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Side-event on the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Minorities

Opening remarks by Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights

24 October 2017

Speaking of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, the Secretary-General has recently underlined the urgency of implementing its articles.

This is the refrain at many such events. We celebrate anniversaries, say how important a Declaration or Resolution was, and then say it’s such a pity that actual implementation hasn’t matched the original good intentions. Everyone piously agrees, then we all file out, and sometimes not much more gets done until the next anniversary.

But on this occasion, there’s more to it than that. There really is an urgency on this one. And that’s because the Declaration’s messages of inclusion, equality and respect for different cultures are being currently and constantly challenged through hate speech, discrimination and rising ethno-nationalism.

Many political and opinion leaders, instead of proposing nuanced policy tools to address real economic, social and security problems, target religious and other minorities as easy scapegoats for such ills. They pedal fabricated narratives and a twisted interpretation of human rights and security being a zero-sum game.

The targeted “others” vary from region to region. In Europe, there has always been a reluctance to grant full rights to the Roma, and desperate Muslim refugees are now the ones in the cross-hairs. In the US, we have heard appalling calumnies against Mexicans and other Central Americans, and even worse slurs against Muslims.

The aim seems to be to demagogically stoke fear for political gain – not only condoning but in some cases actively encouraging hatred and violence against minorities. 20th century history suggests all-too-many examples of where this might lead.

The relative good news on this front is that I think we are also witnessing the beginnings of a counter-movement, with networks of activists and social movements, often led by youth, standing up and speaking out for human rights, including minority rights, in social and traditional media as well as in the street.

In this country alone, strong defence of diverse societies has been the bedrock of such initiatives as the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter. Perhaps most uplifting of all was the spontaneous decision of thousands of Americans to flock to international US airports to provide support and legal advice last January to those arrivals who had been cruelly caught up in what was widely seen as “the Muslim Ban”.

New platforms are being created in all regions, and we are proud of the role of former OHCHR minority fellows, whose recent achievements range from a Roma youth network in Moldova to a linguistic rights forum in Cameroon.

The crucial role of non-governmental organizations in moving minority rights from paper to practice was acknowledged by all Member States at the adoption of the Declaration, which highlights the important work of NGOs in protecting minorities and promoting their rights.

And yet, today, in what has to be a massively regressive development, instead of supporting such work, many Governments are going out of their way to pass harsh laws and other measures to prevent the functioning and funding of NGOs. They have evidently decided that NGOs are deeply threatening – perhaps because these brave civil society leaders tend to question or stand against the discrimination and oppression of minorities that many of those same Governments routinely practice.

A report on the human rights situation in southeast Turkey issued by our Office in March of this year shows how the closure of Kurdish language media and associations has weakened checks and balances and human rights protections. And this is not an isolated example: civil society space is shrinking in many countries, and minority rights activists are particularly targeted.

Facts and real experience (two things that are so very threatening to those political leaders encouraging hatred of minorities) teach us that minority rights are not only a human rights imperative; they are also a key to conflict prevention. Look at Rakhine state in Myanmar. Today’s crisis has been decades in the making – decades marked by systematic discrimination and violations against the Rohingya. If the former military government had only sought to implement the principles of the Declaration instead of deliberately whipping up hatred against this minority, the terrible situation we see there today would be very different.

What we have seen many times is that a focus on minority issues tends to come too late. As High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein recently told the Security Council regarding the Middle East, the rights of minorities are often highlighted by the international community only “after the outbreak of extreme violence – even though that eruption is virtually always preceded by years of exclusion; disregard for linguistic and religious rights; and obstacles to full participation in the political, social, cultural and economic life of the State”.

Facts and experience also teach us that minority rights can be a catalyst of cohesion, not division. After all, the Declaration is not only about supporting minority cultures, but also about enhancing dialogue and understanding between different groups in our societies. Implementation of the Declaration requires laws that ensure minority language education, but it also requires abolishing segregationist trends in education and other spheres. I have already mentioned the Roma; EU data shows that while the school enrollment of Roma is steadily increasing, school segregation affecting Roma is worsening.

Facts and experience also teach us that one of the cornerstones of minority protection is the right to effective participation. We have to open new avenues for dialogue with the authorities for those who have often been shut out of decision-making, as our colleagues are helping the Office on Minorities Issues in Iraq to do through consultations with Christian, Yezidi, Shabak, Turkmen and other groups.

Also crucial is law-enforcement, where better minority participation is essential to build trust and to combat police violence and the racial profiling that is regularly faced by all too many people of African or Muslim descent.

The Declaration is a powerful document, but it has only 9 articles and some key issues are not explicitly covered. To implement the Declaration we should heed the call of the Secretary-General’s “Guidance Note on Racial Discrimination and Protection of Minorities” to reflect experiences of minority women, stateless persons, internally displaced persons, persons with disabilities, older persons, children, people living with HIV, and LGBTI persons.

While the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development does not explicitly mention minorities, the participation of minorities has to be a key component. Otherwise, the commitment to leaving no one behind will ring hollow. Earlier today our Office convened a meeting on human rights and Sustainable Development Goal 3 on access to health. This is a good example of why we need not only to track the overall progress in a given Member State but also to make sure that the SDG implementation is helping to tackle the persistent discrimination in access to health care that’s frequently faced by minorities.

The Declaration was adopted 25 years ago as a reaction to attacks on minorities and their rights. So the international community came together and unanimously endorsed the principles of the Declaration as a common framework for action, reflecting a shared vision grounded in respect for diversity.

As I said at the start of these remarks, this project is now under serious attack in many places. A quarter of a century later, we need the same resolve of the international community to defend these principles. This is crucial not only to protect minorities, but also to safeguard both the diversity and the cohesion of our societies as a whole.

Thank you.