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A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights

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A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights

  1. Two Patterns of Cultural Diversity

Any theory of group-differentiated rights must distinguish among various groups in order to assign certain specific rights to them. The major concern of this paper is the rights of indigenous peoples. However, outlining Kymlicka’s complete typology of cultural minorities allows to contrast the nature and demands of various groups and to make more plausible the specific rights this theory assigns to indigenous peoples. The central distinction in Kymlicka’s theory differentiates between two patterns of cultural diversity: national minorities and ethnic groups. According to this distinction, it is the mode of their incorporation into the political community that shapes the nature of a minority group, the identities of its members, and the form of relationship they desire with the larger society12. While the existence of ethnic groups comes about by their voluntary migration, national minorities were involuntarily incorporated into larger states13. The distinction between national minorities and ethnic groups has a descriptive and a normative level, which are not always well separated in Kymlicka’s writing. In very general terms, the distinction asserts on the descriptive level that there are relevant and stable differences between both classes of groups in terms of their histories, current characteristics and future aspirations. On the normative level, the distinction suggests that it is justified to assign different rights to national minorities and to ethnic groups. Because the basis of political legitimacy is the consent of the governed, there are good moral reasons to assign stronger cultural rights to groups whose members did not choose to join the political community.

The distinction between national minorities and ethnic groups corresponds to, and is closely associated with, other important concepts and distinctions in Kymlicka’s theory. The table below presents these central terms and their relationships. Following a brief discussion of both types of groups, the argument will address each of the terms in the list and show how they relate to the initial distinction. The second part of this paper will discuss cultural diversity in Cambodia in the light of these concepts. One goal of this discussion is to assess whether or not those terms and concepts are useful for describing and analyzing Cambodia’s cultural diversity.

Ethnic Groups

National Minorities

Multicultural States

Polyethnic States

Multination States

Source of Cultural Pluralism


Colonization, Conquer, Annexation, Ceding

Mode of Incorporation



Model in Western Democracies

Immigrant Multiculturalism

Multination Federalism

Group-Differentiated Rights

Polyethnic rights

Self-government rights, special representation rights



Accommodation, Separation, Autonomy

Societal Culture



Emerging Consensus: Liberal Culturalism

Liberal multiculturalism

Liberal nationalism


What are fair terms of integration?

What are permissible forms of nation-building?

Illustration 2: Ethnic Groups and National Minorities

In the case of national minorities, cultural diversity arises from the coexistence of two or more nations within a given state. The term ‘nation’ here is used synonymously with ‘people’ or ‘culture’ and defined as “a historical community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture” (Kymlicka 1995a: 11). Consequently, a given country which contains more than one nation is a multination state and the smaller peoples form national minorities. National minorities form previously self-governing and territorially concentrated cultures. In most cases, the incorporation of national minorities into a state occurs involuntarily and often forcefully. In few cases, multination states come about by the voluntary agreement between different cultures to form a federation. Many countries are multinational, since boundaries throughout the world were drawn to incorporate the territory of pre-existing, and previously self-governing, societies. Typically, national minorities want to maintain their existence as distinct societies alongside the national majority. In many instances, national minorities struggle to sustain or regain their institutions of self-government and their distinct languages. Frequently, they demand some form of autonomy and various self-government rights to make more certain the perpetuation of their culture (Kymlicka 1995a: 10).

The second pattern of cultural diversity arises from the voluntary immigration of families and individuals. Ethnic groups are not ‘nations’ and do not occupy territories. The existence of ethnic groups in states comes about by individual or familial decisions to abandon the original culture and migrate to another society, leaving behind friends and families. Over generations, ethnic communities with some measure of internal cohesion and organization emerge. States which accepted significant numbers of individuals and families from other cultures as immigrants and allowed them to maintain some of their ethnic particularity are polyethnic states. The distinctiveness of ethnic groups is expressed for the most part in family lives and voluntary associations. This is not inconsistent with their linguistic integration and participation in the public institutions of the majority culture. While immigrant groups have struggled for the right to express their ethnic particularity, they usually wish to assert this right in common public institutions: “While ethnic groups frequently demand greater recognition of their ethnic identity, their aim is not to become a separate and self-governing nation alongside the larger society, but to modify the institutions and laws of the mainstream society to make them more accommodating of cultural differences” (Kymlicka 1995a: 11). Unlike national minorities, the recreation of the original culture is neither desirable nor feasible for immigrant groups. Instead, ethnic groups accept the expectation of their integration into the larger culture and the assumption that their children’s life-chances will be bound up with the language and institutions of the host society. Instead of resisting majority nation-building towards their integration into the larger society, immigrants frequently wish to renegotiate the terms of integration, to allow for the maintenance of various aspects of their particular ethnic heritage14.

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