some issues and the five permanent members of the Security Council power on others. At all times, however, states have total authority over the actions of the UN and its agencies. This is a very different mandate and power structure than the European Union. The EU is not a peace and security organization; rather, it is political and economic in nature. Issues surrounding minorities and migrants were not a part of the original mandate and, as such, the EU has had to adapt more radically than the UN to these pressing concerns. The EU does have the advantage of being able to enforce laws and directives on its membership more independently than the UN. As this brief discussion indicates, it is important to understand both the power and mandate given to an IO when evaluating its role on these issues.

IOs and Ethnic Conflict

Since the issue of ethnic conflict has traditionally been the sole domain of the state, much of our scholarly discussion on the issues has also focused there. What is missed in such an analysis is the impact that world opinion and international diplomacy can have. Brubaker (1996:55), for example, discusses what he calls a triadic relationship that dominates nationalism and ethnic conflict in Europe. This relationship is composed of (1) the naturalizing state (majority nationalism), (2) national minorities, and (3) the diaspora. For Brubaker all three of these forces work against each other and pull the state in various directions. What is missing from this analysis is the role of the international community. This fourth factor could also be seen as pulling the state toward certain choices, but Brubaker chooses to ignore this particular factor in his analysis. Those who do incorporate the international community are more often interested in issues of international intervention in terms of other states taking sides in an ethnic conflict. Saideman (2001) provides a clear example of this type of study. He examines how states decide whom to support in an ethnic conflict. He finds that domestic factors, such as ethnic ties with one of the participants in a conflict can help predict when a state will intervene and whom they will support if an intervention takes place (see also Gottlieb 1993). When addressing not the international community as a whole but instead IOs and direct intervention, much of what we know is focused on the difficulties faced by the various organizations. Esman and Telhami, and others within their edited volume (1995), look at the impact of the United Nations in particular (but not exclusively) on conflicts in both the former Yugoslavia and in Lebanon. Telhami notes that in both cases IOs faced two key limitations in their ability to intervene in an ethnic conflict: first, there is a lack of state cooperation in a world of state sovereignty; and, second, IOs lack the capability to effectively intervene in conflicts (1995:292–3). Telhami also observes that “the UN and other IOs have been relatively successful at peace keeping, economic sanctions, humanitarian relief, and good offices, but less successful at peace enforcement and peace making” (1995:299). Diehl echoes this assessment of particular regional organizations, which he describes as “ill suited” for most of the work necessary for direct intervention (Diehl 2003:74). He does contend, however, that in some circumstances regional organizations may be able to have an impact in preventing further conflict in that they have more to lose if the conflict escalates and regional organizations carry increased legitimacy in the eyes of the participants in the conflict (ibid.). Lindley also notes that IOs often lack “military capability and military clout” (1996:537). Further, Lindley identifies a crucial factor: quite simply it “is hard to mobilize international responses when borders have not been violated” (1996:538). It is easier for peacekeepers to be mobilized, or economic sanctions implemented, when one state infringes on another state’s sovereignty. Internal matters are just that, internal. The states that constitute the United Nations or any other regional organization are unlikely to interfere with the internal matters of a state simply because they themselves do not want the same treatment at a later point if their minorities become violent. The lack of collective will by the United Nations in the interventions into Bosnia, Croatia, and Somalia are unfortunate illustrations of Lindley’s point.

Lastly, international organizations have been limited in their capability of strict intervention or sanction due to internal political pressure and larger international moral issues. We can see this illustrated in an actual successful case of IO intervention, the NATO peacekeeping mission to Kosovo. Pavkovic (2003) argues that in most countries there is an inherent discomfort in having an IO carry out activities where they are potentially killing people. He argues that it is necessary for the IO to prove that the deaths of civilians in particular must be justified as being necessary and that “the deaths of the innocents may reasonably be expected to save more lives than it terminates” (Pavkovic 2003:54). Moreover, actions that may kill innocents must be a result of the IO having no other option available to it. Pavkovic argues that neither of these two conditions was met by NATO in the Kosovo campaign, and this has led to criticism of the mission (2003:68). Pavkovic’s argument presents a “catch-22” for IOs attempting to intervene in ethnic conflicts. On the one hand, they are criticized if they sit back and do nothing – as seen with the criticism of the UN in Rwanda and Croatia. On the other hand, if they do intervene, there is a high likelihood that they will kill innocent people, provoking outrage and making the success of the mission difficult – as seen with Kosovo. In the end it may be this dichotomy in conjunction with the above-mentioned issue of state sovereignty that best explains the relative failure of both international and regional IOs in the field of direct intervention.

There has been less emphasis on the role of international organizations in preventing ethnic conflict. Schnabel (2002) provides one such analysis. The author suggests that there should be an emphasis by the international community on “multilateral and multitrack applications of applied conflict prevention strategies” and that they need to “converge and be harmonized in order to facilitate coordination between different actors” (2002:230). Schnabel notes that historically the international community has been unwilling to become involved in conflict prevention because states have been busy trying to stop conflicts that have already degenerated into violence. The public is more concerned with ending active conflicts than preventing future ones as the results are easier to quantify. Put simply, there is public pressure on IOs to focus on conflict resolution rather than conflict prevention. Betts (2001) provides a more critical analysis of international intervention. He contends that it is not possible for international organizations to be completely impartial when they intervene in a state. When interventions attempt to be impartial they result in causing more harm than any good resulting from the intervention. Jenne (2004) also is concerned with intervention, but in her case she is concerned with the perception by minority groups of the possibility of intervention by an outside state. Using game theory she argues that minority groups are likely to become more aggressive in their negotiations when they believe they have outside support. Conversely, when they are thought to be isolated they tone down their demands in negotiations.

This role of providing mediation is one where many IOs may be showing signs of improvement. While Diehl has criticized IOs for being inefficient in direct intervention, he does contend that many have recently shown a greater willingness to become involved in mediation. He cites the change in strategies used by the Organization for African Unity (OAU), which was a failure when attempting intervention, versus its replacement, the African Union (AU). The AU has been proactive in entering into mediation with states and recognizing the need to monitor groups to prevent terrorism (Diehl 2007:538). He also notes that, by far, the European organizations (the OSCE and the EU) are well ahead of the curve in this regard. Hayward and Wiener (2008) pick up this idea and illustrate the success of the European Union in pushing for and maintaining a ceasefire in Northern Ireland. They illustrate that while the EU as currently mandated may lack the ability to influence conflicts through compulsion, the Northern Ireland example proves that their “enabling” and “connective” ability allows for negotiated settlements (2008:61).

It may be puzzling why so little attention has been placed on the largest of the international organizations, the United Nations. The answer has more to do with the UN itself, as opposed to the scholars in the field. The UN simply does not make a distinction between internal ethnic conflicts and conflict in general. The Security Council has addressed these two very different issues using the same remedies. Adding ethnic conflicts and, in the extreme cases, genocide to the peacekeeping portfolio was seen as simply a new “generation” of peacekeeping, not a new role for the UN in ethnic conflicts specifically (Thakur 2006:39). This has often led to disastrous implications for the peacekeeping missions (see, for example, Jones 2007). As the purpose of this essay is to understand IOs’ influence on ethnic conflicts specifically, the peacekeeping and other Chapter 6 and 7 cases of intervention by the UN are of little relevance and will not be discussed.

There has been a general agreement that international institutions have had a particularly useful role on minority issues in Eastern Europe. As Kymlicka notes, “Western organizations clearly have the ability to impose enormous pressure” (2001:370), and as a result many case studies that do deal with the international communities’ conflict prevention role have concentrated on Eastern Europe. The organizations of Europe, as opposed to those found elsewhere in the world, have both carrot and sticks to influence both the state and the minority group. They have political clout, they have economic resources, and they have the organizational structures necessary to undertake such work. They are older, more established, and more powerful than any other IO, outside of the UN. Wohlfeld goes so far as to describe the OSCE as “the regional organization with the most advanced conflict prevention mechanisms and impressive conflict prevention experience” (2004:167). Due to this regional emphasis, many of the case studies focus on the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and particularly the High Commissioner on National Minorities (for example Chandler 1994; Czáky 2001; Daag 2001; Neukirch 2002; Rönquist 1994) or the European Union (for example Poleshchuk 2001a; 2001b; Keating and McGarry 2001; Eavis and Kefford 2002; Cameron 2004). Interestingly, much of the literature concerning the impact of the various international organizations comes from the organizations themselves. Not surprisingly, the literature that comes from the IOs themselves is rather glowing in its assessments of the impact of their organization. The OSCE, for example, describes the High Commissioner on National Minorities as a conflict prevention tool that should be active as quickly as possible “so that ideally there would never be an early warning of imminent conflict, let alone a need to engage in conflict management” (Foundation on Inter-Ethnic Relations 1997:26; see also Holt 2001; Kemp 2001). The job of truly assessing both the good and the potential harm these organizations have done in Europe has fallen to others. While it cannot be denied that the two organizations have been effective in the prevention of conflict, particularly in Eastern Europe (see Bernier 2001), the rosy assessment of the EU and the OSCE must be mitigated by an understanding that the short-term gain of ethnic peace in Eastern Europe may in fact lead to more conflict in both eastern and western Europe at a later point due to the double standard created by these organizations’ involvement in the conflicts (Johns 2003). In order to fully understand what impact these IOs had on ethnic relations, not just within eastern Europe but by extension Europe as a whole, it is necessary to look at specific cases of both intervention and the lack of intervention.

The Cases

Estonia and Latvia: International Attention Overload

Post–1991 Russia and the OSCE

Due to these states’ geographic proximity to Scandinavia and the precarious position in which they found themselves in relation to Russia, the international community was quick to embrace the new Baltic States after 1991. The first international organization involved in the Baltic States was the Conference on the Security and Cooperation in Europe, the CSCE (later the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE). The CSCE first arrived in 1993. Their presence came in two forms, the first was permanent missions in Latvia and Estonia, and the second was the visits by the High Commissioner on National Minorities.

The High Commissioner position was established in 1993 with Dutch diplomat Max Van der Stoel the first incumbent. After agreeing to accept the position Van der Stoel found that the Commissioner’s mandate was extremely vague on how to decrease ethnic tensions within CSCE countries to prevent future conflict. His exact mandate resulting from the 1992 CSCE Helsinki Summit was:

The High Commissioner will provide “early warning” and, as appropriate “early action” at the earliest possible stage in regard to tensions involving national minority issues, which have not yet developed beyond an early warning stage, but, in the judgment of the High Commissioner, have the potential to develop into conflict within the CSCE area, affecting peace, stability or relations between participating states.

(Zellner 2002:19)

The only limitation on the position was that he could not travel to areas where there were active campaigns of terrorism. His work was to be based on two principles: secrecy (which he soon abandoned) and impartiality (risking what Betts predicted) (Jackson Preece 1998:151). He decided that the places where the mandate allowed him to go and where he could make the greatest impact at that time were Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, and Hungary. In Estonia and Latvia the areas he was most active in addressing were citizenship and language laws. As Bernier notes: “The High Commissioner made it clear, from the beginning of his involvement, that the path taken by both countries to secure the ‘privileged position’ of the core group over minorities not only ran against international norms, but also disrupted internal social cohesion” (2001:343). It was this danger of a disruption of social cohesion that led Van der Stoel to Estonia and, although there was no actual violence, the situation was critical. He felt that two things needed to be done immediately: “calm the Russians down, and change the laws” on language and citizenship requirements (Van der Stoel, interview, Jun. 26, 2003, The Hague). His first trip as High Commissioner was to the Baltic States in January 1993, and when he returned he produced a list of recommendations to decrease the level of ethnic tension in Estonia and Latvia (Lithuania did not have many of the problems found in the other two Baltic States). In Estonia the central recommendation was “for the Estonian Government to show a clear intention to reduce the number of stateless persons through naturalization” (Kemp 2001:141).

Fueled by his success in encouraging amendments to the Law on Aliens in Estonia and the continuing threat to peace and stability in the region, Van der Stoel made repeated trips to the two countries over the next few years, but over time the novelty of international attention began to wear off and the reality set in that there was still a great deal of work to be done. At this point the relationship between the states and the High Commissioner changed and Van der Stoel was put in the awkward position of being disliked and considered untrustworthy by both the majority and minority groups. The Estonians and Latvians saw him as an “agent of Moscow” and to the Russians he was not effective in bringing about the necessary changes quickly enough (Van der Stoel interview, 2003). It is possible that the High Commissioner’s effectiveness was in part due to this lack of support by both sides. While both sides claimed he was working for the other, they did have a common bond in their opinion of the High Commissioner. The High Commissioner needed to reassure the Russian community that he was listening to their concerns and would bring violations of their rights to the attention of the government but he also needed to constantly remind both the Russians and the Latvians and Estonians that his position was the High Commissioner on National Minorities, not for National Minorities. This meant that he was not an ombudsman for all of the Russians’ concerns and that he was interested in compromises and agreements.

Vadim Poleshchuk notes that the work of the High Commissioner can be broken down into several phases, with the first of these ending on August 31, 1994, when the last Russian troops left the region (Poleshchuk 2001b:18). After this departure, while the views and opinions of the Russian government remained important, the immediate concern for conflict was removed. After the troops left, for the most part Russia has not interfered in the affairs of either Estonia or Latvia.

The second period of influence by the High Commissioner was between 1994 and 1997. During the majority of this time the OSCE was still the only large international organization with a presence in the region. In 1996 the Council of Europe opened its permanent missions but until that point all international influence came from the OSCE permanent missions and the visits of the High Commissioner. In 1994 the High Commissioner was very active in the region, visiting both Estonia and Latvia several times, and his main issue of concern continued to be the citizenship laws, which were still very restrictive. Those who had been denied citizenship still needed to wait a lengthy period and then had to pass a difficult language proficiency test. During this time the rights of children born in the two countries to non-citizens were also pressed (see Driessen 1994). The High Commissioner, with the help of the permanent missions, was therefore successful in influencing the wording of legislation that was passed into law, and in many cases the missions and High Commissioner’s staff were active in actually writing the legislation that was being discussed in the legislature (Falk Lang, senior adviser to the High Commissioner (The Baltic States), interview, Jun. 26–7, 2003, The Hague).

By the end of this second phase the difficult negotiations on small technical issues had caused both the Estonian and Latvian governments to suffer what Kemp called “Van der Stoel fatigue,” and in Estonia the government “argued that as soon as one issue was addressed, another one was raised and that Estonia was being singled out for ‘violations’ that were significantly worse in other countries” (Kemp 2001:148). The High Commissioner’s mandate only allowed him to make recommendations; he did not have any influence to make a country do something it did not want to do, and the result was that by 1997 the governments of Estonia and Latvia began to ignore Van der Stoel. He needed to find another way to increase his influence and he found it in the form of another international organization, the European Union.

The EU and the Baltic States

By the middle to late 1990s the Baltic States were at a point in their development when they (1) believed that they did not need the assistance of the OSCE High Commission on National Minorities, and (2) were ready to move toward the rest of Europe by joining the European Union. Any thoughts that they could accomplish both evaporated quickly. Due to the history of the High Commissioner in the region he had become the leading authority on minority issues in the Baltic States as well as throughout eastern Europe. The result was that other international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union turned to the High Commissioner for advice and recommendations (Lang interview 2003). Most notably, when the EU decided to expand into eastern Europe, what the candidate countries were to be judged on was human rights, with a subsection on the treatment of minorities. As the process developed, each country would receive a yearly “Accession Report” that outlined what changes still needed to be made to meet EU requirements. As the ranking authority, the recommendations of the High Commissioner, that up to this point had been non-binding, now became part of the accession requirements. Instead of being in a situation where they could ignore the advice of the High Commissioner, the Estonian and Latvian governments were required to meet the standards that he set out, or risk being shut out of the European Union. The 1999 EU Accession report for Latvia is a clear example of the EU deferring to the High Commissioner and the OSCE in addressing minority rights. Despite the High Commissioner’s best efforts and attempts at persuasion, the citizenship laws were still not in compliance with his recommendations. The tests to gain citizenship were deemed too difficult, but the Latvian government was unwilling to compromise further until the following section appeared in the 1999 Accession Report: “A last issue to be addressed in this context concerns a further simplification of the citizenship test on Latvian history, and the constitution in accordance with the recommendations made by the OSCE” (EU Accession Report – Latvia 1999; see also Johns 2003). Both the Latvians and the Estonians now faced the possibility of being denied access to the European Union and the economic and security stability that went with membership if they did not change their laws to comply with the High Commissioner’s recommendations, thus lowering the potential for ethnic conflict.

Corsica and the Basque Country: Left Out in the Cold

The Lack of International Attention

As early members of the European Union, neither France nor Spain was asked to make any changes to their laws concerning minorities in order to gain membership. The European Union currently does not have any institutional body with authority over minority issues. There is a court that handles cases involving human rights, but discrimination within states involving citizens or non-citizens does not fall under its jurisdiction. The EU’s first attempt at any form of influence on minority issues was the most recent round of accession reports. Prior to the potential entrance of states from Eastern Europe the EU had refrained from discussing minority rights. Therefore, any changes that could be recommended by an international organization such as the EU or the OSCE do not have the same potential threat behind it. Like the Russians in Estonia and Latvia, the Basques do place hope in the European Union as a possible way to break the current stalemate between themselves and the Spanish state. The Basques (and now, following their lead, the Catalans and other regional groups within Spain) have a permanent mission to the EU where they observe and comment on EU activities. While Spain’s membership in the EU has not paid any dividends for the Basques to this point, and there is nothing currently that the EU will be able to do for them, there is still a sense that the new European constitution may provide the mechanisms to increase their autonomy (Ibon Mendibelzva, adviser, press services, Basque Country delegation to the European Union, interview, Jul. 22, 2003, Brussels). The EU may be the only forum eventually capable of dealing with the Basque issue not because of the Basques who are seeking more autonomy (e.g., the Basque delegation to the EU) but due to the demands of the separatists. While the autonomists are looking for a solution to the problem in Spain, the separatists do not make the distinction between the French and Spanish sides of the border because they believe the Basque problem is an international one involving the Basques, the French, and the Spanish. If the violence continues it will be a “European problem” and will need to be addressed by Europeans (Esther Agirre, former Member of Parliament (Batasuna), interview, Aug. 19, 2003, Bilbao).

Despite this hope, the Basques currently have an overall negative view toward the EU. This is counter to the amount of support the EU enjoys in Spain generally and among non-Basques in the Basque region. Table 1 shows respondents from the Basque region’s satisfaction with the European Union by party preference. The table reflects the opinions in the Basque region in 2003, to maintain temporal consistency with the rest of the case study; however, the pattern continues to this day. Those who support either the conservative Popular Party (PP) or the Socialist Party (PSE-EE) have a much higher opinion of the European Union than those who support the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) or, particularly, Batasuna. PP and PSE-EE supporters tend to be either non-Basques living in the region or those who have no interest in Basque autonomy or separation. EAJ-PNV supporters favor an increase in the rights of the Basque people within Spain while the supporters of Batasuna support a separate Basque country comprising all seven Basque provinces in Spain and France. It is also interesting to note the large number of respondents from all political parties who do not know what to think of the European government.

Table 1 Satisfaction in the Basque Country with the European Union by party preference, May 2002

PP supporter (%)

PSE-EE supporter (%)

EAJ-PNV supporter (%)

Batasuna supporter (%)











Doesn’t know/doesn’t answer





Source: Sociological Survey Office, President of the Basque Government’s Office (2002:31).

The split between Basques and non-Basques is confirmed in Table 2, which breaks the same question down by how the respondents identify themselves: predominantly Basque, both Basque and Spanish, or predominantly Spanish. What these results confirm is the opinion of the former Batasuna Member of Parliament Esther Agirre that the majority of Basques follow closely what the European Union has been up to, but are either feeling ignored and dissatisfied or have reserved the right to pass judgment at a later time. If after the constitution is ratified the EU continues to ignore the Basque situation, then more of the undecided will move to the dissatisfied column. Most Basque autonomists and separatists are of the belief, however, that now that the EU has made changes in Eastern Europe there will be more attention placed on the minority issues of western Europe (Agirre interview, 2003).

Table 2 Satisfaction with the European Union on Spanish–Basque Axis, May 2002

Predominantly Basque (%)

Both Basque and Spanish (%)

Predominantly Spanish (%)









Doesn’t know/doesn’t answer




Source: Sociological Survey Office, President of the Basque Government’s Office (2002:31).

The Corsicans find themselves in a very similar position to that of the Basques. The French government has made it very clear that the relationship between itself and the Corsicans is an internal matter. France is willing to allow international organizations (such as the OSCE) to come to the island and monitor elections and referendums to ensure they are fair, but it will not allow any outside mediation or interference (Frederic de Touchet, political adviser, Permanent Mission of France to the OSCE, interview, Jul. 28, 2003, Vienna). The President of North Corsica, Paul Giacobbi explains the French government’s position on the possibility of international assistance to solve the Corsica problem as: “If 200 countries do something one way France would assume that the 200 were wrong and it was right” (telephone interview, Aug. 7, 2003). Despite not having a permanent mission like the Basques, the Corsicans have had a little more success in using the EU. The EU has helped shape the Corsican conflict and it is now seen as a struggle over sovereignty. As the EU increases its “federalization” of Europe, there are opportunities for “positive sum” negotiations. Prior to this the conflict was shaped in win–loss terms. There has also been an opportunity for Corsica to work with the other Mediterranean islands on issues inside the EU (Letamendia and Loughlin 2000). It has been argued that the European Union’s Peace programs designed for conflicts elsewhere in Europe could be a model for Corsica, but that would require France’s capitulation and this is unlikely.

We see through a deeper examination of these cases how exactly IOs can have influence on ethnic conflicts. Intervention can take many forms. The traditional peacekeeping or mediation normally associated with the work of the United Nations can be replaced by behind the scenes negotiations and in some cases, when available, making minority rights a condition of membership. By using a combination of carrots, sticks, and backroom discussions, the HCNM and the EU were able to ease ethnic tensions in Eastern Europe. By preventing conflict, they removed the necessity for military or economic intervention. What the cases also illustrate is the importance international attention plays in the decision making of ethnic groups. The Corsicans and Basques put their faith in the EU and were rebuffed. Much of their continued activity comes from the fact that they are not receiving the same attention other groups have. It is crucial, therefore, to understand that IOs run the risk of furthering ethnic tensions within their region if they treat different ethnicities in different ways.

IOs and Migration

While it has been argued above that very little academic attention has been given to the role of international organizations on the prevention of ethnic conflict, it can be said that even less has been given to the issue of migration. The reason for this is relatively simple: while migration is inherently international in nature, it has long been seen as an internal issue for the state that is taking in the people (Global Commission on International Migration 2005:53). As a result, much of the attention migration receives internationally is merely the monitoring of where migrants are moving and their treatment once they arrive at their destination. Even taking the broadest possible definition of migration, which would include voluntary migration and forced migration as refugees or asylum seekers (Doyle 2004:1), international organizations have been noticeably absent. Lahav and Guiraudon refer to the “dearth” of studies in this field and note that the “impact of the increasing trans-governmental character of policy elaboration and the renewed role of international organizations needs to be addressed” (2006:216). They contend that while immigration in the twentieth century was purely the domain of the state, we are now in a world where multilevel governance including local and international policies must be used to truly address immigration issues (Lahav and Guiraudon 2006).

The United Nations is clearly the largest international organization working in the field of migration. With agencies such as the High Commissioner on Refugees and the International Labor Organization, they are able to monitor the movement of people and, when necessary, help those who are leaving much behind. It works closely with the International Organization for Migration, which also monitors the movement of people around the world. Much of the scholarly work done on this organization is descriptive in nature. It is difficult to determine the relative success or failure of the organization, so the best that can often be hoped for is a catalogue of its activities (see Ducasse-Rogier 2001). Much of the literature on the group in fact comes from the organizations themselves (for a complete listing of documents, see, and

It becomes clear that there is a frustration among scholars regarding the lack of researchable cases. As Doyle notes: “[u]nfortunately where there are laws, organizations, and advocates for migrants and on migration, they tend to be incomplete or insufficient, and to compound the challenges of internationalization” (2004:4). Martin (2005) goes further in her assessment. She notes that while there have been international agreements signed in the field, such as the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, the actual level of cooperation in reality is lacking. She believes that “[w]eak international agreements make international co-operation in managing international migration all the more difficult to achieve and retard the development of effective legal and normative frameworks” (2005:3). Juss (2006) is even more critical of migration policy at both the state and IO levels, believing it is an issue of human rights. He notes a double standard in the various attempts at creating international standards for migration. In UN resolutions he outlines how refugees and asylum seekers have more rights than economic migrants (Juss 2006:7). Elsewhere, in places such as Europe, EU citizens who move within the IO have more rights than those who move into the EU for economic gain (Juss 2006:17). His overarching argument is that if IOs set out to improve human rights, then migration in all its forms must be a part of the discussion. Currently, migrants are denied rights and access to a better life simply because their migration is left to a state or IO who writes the rules to favor their own citizens.

The Global Commission on International Migration (2005) has a more positive view of what is occurring. It notes that recently there has been “a proliferation of global initiatives at the institutional level” (2005:72). It contends that this proliferation is proof that states no longer view migration, refugees, and asylum through a single, state-centered lens. It does accept that due to the lack of a structured approach, specifically by the various agencies of the UN, there is much work to be done and improvements need to occur immediately (2005:73). The Commission does save criticism for states as well. It notes that despite the fact that states create and therefore “own” IOs, they often “do not […] approach these organizations in a coherent manner” (2005:74). It is important to note, however, that there are those who would counter this criticism of the UN, and in particular the UNHCR. Loescher (2001) argues that while there is no structured response to migration issues with the UN, the UNHCR has developed and expanded its reach over time as the international conditions have changed. Moreover, he argues that the UN as a whole has had to move to an organization-wide approach to deal with refugee issues due to the lack of coordinated response. Loescher agrees, however, with the lack of academic work done on the UNHCR as he notes that “surprisingly little systematic research has been done into past policy responses of UNHCR to international political and refugee crises” (2001:33).

While on a global scale IOs appear to be lacking in influence on migration issues, there is one region of the world where an IO is having an immense impact. As with the discussion of ethnic conflict, that region is Europe. The European Union’s key function above all else is economic prosperity. The amount of sovereignty states need to surrender in order to be accepted in the Union must be rewarded with economic stability and growth. As a result, much of the EU’s policies revolve around ways of increasing the ease of trade. There is no greater example of this than the EU’s creation of “Schengen Space.” Starting with the Schengen Agreement of 1985, through the “Dublin Accord” of 1990 on asylum issues and eventually brought fully into EU law with the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, Schengen Space is the removal of physical borders throughout the participating EU states (Herz 2006:227–9). With the removal of barriers, the EU now had to take responsibility for issues surrounding migration, asylum seekers, and refugees. As Herz describes, the EU had “achieved the transfer of asylum, visa and immigration affairs from the third and intergovernmental pillar of the European Union to the first pillar with its community method” (2006:229). With the free movement of goods came the free movement of people, forcing the states of the EU to cooperate and trust one another with who was being allowed into the Union. With that level of cooperation it fell to the Union as an institution to administer this movement. What is interesting to note is that the removal of internal borders was meant to facilitate the movement of EU citizens throughout the Union. The side effect has been that “internal free movement has, in turn, implied a common approach by member states on whom they will admit at external borders of their territory” (Moraes 2003:117).

With the EU moving migration and asylum issues into the communitaire pillar of the Union, it has needed to develop strategies to contend with the issues that have developed. The EU has placed these issues under the responsibility of those working on Justice and Home Affairs (JHA). What the EU in general and JHA specifically have come to realize is that these issues are not just economic in nature. For the EU, thanks to Schengen Space, migration has become an issue of security. It is vital to know who is entering the EU, who is a threat, and, ideally, where the people are moving to once they enter one of the EU countries and are then free to move to almost every other EU country. This is particularly true in a post–9/11 environment. As Collyer notes, migrants “continue to be seen as a potential danger, as individuals, and this danger is sufficient to justify general exclusions of all migrants, or at least migrants defined by characteristics considered as most threatening” (Collyer 2006:261). This security framework and increased suspicion of those coming from outside the EU had led to tighter asylum rules, crackdowns on illegal immigration, and strained relations between the EU and other states (Castles et al. 2003). This growing mistrust of those attempting to enter the EU could potentially have long-term economic ramifications as the EU requires infusions of migrants to continue to grow economically. What is interesting is that as Lahav and Messina (2005) note, there is a national dimension to the issue of EU-wide immigration. When the opinions on immigration of the Members of the European Parliament are examined, members from traditional immigrant receiving countries are far less skeptical of migrants and the EU’s role in immigration policy (2005:868). Therefore, the internal movement of people could have a profound influence on both the state and EU-level response to migration. Internal migration will only move problems around the EU; to expand and prosper, new workers are needed. The key for the EU is to ensure that the right people are admitted into Schengen Space and the threats are caught at the border. The EU has had to work on legislation for “third party nationals” within the Union, which walks the line between economic and security necessity (Randolph 2003).

The Direction of IOs and the Discipline

The discussion of the EU’s involvement in migration illustrates the potential of an IO in this field. Even with all of the EU’s planning and legislation, much still needs to be done. Katseli et al. illustrate this point when they say that the goal of “greater policy coherence across the migration, development cooperation, trade and security domains […] will require substantial rethinking of existing institutional set-ups to address the current segmentation of policy competencies across ministries, directorates and organizations” (Katseli et al. 2006:31). What they are saying is that the EU has come a long way but still has far to go. There are many aspects of EU policy that, while intergovernmental in nature, are left to the individual states to implement. To achieve greater efficiency the EU itself may need to take on even greater responsibility on the issue (Tholen 2005; Lahav and Messina 2005; Boswell 2007). By starting the process of region-wide immigration policy, it may prove to be impossible to operate halfway between state and IO control.

The EU also has work to do in regard to ethnic conflict. While the EU was able to use the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities’ reports as the basis of its Accession Reports in the last round of expansion, the fact remains that the EU is woefully unprepared to deal with ethnic conflict within the Union (Eavis and Kefford 2002; Hoffmeister 2004). With questions surrounding the long-term viability of the OSCE and therefore the HCNM, the EU will need to become more focused on issues of internal as well as external security.

The EU is clearly not alone in this regard. The need for regional influence on issues involving minorities is growing worldwide and with the expansion of regional organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS) or the AU, there is more opportunity for intervention. There are those who argue that the EU and other regional organizations need to look to the High Commissioner on National Minorities as the guide. As Packer notes, the HCNM was able to act as a “Pyrometer, Prophylactic and Pyrosvestis” (Packer 2005). This range of skills, all within the framework of “quiet diplomacy” needs to be the future of IO involvement in ethnic conflicts. By incorporating the techniques used by the High Commissioner, other IOs would be able to have influence, mediate disputes, and prevent conflicts, all while maintaining respect for the sovereignty of the states who are responsible for the IOs’ continued existence (Collins and Packer 2006).

When we look at the recent flare-ups of ethnic conflicts we see how the issues surrounding migration and those surrounding ethnic conflict begin to blur. We have seen the return of traditional ethnic group-based conflicts with the return of the ETA in Spain and the ethnic violence following the 2008 Kenyan elections. We have also seen, however, Muslim riots in France and Belgium and growing migrant unrest in Britain and The Netherlands. Put simply, due to globalization and the movement of migrants around the world, new types of ethnic conflicts are occurring. While traditional minority group–majority group conflicts remain, we see a growth in conflicts between the majority group and “others.” These others are not traditional ethnic groups; they are migrants representing numerous groups. These migrant groups may have little in common with one another other than the fact that they are treated differently than those who have citizenship. Many of their issues will be the same as the traditional ethnic groups (discrimination, access, economic disparity) but their structure and cohesion will be radically different. Mass migration has created new issues for states to manage in addition to the old problems of ethnic conflict that never went away. This will create regional problems, cross-state issues, and threats to security and stability. It may be too much for states to handle and, if so, they will need help. They will be forced to turn to IOs. Moreover, these groups will look for assistance when dealing with their new state. They will begin to demand that IOs play a greater role in ensuring their equal treatment or, in severe cases, their protection. While the European Union seems most prepared to take on those challenges at this point, they will face problems. As Cholewinski (2005) notes:

A significant stumbling block appears to be the narrow application of the former principles in some EU Member States to distinct groups of citizens, often defined in an historical context. This application is quite deliberate, reflecting the sovereign sensitivities to which the term “minority” gives rise. In this sense, therefore, EU Member States feel more comfortable referring to immigrants and using the language of integration rather than minority protection. (2005:714)

Beyond the EU, this must become a worldwide issues, and the other regional IOs in addition to the United Nations need to look at what the EU has done and what they still need to do, and prepare.

As this evolution occurs, the discipline will move away from the descriptive, Eurocentric, and often theoretical work that has been outlined in this essay. Currently, as the case studies carried out above illustrate, it is possible for analytical work to be undertaken, but it requires in-depth qualitative analysis. In order for our understanding of this area of International Relations to expand we need more cases around the world and we need time. With this eventual expansion of cases it will become possible to carry out large-N quantitative analysis to go beyond general theories and move more into predictions and explanations. We have seen emerging quantitative studies on IOs in areas outside of the issues discussed here. Lewis (2007), Gheciu (2007), and others have begun to look quantitatively at issues surrounding IOs’ ability to impact socialization. Again, due to the advanced level of integration found in the EU, they have had to concentrate their work in Europe. Dai (2007) has attempted to explain how IOs (again focusing on Europe) are able to ensure compliance on environmental issues. Proving that not all work must be done quantitatively, Saideman and Ayers (2007) have found in their excellent piece that the EU’s accession process was not as significant a factor in minority rights and border control as initially thought due to the fact that the EU did not enforce its own rules as fully as it could have.

This new research shows the promise in the discipline. If internal state issues become more the domain of IO involvement it will become easier for researchers to carry out comparative research and, maybe most importantly, coding. Databases such as the Minorities at Risk Project (MAR), the largest clearing house of information on minority group/state relations (, will be better able to develop codes for IO involvement and impact. As migration, asylum, and refugee issues move more into the world of minority rights and security, MAR may need to change what it considers to be a minority group. If not, others can focus their attention on migrant minority groups and leave data collection on traditional minority groups to MAR. Without worldwide IO involvement in these issues, such research is currently not plausible. We can perform case studies and develop theories that may be tested quantitatively later. For now, any analytical work must be carried out by researchers who have the ability to access decision makers in both the IO and the state, and most likely, they will need to study Europe. As this essay has indicated, however, a change is coming soon.

Intergovernmental Organizations and International Governance of Migration and Ethnic PoliticsClick to view larger

Figure 1 Typology of the study IOs’ influence on ethnic conflict and migration


This essay has illustrated how IOs have influenced and will continue to influence the prevention of ethnic conflict, and monitor and attempt to control international migration. It has also shown how these two seemingly different issues in international relations are in fact more closely linked than they initially appear and will become even more so in the future. Figure 1 illustrates a basic typology of what has been discussed above.

What we can also take from this essay is the ever increasing reliance on IOs. As the case studies illustrate, IOs’ lack of participation in an issue may be as important as their participation. We see this in terms of ethnic conflict and we can logically assume we will begin to hear more in regard to migration. States are slowly and at times grudgingly coming to the realization that in a globalized world, it is futile to try to act unitarily. Questions surrounding some of the issues fundamental to a state now must be addressed at least in conjunction with an IO. In a globalized world with the mass movement of people, a state can no longer expect carte blanche from the rest of the world in their treatment of minorities, whether long-established ethnic groups, or new migrants, refugees or asylum seekers. The need for expanded trade, the movement of goods, and demands for skilled labor will force states to trust IOs to help ensure peace both at home and abroad. This essay has also explained how the European Union, as the most advanced, intrusive, and complete international organization in the world has acted as a trailblazer in showing the world what is possible. We also see how far the EU has to go to become fully engaged in these issues, which reminds us that states will remain a powerful part of international politics for some time to come. While it would be foolhardy to declare the state dead in the world system, we can question its hegemony. If it is becoming more accepted and often necessary for IOs to address questions concerning migration and ethnic conflict, we can begin to question our understanding of state sovereignty. We must accept that the world of the nation-state and the naïve notion of “one nation in one state” has long since passed. We must now look to the long-term question of the role of the state. We know there are issues of global importance where states have already given up much of their sovereignty. Issues involving the environment, the spread of diseases, and the global movement of capital are quickly slipping away from the state. What this essay illustrates is that the state’s grip on its sovereignty is even weaker than we had assumed. In our globalized world internal issues are now also the domain of IOs. In our understanding of the world we have been asked to let the state back in. It may be time for us to begin to wonder: what happens when we push the state back out – for good? This may be where the study of these issues lead – to issues of global governance. As Halliday notes, international organizations must play a role in the modern globalized world as they alone have the reach to deal with economic, security, and social issues (Halliday 2000). Woods rightly points out that governments have dealt with globalization already through global governance in order to “strengthen and institutionalize cooperation among governments at the international level” (Woods 2002:29). Global governance does not mean the rise of the UN as a world government or the EU becoming its own state. It is simply the acknowledgment that states cannot handle these issues alone; they need NGOs’ and most importantly, IOs’ help. As the line between ethnic group and migrant group becomes ever more blurred due to globalization, those scholars studying global governance will begin to cross more over into the questions addressed above.

As IOs continue to become more influential, we will see an increase in the research produced in the field. We will be able to move away from descriptive, normative, or theoretical arguments and begin to test theories more analytically, using a greater range of research tools than is currently available. These are exciting times for researchers interested in the impact of IOs. With patience, we will soon be able to dig deeper, ask more questions and make better predictions. While this field may not have the established research history that others found in the Compendium have, researchers have the opportunity to be pioneers in the field and can help explain the impact of IOs on traditional internal matters in real-time as the IOs realize their potential themselves.


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                                                                                                                                  The European Union. At, accessed Jun. 10, 2009. The EU website has a wealth of information on both ethnic relations (through the Accession Reports) and migration (through the various legislation mentioned in the essay and the EU’s own assessment on their success).

                                                                                                                                  International Organization for Migration. At, accessed May 25, 2009. The IOM website provides information on the projects that it is currently working on. It also provides an opportunity to purchase their field reports on the treatment of specific groups around the world.

                                                                                                                                  Minorities at Risk. At, accessed May 25, 2009. The Minorities at Risk Project is the largest clearing house of information on minority groups in academia. It provides both quantitative and qualitative information. The lack of information on the impact on the international community by the project is an illustration of what work needs to be undertaken and how difficult this specific topic is to study.

                                                                                                                                  Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At, accessed May 25, 2009. The OSCE, and in particular the High Commissioner on National Minorities, has a great deal of information on the OSCE’s work on minority issues. On the OSCE website statements from various countries can be downloaded and the HCNM has current and past project information available.

                                                                                                                                  The Office of United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. At, accessed May 25, 2009. The UNHCR is the main United Nations agency that works on issues surrounding refugees and the movement of people. The website contains numerous field reports, descriptions of UNHCR activities and publications surrounding their work.