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Statements Multiple Mechanisms

Address by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Panel to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities

14 March 2012

19th session of the Human Rights Council


Geneva, 13 March 2012

Madam President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, currently travelling, it is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today and to welcome all of you to this Panel of the Human Rights Council.  This Panel is particularly special as it is the first event of the year, organised by the Office, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

At the outset, I would like to thank Mr. Mark Lattimer who has kindly accepted to moderate our discussion today.  We are delighted to be able to benefit from Mr. Lattimer’s wealth of experience in the field of minority rights.  We are also very pleased to have with us Ms. Rita Izsák, the Independent Expert on minority issues and a panel of outstanding authorities who will take us through an examination of good practices for the protection of minorities, and also take stock of the challenges to the implementation of minority rights.

The task to advance minority rights is firmly anchored in the UN Charter, which underlines respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted by the General Assembly by consensus in 1992, remains the only United Nations human rights instrument devoted solely to minority rights. The Declaration’s 20th anniversary offers an important opportunity to take stock of how the instrument has served to advance minority rights. 

While minority rights are human rights and need to be protected as such, the evolution of the concept and reality of minority rights is closely linked to the need to address tensions between minorities and the State, and between population groups.  Thus, in its Preamble, the Declaration asserts that “the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities contribute to the political and social stability of States in which they live”. 

Violations of minority rights constitute today a wide-scale problem, affecting all regions of the world, with multiple manifestations ranging from attacks on religious minorities to systematic exclusion of minorities from decision making in economic and public life, and contributing to statelessness and other serious human rights challenges around the world. These violations  not only undermine human rights and sustainable development, but also fuel insecurity and conflict.

The protection of minority rights is a key factor in the prevention of conflicts and atrocities as well as in peace-building, as highlighted by a number of experts, including the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues. According to a survey conducted by Minority Rights Group International, over 55 per cent of violent conflicts of a significant intensity between 2007 and 2009 had violations of minority rights or tensions between communities at their core. Minority women are often particularly targeted, including for sexual violence in detention or in armed conflicts. Available and known experience shows that tensions rising to the level of conflict are less likely to occur in societies where minorities use their own language, practice their own culture and religion and participate effectively in economic and political life, as prescribed in the Declaration.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Declaration is a short document but its message, set out 20 years ago, is powerful.  Its nine articles establish that States have an obligation to respect, protect and promote the rights of persons belonging to minorities within their respective territories.

As a key document in the field of minority rights, the Declaration was drafted following a recommendation contained in a landmark study on minorities prepared by Mr. Francesco Capotorti, Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and published in 1979.  The final draft was ultimately adopted, unanimously, by the General Assembly in 1992 as the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

The Declaration contains the key principles to be respected. The Commentary on the Declaration, adopted by the UN Working Group on Minorities in 2005, together with more recent recommendations of the Independent Expert and the work of the Forum on Minority Issues, provide important additional guidance for implementing the Declaration.  Such guidance takes into account the need for tailored approaches for the various country situations. 

The Declaration is built on the following pillars: (i) protection of existence; (ii) protection and promotion of identity; (iii) equality and non-discrimination; and (iv) right to effective participation in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life.

The latter pillar – the right to effective participation - is central to minority rights and determines the scope of enjoyment of all other rights. Indeed, it is through effective participation that existence and identity can be protected, while exclusion, often visible as abject poverty, displacement or isolation, could lead to the loss even of distinct minority identity.  Both in the developed and in the developing world, persons from minority groups, especially minority women and girls, have often been excluded from full and effective participation in political and economic life. While the experiences of different minorities who do not enjoy their right to participation are diverse – the impact of that exclusion is similar and nearly always devastating.

Dear colleagues,

Combatting discrimination everywhere and in everything remains an outstanding and pressing challenge.   The OHCHR’s Management Plans for the past biennium and the present one, ending in 2013, includes non-discrimination as a priority area for the Office.   OHCHR at its headquarters and through its field presences will continue to gather information and support the development of practical strategies to address the phenomenon of discrimination.  We will continue to remain guided by the Minorities Declaration in our effort to contribute in creating conditions enabling better protection against discrimination toward minorities.

Let me give you some examples. Since 2008, the Office has been organising a series of regional consultations gathering good practices that could be replicated at the national level to encourage participation of minorities in the administration of justice through law enforcement and more specifically policing.  We continue to offer regional training workshops on the protection of  minorities for our staff and other United Nations colleagues to help integrate the protection of the rights of minorities into country and regional strategies and development programmes. 

Our Minorities Fellowship Programme builds the capacity of civil society actors, by bringing to Geneva representatives of the minorities from various countries to gain better understanding of the United Nations instruments and mechanisms dealing with human rights and minority rights, as well as the skills needed to assist their communities in protection of human and minority rights.   One excellent proof of the impact of this fellowship programme is with us here today. In 2006, Rita Izsák, a young Roma woman from Hungary, took part in the OHCHR minority fellowship programme. Armed with the new skills, she then went on to carry out important minority rights work in both non-government and governmental context.  Today, Rita Izsák joins us as the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues.

The wide scope of OHCHR’s work on minority rights is clearly demonstrated in the report submitted to this session of the Council.  It is crucial that the entire UN system is engaged in this area. This view is fully shared by the senior leadership of the organisation, as demonstrated by a recent significant development I would like to bring to your attention. Last week, Secretary-General’s Policy Committee decided to bolster system-wide work in this area by creating a UN Network on Racial Discrimination and Minorities. The Network, to be coordinated by OHCHR, will facilitate collaboration between UN entities, build guidance and help to share effective practices to combat racial discrimination and protect minority rights. The Policy Committee also stressed that the 20th anniversary of the Minorities Declaration is to be used to raise awareness and promote the implementation of this instrument and that staff training initiatives are to be reviewed to make sure that they adequately incorporate non-discrimination and minority rights issues. At the OHCHR, we are looking forward to working with our UN partners to implement these important decisions, including through a range of anniversary activities we will organize to increase the visibility and impact of the Declaration, with input and participation of NGOs, NHRIs and States.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The role of the State in protecting the rights of minorities is, of course, crucial. The policies and actions of many States have been inadequate to resolve intolerable conditions of poverty, marginalization and exclusion experienced by some minority communities. Although many States have an array of laws and institutions designed to combat all forms of discrimination, violations of the rights of minorities continue to be deplorably widespread. While the adoption, implementation and enforcement of national legislation to protect minority rights are important, they need to be complemented by targeted policies and programmes, including in education, to address exclusion and discrimination.  In this regard, the involvement of minority communities in the development, implementation and evaluation of these national strategies is essential.

There is no doubt that the dynamics of majority/minority and dominant/non-dominant relationships involve a range of challenges. However, they can also provide opportunities for States and society as a whole. If national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups are able to live confidently together, communicate effectively and recognize the value of their society’s cultural diversity, both minorities and majorities benefit.  Respect for minority rights contributes to social cohesion.

Looking ahead, there is much more work to be done to ensure that minority rights are protected.   As our States become more heterogeneous, we must step up action to protect minorities as an integral part of the mosaic of our societies. 

Allow me to conclude by thanking you all for being here for this important panel discussion.  I am confident that your active participation will contribute to further policies and strategies towards a better and more effective protection of minority rights.

Thank you.