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About minorities and human rights

Special Rapporteur on minority issues

The outcome document of the 2005 World Summit of Heads of State and Government, approved by the General Assembly, notes that “the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities contributes to political and social stability and peace and enriches the cultural diversity and heritage of society”.

The dynamics of majority/minority relationships lead to the emergence of a range of minority issues which provide challenges and opportunities for States and societies as a whole. Such issues, in all spheres of life, are identified and articulated both by minorities and by States seeking to manage diverse societies. Within this wider context of minority issues, the normative framework provided by minority rights should be understood as a necessary element to ensure integrated societies and to promote social inclusion and cohesion.

Respect for minority rights assists in achieving stable and prosperous societies, in which human rights, development and security are achieved by all, and shared by all.

In such societies, various national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups are able to live confidently together, practice their religions, speak their own languages and communicate effectively, recognizing value in their differences and in their society’s cultural diversity.

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 of minorities

When considered in its historical context, the term minority, as defined by article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 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.

Despite this, an 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.