Promoting and protecting the right to education for minorities

Minorities in all regions of the world suffer disproportionately from unequal or restricted access to quality education, according to the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues.

Tamil children and women in displaced camps in eastern Sri Lanka © Minority Rights Group InternationalThe Forum, established by the Human Rights Council in September 2007, has issued its first set of recommendations calling for an effective education strategy for minorities based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination.

The recommendations followed the inaugural session of the Forum last December on the theme “minorities and the right to education.” The term minorities refers to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, as laid out in the UN Minorities Declaration.

Over 400 participants including UN member states, non-government organizations, UN Agencies and education experts from minorities took part in the Forum.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the Forum that promoting and protecting the right to education was “an indispensable instrument for achieving many other rights, whether civil, cultural, economic, political or social …, especially for minority groups.”

Under international human rights law, education is an inalienable human right, not a mere commodity or a service.

It is “an empowerment right” and “the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty,” says the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its “General Comment” on the right to education.

And yet, “in all regions of the world minority children suffer disproportionately from unequal access to quality education”, therefore being robbed “of their full human potential and their ability to contribute fully to their own communities and to the wider society,” Gay McDougall, Independent Expert on Minorities Issues, told the Forum.

The Forum’s recommendations set out the core principles for fulfilling the right to education for minorities on the premises of equality and non-discrimination. They focus on the essential requirements for an effective education strategy, equal access to quality education for minorities, the learning environment, and the content and delivery of the curriculum.

The Forum urges governments to “approach the education of minorities in a positive spirit.” They should “review, enact and amend their legislation where necessary to affirm the right to education for all, eliminate discrimination and guarantee quality education for all members of minorities.”

It further suggests that educational services should reach minority communities, including adults, throughout the country and be adequate to address their needs. Governments must also ensure that educational services for minorities are of a comparable quality to national standards.

The Forum provides a platform for promoting dialogue and cooperation on minority issues. It also identifies and analyzes best practices, challenges, opportunities and initiatives for the further implementation of the UN Minorities Declaration.

In most instances a minority is a numerically smaller section of the population. Minorities commonly have a strong sense of collective identity and possess distinct ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics which differ from that of the majority population. All countries have one or more minority groups within their national territories. Some minorities live together in well-defined areas, while others are scattered throughout the country.

April 2009