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UN expert clarifies concept of minorities to ensure their protection in international law

NEW YORK (23 October 2020) – Recognition of a minority does not depend on the acceptance or whims of States, a UN human rights expert today told the General Assembly as he proposed a series of clarifications of the concept for improving protection of minorities worldwide.

“A minority’s existence does not depend on a State’s approval,” said Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues. “The objective existence of a minority is factual, not dependent on the ‘popularity’ of a minority or the whims of a government.”

“People belonging to a national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minority have human rights under international law,” he said. “It is not a question of whether a government thinks they ‘deserve’ these rights.” “Unfortunately, people belonging to minorities are too often denied their human rights when there is a refusal to admit a minority exists in a State”.

In his annual report to the General Assembly, de Varennes proposed a conceptual framework that he said had been lacking. It can guide states by clarifying the scope and significance of the four categories of minorities based on the wording and interpretation of relevant UN instruments.

“Gaps in identifying objectively and consistently who is a minority is a recurring stumbling block to the full and effective realization of the human rights of minorities,” he said.
Guidance contained in his report “should help avoid inconsistencies, uncertainties and contradictions which can result in failure to properly address and promptly respond to the protection of the human rights of all of minorities,” he said.

He also emphasized that individuals must be able to self-identify as belonging to a national or ethnic, religious or linguistic minority, and that these categories can overlap.
Today’s report builds on work in his 2019 report to the General Assembly, which identified the need for a working definition of a minority in order to provide greater clarity for his own mandate and for others to upholding the human rights of minorities.

He also warned today of the rise of hate crimes and hate speech against minorities during the COVID-19 pandemic, topics to be examined at the 13th session of the United Nations annual Forum on Minority Issues on 19 and 20 November.


The Expert: Fernand de Varennes (Canada), was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues by the Human Rights Council in June 2017. He is tasked by the UN Human Rights Council with promoting the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, among other things. He is Extraordinary Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Pretoria in South Africa; Cheng Yu Tung Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong; and Visiting Professor at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland-Galway. He is one of the world's leading experts on minority rights in international law, with more than 200 publications in some 30 languages.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Marina Narvaez (mnarvaez@ohchr.org/+41 22 917 9615) or Hee-Kyong Yoo (hyoo@ohchr.org/ +41 22 917 9723) or Jonathan Fowler in New York (+1 917 208 6656 / jonathan.fowler@un.org).

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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