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Human Rights Council holds an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues

13 March 2019

Human Rights Council 

13 March 2019

The Human Rights Council in a midday meeting held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes. 

Mr. de Varennes said he would provide an update on his first thematic report on statelessness as a minority issue, and also report on his country visits.  More than three quarters of the world’s 10 million stateless persons were members of minorities.  It was necessary to implement awareness raising because statelessness was too often ignored, and even the world’s largest group of stateless persons, the Palestinians, were excluded from official figures.  The Special Rapporteur recommended an analysis of the root causes of the denial or stripping of citizenship, involving more than seven million minorities.  Mr. de Varennes also briefed the Council about his country visits to Slovenia and Botswana.   

Botswana and Slovenia spoke as concerned countries.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s focus on curbing statelessness among minorities, education in mother tongue, and prevention of conflict on the basis of ethnicity and religion.  They drew attention to the problem of statelessness among minorities in certain regions and countries.  Some speakers observed that there was no internationally agreed definition of a minority, and they reminded that every country had its own respective laws, and its own procedures and citizenship verification process.  Some called on countries to eliminate laws that denied children the right to an identity, to implement mother-tongue based multilingual education, and to prevent family separation.  They urged the Special Rapporteur to share instances where minorities had been stripped of their citizenship by populist regimes. 

Speaking were European Union, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Bahrain on behalf of the Arab Group, Pakistan, United Nations Children’s Fund, Croatia, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Russian Federation, Philippines, Austria, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, Georgia, Albania, Hungary, Ukraine, Ecuador, Republic of Moldova, Cameroon, Sweden, Mexico, Latvia, Colombia, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Cyprus, Venezuela and India.  

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Minority Rights Group, Advocates for Human Rights, Refugee Council of Australia, Liberation, China Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS), Jubilee Campaign, International Movement against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), and ADALAH - Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

Latvia and China spoke in a right of reply.

The Council will next hear the presentation of reports of the Forum on Minority Issues, the Forum on Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, and the Social Forum.  It will then hold a general debate on human rights bodies and mechanisms.


The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues (A/HRC/40/64).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues – visit to Slovenia (A/HRC/40/64/Add.1).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues – visit to Botswana (A/HRC/40/64/Add.2).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues – comments by Slovenia (A/HRC/40/64/Add.3).

Presentation by the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues

FERNAND DE VARENNES, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, said he would provide an update on his first thematic report on statelessness as a minority issue, focus on the Forum on Minority Issues, and report on official country missions.  An update was necessary because 2019 may be the year that the international community failed to callout, address and uphold the human rights of minorities if they turned a blind eye and failed to respond to potential danger of millions more individuals becoming stateless.  This was not about the horrific human tragedies and humanitarian crisis involving the one million or so members of the Rohingya minority who were stateless, but the potentially up to 4 million Bengali and other minorities, perhaps even more, who this year may end up being deemed non-citizens in the State of Assam in India.  More than three quarters of the world’s 10 million stateless persons were members of minorities.  He looked forward to working with the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, interested States and other stakeholders to develop concrete guidelines on good practices on how to tackle such challenges around the world.  Awareness raising was needed as statelessness was too often ignored, and even the world’s largest group of stateless people, the Palestinians, were excluded from official figures.  As well as the Palestinians, the Rohingya formed the largest stateless group in Asia, unless they were displaced this year by millions in Assam.  In Europe, the largest group was the Russians in the Baltic States, and in the Americas, the largest group was the Haitian descent minority in the Dominican Republic.

Mr. de Varennes said his report recommended that the acknowledgement of the root causes of the denial or stripping of citizenship, involving more than 7 million minorities, was needed.  The Special Rapporteur outlined measures in addition to those set out in his report for the Forum on Minority Issues of November 11 2018.  These included the launching of a database to improve the accessibility and follow up work on reports and recommendations on minority rights.  They also included a call for the adoption of a General Assembly resolution recognizing that a State in which a child was born must grant citizenship to that child, if he or she would otherwise be stateless.  The Forum’s success was also notable in the number of people involved, with more than 600 participants, and he called for the establishment of additional regional meetings to strengthen the Forum. 

Mr. de Varennes provided information on his recent missions to Slovenia and Botswana.  In Slovenia, the recognition of minority rights had long been in place, though he stated the necessity to adopt legislation to provide for the teaching of minority languages such as Hungarian and Roma in schools, where there was sufficient demand.  In Botswana, he recognized the wide diversity of ethnic and linguistic groups in the country, and commended the Government on reducing inequalities there.  However, it was necessary to adopt a comprehensive human rights charter to formalize these rights.  He also noted certain instances of discrimination in education and the provision of public services, which needed to be addressed.  

Statement by Concerned Countries

Botswana, speaking as a concerned country, observed inaccuracies in the Special Rapporteur’s report with respect to the legislative framework and the Government’s policies and programmes to address the situation of the human rights of minorities in Botswana.  All native Batswana were indigenous and could equally access all the resources of the country for their own socio-economic prosperity.  In that way, the authorities had ensured that the ownership and control of any mineral resources would be vested in the State and used for the benefit of all citizens wherever they may live.  It was underlined that Botswana had a Bill of Rights, which was contained in chapter two of the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights specifically prohibited discrimination based on race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex.  There was no prohibition on licensing community radio stations, and there was no prohibition on the media to publish in languages other than English and Setswana.  It was stressed that nothing happened in Botswana without consultation.  As for the Dikgosi and Kgotla system, the delegation clarified that it was an integral part of Botswana’s culture and a traditional system of democracy and governance.  That explained why the modern system of democracy had been able to take root and flourish in Botswana. 

Slovenia, speaking as a concerned country, stressed that it had a strong constitutional, legislative and normative protection framework for the protection of minorities.  That framework responded to both the historical trajectory and more recent developments.  Persons belonging to minorities enjoyed a wide range of rights, such as non-discrimination, free expression of their national affiliation, the fostering and expression of their culture, and the right to use their language and script.  Slovenia had long-standing practices with regard to the rights enjoyed by the Hungarian and Italian national communities, including a significant degree of autonomy and political representation.  It had also developed a high degree of recognition and implementation of the rights of Roma.  In recent years, Slovenia had made great efforts to improve the situation of Roma, especially in the field of education, employment, housing, healthcare, social security and social integration.  Slovenia had also adopted a law on the use of sign language, and it was planning further measures to sanction milder forms of hostile activities and the spreading of intolerance, especially in the media. 

Interactive Dialogue

European Union said that the work of the Special Rapporteur raised awareness of the fact that statelessness was a human rights issue disproportionately affecting minorities across the world.  Could best practices on measures that States took to avoid statelessness be shared?  Organization of Islamic Cooperation said that narrow political agendas were driving the marginalization of vulnerable persons.  Concern was raised about the global rise in religious violence and sectarian tensions.  Bahrain, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, said that harm suffered by stateless persons was often linked to armed conflict and legal status arising from the conflict.  As indicated in the report, the Palestinians constituted the majority of stateless persons globally, signalizing that the occupation of Palestine had to be resolved.

Pakistan urged the Special Rapporteur to share instances where minorities had been stripped of their citizenship by populist regimes.  Contemporary forms of discrimination, including attacks on hijab wearing women, murders by cow vigilantes, and closing of borders to migrants, should be addressed in his next report.  United Nations Children’s Fund said that the report shed light on issues faced by minority children in relation to legal identity, education and institutionalization.  States were called upon to eliminate laws that denied children the right to an identity and to implement mother-tongue based multilingual education as well as to prevent family separation.  Croatia stressed that although Croatians made up the largest autochthonous national community in Slovenia, yet they had been no collective minority rights guaranteed at the constitutional level.  That was because the Constitution of Slovenia considered only Italians and Hungarians as autochthons national communities.

Tunisia said it was fully aware of the challenges faced by minorities worldwide, due to the spreading of crises.  It was important to step up efforts nationally, regionally and internationally to protect minorities, especially stateless persons and Palestinians.  Jordan called attention to the situation of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, who were often stateless.  International resolutions guaranteed their right to return and compensation, and Jordan called for the continued funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East.  Iraq highlighted the importance of activities and visits by the Special Rapporteur, especially his efforts against extremism.  The scourge of terrorism affected all aspects of society in Iraq, which was taking all measures to protect all Iraqis.  

Russian Federation welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s focus on curbing statelessness among minorities, education in mother tongue, and prevention of conflict on the basis of ethnicity and religion.  It drew attention to the problem of statelessness among Russian-speaking people in Latvia and Estonia, as well as to exclusion of national minorities in Ukraine from all spheres of life.  Philippines said that its Bangsamoro Organic Law of July 2018 provided for the self-governance of minorities and it recognized the cause of the Bangsamoro people and the aspirations of Muslim Filipinos, and all indigenous cultural communities in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.  Could the Special Rapporteur elaborate on the lack of clarity of what constituted a minority?  Austria welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s focus on the link between stateless and minority status, noting that Austria had enhanced the protection of minorities’ rights through accession to various international instruments.  How could regional minority fora feed into the discussions held at the Council?

Myanmar said that there was no internationally agreed definition as to which groups constituted minorities.  On citizenship, every country had its own respective law, and its own procedures and verification process.  Bangladesh was facing the consequences of gross human rights violations of Rohingyas; unless the citizenship law of Myanmar was repealed, there would be no just solution to the Rohingya crisis.  Countries had to combat hate speech and ensure that no spill-out of their issues with minorities occurred across the border.  China had 56 ethnic groups and effective policies were in place to protect the rights of minorities and ensure their harmonious development.  Resources were increased to support the promotion of the rights of minorities and they were targeting poverty reduction as well.

Georgia was implementing projects in the area of refugee assistance, aimed at registration and provision of birth documents for stateless persons.  Ethnic minorities had access to all levels of education, also in their native languages.  Albania said that its experience could serve as best practice in implementing international treaties.  In 2017, a new law was adopted for the protection of minorities, which were recognized as national minorities on subjective criteria, such as self-identification and objective.  Pursuant to this law, Albania had nine national minorities and they all enjoyed rights across the entire territory.

Interim Remarks

FERNAND DE VARENNES, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, expressed hope that his reports would not be taken by Botswana and Slovenia as the final result; this would be the beginning of collaboration.  He commended Slovenia for already having moved forward with certain recommendations.  As to the question about what a minority was, the Special Rapporteur reminded that there were already contours from the Council’s interpretations of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  There may be States that could have their own concept of minorities and were thus not comfortable with the international interpretations.  Trying to clarify what was already present might provide greater clarity and overcome misunderstandings.  It was an area on which the Special Rapporteur would focus in the future.  Turning to the best practices with respect to statelessness, Mr. de Varennes explained that one of the best practices was to ensure that no child was left stateless.  However, there were still children born in countries and left stateless because of a conflict or problems of registration.  Another good practice was to ensure that women had equal rights to transmit citizenship to their children. 

The Special Rapporteur said that he intended to develop precise guidelines on statelessness and minorities; statelessness had to be tackled as a minority issue.  Hate speech in social media and their effect on minorities was one of the Special Rapporteur’s priorities.  He would also focus his attention to the prevention of ethnic conflict because it involved minorities.  As for feeding regional initiatives into the Council discussions on minority issues, it would provide a greater ability to take into account regional contexts and it would increase accessibility.

Interactive Dialogue

Hungary stressed that the Ukrainian education law adopted in September 2017 clearly placed excessive burden on the national level.  What activities could contribute most to the protection of human rights of minorities, including those in Ukraine?  Ukraine said the marginalization of the Roma community, including statelessness, required special attention in many countries.  Ukrainian authorities took steps to address the lack of personal and identification documents faced by Roma and nearly 8,000 documents had been issued in the last three years.  Ecuador stressed that the inclusion of minority groups was promoted in Ecuador, and all international treaties in this area had been ratified.  Statelessness was a problem facing 10 million persons around the world and there was a need for increased cooperation between States.

Republic of Moldova was successfully applying the statelessness determination procedure and had put in place strong legal guarantees for protecting the rights of stateless persons.  The Republic of Moldova was committed to global efforts to eradicate statelessness.  Cameroon said that the Special Rapporteur had pointed to issues concerning the English speaking minority in Cameroon, but faced with secessionist groups, Cameroon had to preserve the unity of the country.  English and French were both official languages, and the speakers were equal, so they could not say there was English-speaking minority.  Sweden called on China to allow meaningful access to Xinjiang for independent observers and to respect rights in Tibet.  The situation concerning minorities in Russia was concerning, including the detention of Jehovah’s witnesses, and it was reiterated that it was the international obligation of all Governments to respect the rights of minorities.

Mexico reiterated its willingness to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur, adding that it was working on the rights of persons belonging to national and linguistic minorities.  It asked for more information on the best practices to transmit the meaning and consequences of the term “minority” for the minorities.  Latvia was surprised that the report singled out Baltic countries having the highest proportion of stateless populations of Russian minorities and countered that by saying it was home to only 178 stateless persons (0.01 per cent of the population) and that could hardly be considered mass statelessness.  It had recently alleviated naturalization requirements and reduced the administrative barriers.  Colombia said combatting inequality derived from discrimination and exclusion from social and cultural rights was very important.  The progressive constitution of 1991 of Colombia was of benefit for its multi-cultural society.

Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed the report’s recommendations relating to addressing discriminatory laws, policies and practices to prevent statelessness in situations of humanitarian crises, and looked forward to continuing its work with the international community to eliminate statelessness through the IBelong campaign to end statelessness in 10 years.  Cyprus said that working together would enable acceptable solutions to the issue of statelessness which was the consequence of disproportionate and discriminatory policies.   It highlighted that the Sanna language, which was a UNESCO designated endangered language spoken by the Maronite Cypriot community, recently received a writing system to revive the language amongst children and youth. 

Venezuela expressed serious concern over increased hate messages, racism and incitation to hate around the word and increasing extreme right ideology and rhetoric which endangered the rights of minorities.  It highlighted that some groups such as Roma groups and women, could be subjected to double or triple discriminatory practices.  India reiterated that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation had no right to comment on India’s internal matters.  With respect to the comments made by the Special Rapporteur, India clarified that it was currently updating its National Register of Citizens in Assam in an objective, transparent and meticulous manner; all claims and objections would be duly considered.   

Minority Rights Group drew attention to the situation of non-Tswana tribes in Botswana, who had been historically marginalized, impoverished and exploited.  Although the organization welcomed the efforts of the Government to strengthen dialogue with non-Tswana tribes, there was still a blatant lack of implementation.  Advocates for Human Rights, in a joint statement, raised concern about the struggle of minority indigenous groups in Ethiopia, who faced barriers to land use.  Members of the Ogaden minority had been subjected to the arbitrary confiscation of land and ethnic persecution, whereas many Oromos had been forcibly displaced.  Refugee Council of Australia noted the lack of focus and mention in the Special Rapporteur’s report of minority rights in Afghanistan, namely of attacks by anti-Government elements against the Shia Muslim population, most of whom were ethnic Hazaras.  In light of the bloodied past and a bleak future, the organization called for international guarantees and mechanisms to protect minorities in Afghanistan.

Liberation drew attention to the escalation of attacks on minorities in India by Hindu nationalists in impunity, namely Christians, Muslims and Sikhs.  The Hindu mobs were encouraged to target minorities and the Human Rights Council should raise that issue forcefully.  China Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS) noted that China had continuously improved its protection of minority rights, including in bilingual education and poverty reduction.  The Government had invested large funds to protect minorities’ historical heritage.  Jubilee Campaign called attention to the dire conditions faced by ethnic and religious minorities in Viet Nam, particularly Hmong and Montagnards who had been denied their most basic rights as citizens because of their Christian faith.  They did not have access to public benefits, social benefits or public healthcare; they were considered stateless. 

International Movement against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) echoed concerns on the risk of further increase of stateless persons due to recent migratory flows.  The intention of the Rapporteur to develop guidelines to address this issue were welcomed, and they should include actions outlined in the Global Compact for Migration.  ADALAH - Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel said that in November 2018, four Special Rapporteurs had written to the Israeli authorities expressing deep concerns about the Jewish Nation-State Law passed by the Knesset.  The Law did not apply the principle of equality and it created a legal order that enabled further discrimination, segregation, land grabs and racism. 

Concluding Remarks

FERNAND DE VARENNES, United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, responding to the Hungarian delegation, said that one of the best ways to respond to the rights of minorities was to recognize that these were human rights that needed to be protected.  In many countries the main issue regarding the rights of minorities was freedom of religion, or the right not to be discriminated against.  Therefore, recognizing these rights would go a long way to promoting the rights of minorities.  In response to the delegation of Cameroon, he welcomed the opportunity to have more dialogue with the authorities in the coming weeks and months.  He and his team had been disappointed that there had been no discussion on certain minorities.  He invited all present to contact him to raise the issue of groups that were not in the spotlight.  He asked members not to take it for granted that the Special Rapporteur’s team had prior knowledge of all minorities under attack in all countries.

In relation to the clarification provided by the delegation of India, he hoped India might consider whether he should conduct a mission in India, to see on the ground what the situation was in relation to millions of citizens that appeared at risk of statelessness.  He hoped Member States would respond favourably in relation to requests for missions, to ensure all countries could do better, and to learn from one another in the spirit of positive engagement.  The human rights of minorities were difficult, and dealt with some of the most vulnerable groups in the world.  Those in the chamber probably did not need their human rights protected, and it was difficult to imagine this being the case.  However, around the world many vulnerable people did, and it was the human rights of these minorities that needed to be focused upon most carefully.

Right of Reply

Latvia, speaking in a right of reply, spoke up against the allegations of the Russian Federation, and reiterated that Latvian non-citizens were not stateless as defined by the 1954 convention as they enjoyed identity documents and had the same rights as Latvian citizens, with few exceptions related to national security.  It encouraged the Russian delegation to encourage Russians in Latvia to go through the facilitated naturalization process and to stop making erroneous allegations to the Council.

China, speaking in a right of reply, countered a series of incendiary remarks made by Sweden and other States in contravention to the Council regulations.  The situation in Xinjiang remained harmonious and the lawful establishment of vocational training stations were implemented to de-radicalize those with extremist ideology.  It extended an invitation to visit Xinjiang province and reiterated the importance of protecting the freedom and culture of the Tibetan people.  No pressure should be exerted on China in relation to Tibet and Xinjiang.


For use of the information media; not an official record
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