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Early attention to minority rights a key tool for stability and conflict prevention – states UN expert

(NEW YORK, 20 October 2010) “Attention to minority issues and minority rights violations at an early stage – before they lead to tensions and violence – would make an invaluable contribution to the culture of prevention within the United Nations, save countless lives and promote stability and development.”

This was the key message of the UN Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, in her address to the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee today.*

Over 55 per cent of violent conflicts of a significant intensity between 2007 and 2009 had violations of minority rights or tensions between communities at their core, according to a recent survey by Minority Rights Group International quoted in Ms. McDougall’s report.

Evidence increasingly demonstrates that minority rights violations are often among the root causes of conflicts, the Independent Expert stated. These root causes should be identifiable, and therefore amenable to being addressed at a much earlier stage, Ms. McDougall suggests.

As part of this process, greater and earlier attention to the concerns of minorities and better implementation of the Declaration on Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities by States world-wide are key recommendation of her report.

According to her report to the General Assembly, current early warning and conflict preventions mechanisms are poorly equipped to identify and respond early enough to issues and grievances to make a difference when it counts.

“By the time typical early warning indicators such as small arms flows or movements of displaced people, trigger attention, grievances may have festered for decades, perhaps generations – generations of lost opportunities to heal rifts, to avert conflict and to build a cohesive society.”

According to Ms. McDougall, minority rights expertise should be strengthened and integrated comprehensively across the United Nations system and in the principle agencies and departments working on conflict prevention, as well as in the work of regional institutions, to provide them with the tools required to spot potential problems at a much earlier stage and long before conflict breaks out.

Gay McDougall’s report draws attention to the indispensable role of minority rights in helping to create conditions of political and social stability. Those rights include meaningful political participation, the protection and preservation of culturally distinctive identities, including language and religious identity, and the right to participate equally in and benefit from the economic life of the States in which minorities live. While usually taken for granted by majority populations, Gay McDougall suggests that these essential rights are frequently not enjoyed by minorities and could be the breeding ground for tensions within diverse societies.  

Among the essential elements that States are encouraged to develop are improved dialogue between minorities and majorities within societies and better practices and institutional arrangements to accommodate diversity and ensure non-discrimination and equality.

“Minority rights must be prioritized, enabling members of all minority groups to participate effectively in decisions affecting them and in all aspects of society”, the Independent Expert stated.

(*)  Independent Expert’s full statement to the General Assembly.