NEARLY 90 percent of the countries that have gained independence since 1945 are multicultural, multilingual states. Arnold Smith, a Canadian diplomat and former secretary-general of the Commonwealth, writes: "Learning how to build and maintain a free political society out of several cultural and national groups with two or more official languages forms one of the most important political challenges of our age."
Whether relations within a country deteriorate to the violence in the former Yugoslavia, or threaten the breakup of our democratic Canadian neighbor to the north, or, with the increased Hispanic presence in the United States, pose unfamiliar and worrying questions about our own national fabric, we are all going to have to learn more about how to live with diversity.
A recent Washington Post story gives us some hope. Datelined Vienna, it starts: "Austria's parliament cleared the way today for peaceful resolution of one of Central Europe's longest disputes about the rights of minorities. After more than 45 years of negotiations between Austria and Italy, the National Assembly voted 125-30 to declare that Italy is in compliance with a package of measures that guarantee the rights of the 300,000 German-speaking residents of South Tyrol."
The roots of the South Tyrol conflict go back to the end of World War I, when South Tyrol, then part of Austria, was handed over to Italy. Its German-speaking people, of German history and culture, were joined without consultation to 50 million Italians.
Over the next years, particularly under Mussolini, Italians were increasingly settled in the area. In the effort to "Italianize" the region, even names were changed - South Tyrol became Alto Adige. Relations improved somewhat, but the problems persisted. In 1959 Austria, in its role as a protector of the interests of the province, asked the United Nations to tackle the conflict. The following year the UN General Assembly called on Italy and Austria to start negotiations. These made little progress and by
the late '60s violence and bombings had escalated alarmingly.
Then in 1969, political figures from all sides of the conflict visited the Moral Rearmament conference center in Caux, Switzerland. I was a translator for the German-speaking group at the conference. At Caux the participants found two things that helped bring the sides closer together - an enlarged perspective and an absence of blame.
I REMEMBER Guido Bernardi, who was representing Rome in the Italian parliament, saying, "Through coming to Caux we Italians realized we had to respect the uniquely German character of the majority in South Tyrol." And Dr. Karl Mitterdorfer, who represented South Tyrol in Rome, left with the conviction that "a solution to our small problem could possibly give an example for the solution of larger problems."
When a little later I visited the bishop for the area, Josef Gargitter, he told me that he had observed a change in both the Italian- and German-speaking politicians when they returned from Caux. "Suddenly I heard from their mouths," he said, "things not heard before." And the Italian paper Il Giorno wrote, "From these meetings has come the new spirit which made possible an effective solution to the problems of Alto Adige."
By November of that year, an atmosphere had been created in which most leaders of South Tyrol were ready to accept Italian government proposals. Within weeks the agreement was approved by the governments of Italy and Austria, whose foreign ministers issued a joint communique saying that a new era of constructive teamwork was beginning.
However, there were still many details to be worked out. For instance, German speakers in South Tyrol were not allowed to present evidence in court in German. And Austria was not prepared to give a declaration of the formal end of the conflict until every last point had been settled.
That process has taken 20 years of painstaking work, with occasional setbacks and some renewed violence. Yet two months ago, Italian Prime Minister Andreotti declared in Austria that every last point of the "package" had been settled. Last month the South Tyrol People's Party, the principal German-speaking party in the region, voted overwhelmingly to accept the package. The Austrian parliament has now added its agreement.
All that remains is for Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock to declare in person or in writing to the UN that the conflict is finally over. He has already told the Austrian parliament that what has happened in South Tyrol could be a model for other minority questions and for the settlement of similar conflicts elsewhere.
We have too few good models to follow in such matters. As Silvius Magnago, honorary president of the South Tyrol People's Party and a main architect of the agreement, told the press: "The settlement of the conflict is a historic occasion." He is now being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a bipartisan committee of Austrian parliament members.