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The Minority Rights Declaration at 20

According to a survey by the NGO Minority Rights Group International, over 55 per cent of violent conflicts between 2007 and 2009 had tensions between communities or violations of the rights of national and ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities at their core.

“Violations of minority rights constitute today a wide-scale problem, affecting all regions of the world, with multiple manifestations ranging from attacks on religious minorities to systematic exclusion of minorities from decision making in economic and public life, and contributing to statelessness and other serious human rights challenges around the world,” said Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang. “These violations are not only undermining human rights and sustainable development but also fuelling insecurity and conflict.”

Speaking at an expert panel at the 19th session of the Human Rights Council to reflect on 20 years of achievements and remaining challenges since the adoption of the Minority Rights Declaration, Kang emphasized that the protection of minority rights was a key factor in preventing conflict and atrocities, as well as building peace.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities established that States have an obligation to acknowledge and promote minorities’ rights to enjoy their own cultures and identities, to profess and practice their own religions and use their own languages.

It ushered in a new era for minority rights and set essential standards for their protection and has offered guidance to States as they seek to realize the human rights of minorities.

The Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Rita Izsák, noted that countries that had integrated the principles of the Minority Declaration possessed fairer societies where minorities felt safe and were able to participate fully in all aspects of society.

“Sadly however, in many other countries globally, the situation is far from positive. Minorities may face persecution and violence or the threat of violence. They frequently live in the worst housing and living conditions and are rarely, if ever, consulted,” she said. “In such situations, implementation of the Declaration is truly essential, but it can seem like a very distant prospect for minorities.”

Soyata Maiga, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa and Member of the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights noted that national minorities in Africa remained weak and invisible because of the persistence of discrimination and exclusion.
Joshua Castellino, Head of the Law Department of the University of Middlesex reminded participants that minority rights are human rights and that minorities and other vulnerable communities are often the best indicators of how well entrenched human rights are in any given country.

“Minorities are often excluded in the project to build strong and viable national identities. In this project any deviation from a centrally agreed position is viewed with suspicion and as a threat. Yet it is our diversity which is often our biggest economic asset,” he said. “To embrace the fruit of such diversity all we need to do at a fundamental level is to broaden our vision and become more inclusive in how we imagine our respective nations and States. The nine articles in the Declaration provide us with broad principles that ought to give shape to this imagined more inclusive State.”

During the debate, panellists stressed the importance of collecting disaggregated data on the experience of minority communities which would reflect the extent of the violations they face. They added that this would call in the need for special measures, which under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination are an obligation for States to implement where significant disadvantage is experienced by particular racial or ethnic communities.

Castellino also highlighted the need for legally binding force for some of the provisions in the Minority Declaration which could be achieved through a specialized treaty or the incorporation of elements of the Declaration in national Constitutions.

The panel noted that in transition situations, where constitutional, social, or political changes occur, minorities are often placed in more vulnerable situations, as seen during the events in the Middle-East and North Africa. The international community must make sure those States are supported in safeguarding the protection of minorities as they move towards greater democratization, the experts added.

20 April 2012

UN Declaration on Minority Rights at 20

Minority Rights 2012