Concept of a minority: mandate definition

An ethnic, religious or linguistic minority is any group of persons which constitutes less than half of the population in the entire territory of a State whose members share common characteristics of culture, religion or language, or a combination of any of these. A person can freely belong to an ethnic, religious or linguistic minority without any requirement of citizenship, residence, official recognition or any other status.

Clarifications on who is a member of a minority

Following mainly the Human Rights Committee jurisprudence, additional elements as to who is a member of a minority can be summarized as follows:

    (a) Indigenous peoples may constitute linguistic, religious or ethnic minorities in the States in which they find themselves. Both are not mutually exclusive, nor undermine any applicable rights as a minority or indigenous people.

    (b) The “territory” to consider in determining whether or not a group is a linguistic, religious or ethnic minority is the entire territory of a State, and not one of its political or territorial subunits;

    (c) One of the main objective criteria for determining whether a group is a minority in a State is a numerical one. A minority in the territory of a State means it is not the majority. Objectively, that means that an ethnic, religious or linguistic group makes up less than half the population of a country.

Background to the concept

In his latest report to the United Nations General Assembly in October 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues reviewed the history, approaches and jurisprudence on the concept of minorities within United Nations mechanisms and entities in order to provide greater clarity for his own mandate and all other stakeholders in upholding the human rights of minorities.

The absence of consistency in understanding who is a minority is a recurring stumbling block to the full and effective realization of the human rights of minorities. Different United Nations entities may contradict one another because they consider different groups of persons as constituting a minority – and exclude certain persons as ‘not being members of a real minority’ for different, sometimes ad hoc, reasons. States Members of the United Nations may at times hesitate to engage on matters relating to minorities because of uncertainties as to who is a minority and what that entails. In some countries, there may be even the assumption that the absence of a “definition” means it is left to each State to determine freely who is or is not a minority. In most of these situations, the uncertainty leads to restrictive approaches: in many situations, persons are deemed to be “undeserving” because they are not “traditional” minorities, not citizens or not sufficiently “dominated”. The end result is that some minorities are excluded because they are not the “right kind” of minority according to different parties.

In order to overcome such challenges and promote the full and effective realization of the human rights of minorities, the Special Rapporteur advanced the above definition of a minority. This concept applies for the purposes of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and is presented for United Nations activities only. It does not affect what constitutes a minority in relation to a state’s domestic matters, or for the concept which may also have different connotations or involve other criteria for other international or regional organisations. It is mainly based on the history and formulation of the concept of a minority under article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee’s jurisprudential views and its General Comment No. 23 on the rights of minorities.

The Special Rapporteur clarified that when considered in its historical context, the term minority, as defined by article 27, is expansive and clear: the provision guarantees certain rights to all those in a State who are members of a linguistic, religious or ethnic minority, with no other requirement or precondition.