More than any previous age, ours is marked by ethnic conflicts. In recent decades, domestic conflicts and wars have greatly exceeded interstate conflicts. Most internal conflicts are about the role, structure and policies of the state, and about social justice. Responses to ethnic conflicts have ranged from oppression and ethnic cleansing to accommodations of ethnic claims through affirmative policies, special forms of representation, power sharing, and the integration of minorities. One of the most sought after, and resisted, devices for conflict management is autonomy.
Despite its popularity, autonomy is controversial, and many conflicts are themselves about the demand for and resistance to autonomy. At other times, autonomy seems to offer a way out of conflict or the transformation of the conflict. The promise to consider or negotiate autonomy has been used successfully to bring about truces between warring parties. Autonomy has sometimes secured a breathing space as an interim, or even ambiguous, expedient while longer-term solutions are explored and negotiated. Autonomy has been used to separate as well as to bring people together. In recent years it has been seen as a panacea for cultural diversity, and as, under the influence of identity politics, the realisation of the extreme heterogeneity of states dawns on us, autonomy seems to provide the path to maintaining unity of a kind while conceding claims to self-government.