This is the right of everyone to influence the decisions that affect them. It is of particular importance to minorities. Minorities have a right, like all people, to participate in decisions that affect them, particularly in:
Political decisions that affect them;
The principle of non-discrimination in the right of political participation is central to liberal democratic thought. Citizens who are members of an ethno-cultural, national or any other type of minority group enjoy an equal right of political participation with all other members of the polity. The point is made clear in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 25, provides that the right of political participation is to be enjoyed without discrimination, on grounds of race, language, national origin or other status. Non-discrimination in the right of political participation is essential for the protection of the interests of all minority groups. When minorities are excluded from the decision-making process they may challenge the legitimacy of majority decision. Individuals from minority groups expressing intolerant or anti-democratic positions may be excluded on the basis of their political opinions, but not their identity.
The right to vote cannot be abridged based on race, color, or previous condition. Elections provide the clearest expression of the will of the people. The role of the citizen, however, extends beyond the right to vote in free and fair elections to determine who will hold power. All citizens have the right to participate in political deliberation and activity as the society seeks to determine the answers to the political questions of the day. The right of inclusion in the process of deliberation and decision-making is clearly important for minorities. If democracy is conceived as a process to determine where a majority lies on a particular issue, then participation, particularly for minorities will provide insufficient protection for their interests.
Citizenship is a key to full participation in political life. For example, in most countries non-citizens are not able to vote or stand for election. Whereas governments have the right to put in place mechanisms and legislation governing the process by which people can gain citizenship of the country, some may intentionally restrict certain groups’ access to citizenship to exclude them from political participation, or from enjoying other rights such as access to public services, or land/property rights.
Economic decisions that affect them;
Ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities are vulnerable to economic exclusion largely due to direct and indirect discrimination. Minorities, many of whom live in remote areas, will often also face barriers due to regional underdevelopment. Economic exclusion can mean minorities have inadequate access to markets, resources, services, socio-political institutions and technology. Factors causing this include barriers to citizenship; “ethnically disqualifying” criteria for education and employment; lack of or inadequate implementation of anti- discrimination legislation; language barriers; and regional under-funding.
Under the UN Declaration on the Right To Development, Article 2.3: “states have the right and the duty to formulate appropriate national development policies that aim at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals, on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of the benefits resulting there from”.
Promotion and Protection
Modern human rights legal protection for minorities began with the system of minority rights created under the League of Nations through special treaties with Central and Eastern European states. In 1945, this system was replaced by the Charter of the United Nations and later on by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With that, the particular vulnerability of minorities to human rights abuses was recognized by the establishment the Sub-Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities.
The protection of minorities was not explicitly referred to in either the Charter of the United Nations or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first reference to the rights of persons belonging to minorities, in major human rights treaties, was contained in Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
The most widely-accepted legally-binding provision on minorities rights is Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language”.199
Article 27 of the Covenant was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16 December 1966. It grants persons belonging to minorities the right to national, ethnic, religious or linguistic identity, or a combination thereof, and to preserve the characteristics which they wish to maintain and develop. Although Article 27 refers to the rights of minorities in those States in which they exist, its applicability is not subject to official recognition of a minority by a State. Article 27 does not call for special measures to be adopted by States, but States that have ratified the Covenant are obliged to ensure that all individuals under their jurisdiction enjoy their rights; this may require specific action to correct inequalities to which minorities are subjected.
Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted by General Assembly resolution 47/135 .1992
This is the only United Nations instrument addressing exclusively the rights of persons belonging to minorities. It does not only provide for the protection of the existence and identity of minorities but also recognizes that the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities contributes to the political and social stability of states. Its provisions accord particular attention to the rights guaranteeing effective participation in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life and in relevant decision-making. The text of the Declaration, while ensuring a balance between the rights of persons belonging to minorities to maintain and develop their own identity and characteristics and the corresponding obligations of States, ultimately safeguards the territorial integrity and political independence of the Nation as a whole.
The principles contained in the Declaration apply to persons belonging to minorities in addition to the universally recognized human rights guaranteed in other international instruments.
The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination;
This treaty is the most comprehensive treaty concerning the rights of racial and ethnic minorities. It lays down in detail the steps required by states to prevent racial discrimination and violence and to foster greater racial harmony. It was adopted and opened for signature and ratification by General Assembly resolution 2106 (XX) of December 1965, and it entered into force in 1969.200
Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998).
The statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) gives the court jurisdiction over acts of genocide of specific national, ethnic, racial or religious groups under Article 6.
Minority Rights in National Law
To protect minority rights, those rights should be enshrined in constitutions and implemented through electoral, justice and educational systems.
Many countries have specific laws, enriched with ethnic elements, and/or commissions or ombudsman institutions.
Personal laws govern issues relating to family life such as childcare, custody, divorce and marriage, and play a key role in how communities can exercise culture and traditions.
In some states, minorities are granted freedoms to implement personal laws in accordance with their cultures. On the other hand it is important that any such application of personal laws does not exacerbate division between communities.
Some states have opted for applying personal law according to territory, which can also be problematic for minorities. It is important to retain strong safeguards of individual rights, particularly women’s rights, within personal law frameworks.
On some occasions, personal laws have been applied to overly favour the position of males, on issues such as inheritance rights.
A lack of legislative framework, to prevent racism and punishment, leads to the rise of tension. Discrimination within the justice system itself is one of the most obvious areas where minorities can feel day to day grievances.
On the criminal justice side, it is very often minorities who suffer when it comes to being stopped, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced; and who do not get a fair investigation of crimes against them. Minorities may feel that they cannot expect anything from a justice system biased against them at all levels.
Identity recognition should be backed up by strong guarantees of specific rights protecting identity in the constitution or other laws in secondary legislation.
Implementation of Special Rights
The United Nations
In order to implement the rights of persons belonging to minorities as enunciated in the International Conventions, the United Nations has established many committees to monitor the progress made by States parties in fulfilling their obligations, in particular, in bringing national laws as well as administrative and legal practice into line with their provisions.
The Committees which are of particular relevance to the implementation of minority rights are the Committee on Human Rights (which oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights); the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights); the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination); and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (Convention on the Rights of the Child).
States parties undertake to submit periodic reports to the respective Committees outlining the legislative, judicial, policy and other measures which they have taken to ensure the enjoyment of the minority-specific rights contained in the relevant instruments. When a state report comes before the respective Committee for examination, a representative of the country concerned may introduce it, answer questions from the expert members of the Committee, and comment on the observations made.
Complaints against the violation of human rights, including minority-specific rights, can be brought to the attention of the United Nations. They may be submitted by an individual, a group or a state under a number of procedures.201
The High Commissioner for Human Rights has been entrusted with the task, among others, to promote and protect the rights of persons belonging to minorities. More specifically, the High Commissioner has been entrusted, by the General Assembly, to promote implementation of the principles contained in the Declaration on the rights of persons belonging to minorities and to continue to engage in a dialogue with Governments concerned for that purpose. To this end, a comprehensive three-pronged programmes, has been elaborated to: promote and implement the principles contained in the Declaration on the rights of persons belonging to minorities; cooperate with other organs and bodies of the United Nations, including the international human rights community, and programmes of technical assistance and advisory services; and to engage in dialogue with Governments and other parties concerned with minority issues. These three activities are interrelated and have preventive functions as their common denominator.
The report of the High Commissioner in 2000 focused on the prevention of human rights violations, including those resulting from discrimination, intolerance, exclusion and marginalization. In that report, the High Commissioner expressed the firm conviction that efforts to combat impunity, including for genocide, must be integrated within an effective early-warning and conflict prevention system, because serious violations of human rights if left un-prosecuted and unpunished could provide for the escalation of conflict into “open hostilities and, even war”.
Working Group on Minorities
The Working Group on Minorities, which was established in 1995 pursuant to Economic and Social Council resolution 1995/31 of July 1995, is a subsidiary organ of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (previously called the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities). It meets for one week annually prior to the session of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
The Working Group on Minorities was set up with a threefold mandate: to review the promotion and practical realization of the Minorities Declaration; examine possible solutions to problems involving minorities; and recommend further measures for the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities. The Working Group facilitate greater awareness of the different perspectives on minority issues and, consequently, to seek better understanding and mutual respect among minorities and between minorities and Governments.202
The Working Group is a forum at which problems faced by minorities can be articulated and brought to the attention of the international community. It is becoming a more important focus for UN activities regarding minority issues and some of the issues discussed in its meetings which may interest its various partners are:
multicultural and intercultural education
recognition of the existence of minorities
participation in public life, including through autonomy and integrative measures
Investigations, technical assistance and advisory services
The independent experts appointed by the United Nations to investigate and report on the human rights situation in specific countries, as well as thematic issues, often address concerns pertaining to the rights of persons belonging to minorities or confronted with violations of minority rights. The conclusions and recommendations of these special reporters are published and debated, bringing the issues they address to international attention and serving either as guidance for the Governments concerned or as a means of pressure to ease or eliminate the problems which have been identified. Of particular relevance are the reports on countries where minority rights are not respected, often resulting in ethnic and religious tensions and inter-communal violence and on thematic issues such as religious intolerance and racial discrimination.
Early Warning Mechanisms
Early warning mechanisms have been set up in order to prevent racial, ethnic or religious tensions from escalating into conflicts. Two types of provisions for early warning mechanisms established by the United Nations deserve to be mentioned in the context of minority protection.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has established an early-warning mechanism drawing the attention of the members of the Committee to situations which have reached alarming levels of racial discrimination. The Committee has adopted both early-warning measures and urgent procedures to prevent, as well as to respond, more effectively to violations of the Convention. Criteria for early warning measures could, for example, include the following situations: the lack of an adequate legislative basis for defining and prohibiting all forms of racial discrimination; inadequate implementation of enforcement mechanisms; the presence of a pattern of escalating racial hatred and violence or appeals to racial intolerance by persons, groups or organizations; and significant flows of refugees or displaced persons resulting from a pattern of racial discrimination or encroachment on the lands of minority communities.203
The work of the special procedures has the potential to act as an early-warning system, including through country visits and by analyzing the letters and urgent appeals sent out following the receipt of allegations of human rights violations.
Role of Non-governmental Organizations
International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play an important role in promoting and protecting the rights of persons belonging to minorities. They are - either directly or through their national affiliates - close to situations of tension and possible sources of conflict. They are frequently involved in mediation, and they are able to sensitize international as well as national public opinion when the rights of minorities are neglected or violated.
NGOs can have a significant impact in the field of minority protection through research, the publishing of reports and by serving as channels and platforms for minority groups on the one hand and, on the other, by providing timely and factual information to governmental and intergovernmental bodies on situations involving minorities.
Violations of Minority Rights
Problems faced by minorities have most often been caused by the non-recognition of constitutive elements of their identity, including their language, religion or history. Minorities complain about the relative disadvantage of their members as regards access to employment, public service and political institutions, as well as about inadequate access to resources, enabling minorities to preserve their identity.
Genocide is the attempted destruction of a group because of their ethnic, religious or linguistic identity. It is the ultimate violation of minority rights. Minorities are threatened by the simple denial of their existence, especially when such a denial is official state policy.
This systematic denial of the existence of particular groups is vital in tracking the rise of tension that leads to violence. Mass crimes such as genocide or ethnic cleansing are remembered by minorities for decades. The memory of such acts can fester for generations and lead eventually to violence between peoples.
Repression of Identity
Identity may be the main, or at least the most evident factor in tensions between minorities and majorities. Other factors such as political and economic participation come into play in later stage. The problems of identity often stem from the lack of official recognition. Signs of problems within a state can be when the official (constitutional or otherwise) definition of a state is one based on ethnicity, language or religion. In genocides and “ethnic cleansing”, people are targeted because of their ethnic, religious or linguistic identity. The heavy-handed approach to the identities of government encouraged the development of a completely separate identity. The language and religion aspects of identity of minority are often at stake and can give rise to intense conflicts.
In conflicts which are mainly about an issue not directly related to identity, such as control of resources, one group or leader may use identity issues to mobilize people against another group. The phenomenon of “ethnic entrepreneurs” (someone who uses issues of ethnicity for their own ends) can easily be manipulated by leaders, and can lead to conflicts.
Discrimination has been interpreted to "imply any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which is based on any ground such as race, color, language, religion, national or social origin, birth or other status, and which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by all persons, on an equal footing, of all rights and freedoms”.204 Persistent and systematic discrimination which affects minorities in a negative manner, on many different grounds - politically, socially, culturally or economically, is one of the major causes of conflicts, causing groups and individuals to feel excluded and divided.
Exclusion from political participation
A political voice is the key to the enjoyment of all other rights. When minorities fail to influence government policy and practice it results in their exclusion from education/employment opportunities and land rights. Further, a strong signal is sent to minorities that the dominant community does not see them as belonging in the nation.
Lack of power is an essential issue in the feeling of exclusion by minorities. Minorities can be excluded from political participation for numerous reasons.
For example, central governments may be founded on an exclusive concept of the national identity of one or a small, restricted, ethnic/religious groups, and other groups which form part of the country are implicitly or explicitly excluded.
Denial of Citizenship
Denial of citizenship to a group of people based on their belonging to a minority community will also have a significant impact on their sense of identity, and also results from how the nation defines itself.
Identity is as much about a sense of belonging to a place as to a group, and the state is sending a clear message, you do not belong here. The lack of citizenship may hinder access of minority to critical rights such as the right to education, the right to recognition of juridical personality, the right to vote or stand for election.
This is the systematic use and acceptance of speech or propaganda promoting hatred and inciting violence against people on the basis that they belong to a minority community, particularly in the media, and grave statements by political leaders and prominent people that express support for the affirmation of superiority of a race or an ethnic group, dehumanize and demonize minorities, or condone or justify violence against a minority. Hate speech is a sign of a society which does not tolerate diversity and different identities.
Economic exclusion, competition over scarce resources, inequality in the delivery of basic services and a lack of opportunities for minorities with their gross under-representation in employment, all lead to tensions. Economic exclusion can propel or maintain a minority community into a sub-status or cycle of deprivation. It can greatly impede minorities’ ability to access their civil, political, social and cultural rights, and this can have enormous implications for their security, status and wellbeing. Minority communities in general tend to have fewer educational opportunities, higher mortality rates, higher rates of poverty, and higher unemployment than other poor groups.
Ill planned, top-down, resource extractive projects such as conservation and tourism projects, hydroelectric plants and large-scale dams, can have a major negative impact on minority livelihoods and wellbeing, often eradicating their economic base and eroding their culture and traditions. The land owned by minorities is coveted for many reasons; not least of these are the natural resources, such as arable land, fishing, minerals, oil, water, or tourism. Among other reasons for seizing land is specifically to expel the minority through ethnic cleansing, often during wars and other violent conflicts.
The reality and perception of exclusion increase when governments do not take action to promote and protect minority rights, the development of minority communities is neglected and the reality and perception of exclusion is increased.
The collective belief of minorities that they are being unjustly treated today leads to ongoing feelings of alienation and anger. This is about what is now labeled as discrimination. The feelings of unfairness and humiliation that such discrimination creates in those who suffer it can lead to violence. It alienates communities from the rest of society and again leads to a tendency to blame other communities for this.
When minorities believe there is no mechanism that can identify and remedy the injustice that they suffered or is suffering from, this inevitably leads to violence. Discrimination within the justice system itself frequently compounds the problem.
Violence and Minorities
Attacks on Minorities
Violence is directed at minorities, because the minorities are an easy scapegoat for other problems in society, or because authorities want their land or other possessions, or simply because they are “different”. Violence may be carried out directly by government agents or it by third parties, but almost always with government connivance.
Violence by Minorities
When members of the minority community feel they are under threat and have nothing to lose from violence, they resort to it themselves.
Once violence started, it may easily escalate and continue for generations. For many minorities the only way of raising the profile of their concerns at an international level may seem to be a resort to violence.
That has certainly worked for other minorities, though it is almost always the members of the minority who suffer most during the conflict.
Preventing Religious or Ethnic Conflicts
An understanding and application of minority rights for all communities is vital for resolving ethnic or religiously-based conflicts.205
Promoting the concept of nation that recognizes its full diversity,
Many minorities wish to seek official recognition by ensuring that they are all named in the Constitution, and that concrete measures are taken to promote and protect identity.
Instituting strong guarantees of the right to practice identity in law and in practice;
Group identity exists regardless of state acceptance or denial, so there are major dangers in ignoring its relevance. The recognition of groups may be a significant first step towards realizing the protection of their identity, and sends a signal of goodwill to those groups. Such recognition should be backed up by strong guarantees of specific rights protecting identity in the national Constitution.
Implementing of an education system respectful of minority languages and cultures;
The school curriculum is a key mechanism. A positive curriculum, in history and other subjects, can promote mutual and positive understanding of different minority cultures and their contribution to national identity. It then becomes much more difficult for nationalist leaders to incite hatred against other groups. Ethnic elements should be incorporated in the school curriculum of either regular or ethnic schools in ethnic autonomous areas. Separate schooling, especially on religious or linguistic lines, is rarely helpful in terms of integration and promoting understanding between communities.
Special attention must be given to ensure that children can grow up understanding their culture (including language and religion) combined with the need for the understanding between communities. Education systems can combat or condone hate speech, can erode or support minority languages, and have a direct impact on building understanding between minority and majority cultures.
Strengthening minority representation in legislatures and governments.
Strengthening the voice of minorities in political life can be done at the national or local level through many steps such as; increasing the number of minority representatives in legislatures, reserved seats, political parties based on minority identity, consultative or advisory bodies, and ministerial posts in governments. It is important that minority representatives represent their community fully. The political participation and autonomy granted to minorities have been identified as contributing to the prevention or the resolution of conflicts.
Enforcement of laws against hate speech;
Clear prohibitions against the advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that incites discrimination, hostility or violence, can minimize the role that can be played by hate speech in conflicts.
Economic development that does not marginalise certain communities;
Monitoring development policies and programmes through ethnically and gender-disaggregated data will also be an important step. There needs to be real minority participation throughout development policies, programmes and projects, in the design, implementation and the benefits – to include both minority women and men. Programmes and budgets need to be monitored across geographical, ethnic and gender divides, with the involvement of minority women and men. Where a large-scale project affects a community, a just proportion of benefits should go to the minority communities. Equitable access to economic growth and, importantly, economic opportunity inhibits deadly conflict.
Attempts to address inequalities cut across ethnic, religious, or linguistic divides. This underlines that care needs to be taken in selecting the forms of targeted programmes and affirmative approaches to ensure that they do not increase resentment or conflict. Projects fostering inter-community relations can be important in promoting understanding between communities to avoid such tensions. Due attention to address the root causes of economic exclusion can play an important role in reducing inequalities and tensions.
Ensuring a fair and unbiased judicial system.
Justice needs to be implemented at the most local level possible to ensure that, for minorities, justice is not only done, it is seen to be done. The basic remedy for injustice is the rule of law. For ongoing injustices, what is needed are clear laws that outlaw such practices, and a justice system that will apply such laws; i.e. it identifies such practices, ends them and provides remedies to those who have suffered from them. For criminal activities, the system should identify the perpetrators (and particularly the leaders and instigators) of such crimes, and prosecute and punish them. For historic crimes, the response begins with investigation and acknowledgement of what happened, and of the individuals responsible. Once this has been done, if the perpetrators and victims are still alive, prosecution and compensation are vital. If not, a system of fair compensation for a community is needed the possible restitution of what has been lost.
In countries where minorities are concentrated in specific areas, arrangements for political decision-making at the regional level may be set up. A common mechanism is autonomy, where an agreed set of powers (often covering culture, economy, education and religion) is ceded by the central government to a local government with jurisdiction over a specific territory. Autonomy enriches the national culture, recognizes and strengthens ethnic identity; it respects the specificities of the cultures of the minority communities; it redeems the history of the same; it recognizes property rights to communal land and repudiates any type of discrimination; it recognizes religious freedom and without deepening differences it recognizes distinct identities as coming together to build national unity.
One of the fundamental bedrocks of human rights is the principle that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Violations of this principle can take many forms, in particular on the grounds of race and ethnicity, where certain racial and ethnic groups are prevented from enjoying the same civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as other groups in society. Conversely, violations of minority rights such as hate speech, political exclusion or territorial “ethnic engineering” can provide early warning signs that a country is at risk of erupting into a conflict.
The problems faced by minorities have most often been caused by the non-recognition of the constitutive elements of their identity, including their language, religion or history. Suppression of identities, and exclusionary and discriminatory practices, do not foster stable societies or durable peace, and the non-recognition of minorities or elements of their identity by states is a potential source of conflict.
Governments should put in place legislation and mechanisms to promote and protect minority rights, and must implement their obligations to promote minority rights to practice their culture, religion and language, in public and in private, and should take effective measures to promote mutual respect, understanding and cooperation among everyone living on their territory, including through educational curricula, culture and the media.
Advocating intra-religious as well as inter-religious dialogue and emphasized the important role of education in ensuring respect for and acceptance of pluralism and diversity in the field of religion or belief is needed to improve respect for the rights of persons belonging to minorities and freedom of religion.
One of the critical reasons for past and on-going ethnic crises the world over is the fact that minority ethnic groups are excluded from participating in the power sharing and decision-making processes of their political system. Unless a formal or informal arrangement for power-sharing is guaranteed to all minorities, besides according them legal protection and practicing tolerance towards them, peace is not possible in multi-ethnic states.
Political participation granted to minorities has been identified as contributing to the prevention or resolution of conflicts. The right of political participation implies the need to introduce special measures, including where necessary the introduction of autonomy regimes, to protect and promote the minority culture. The participation of national minorities in public life is an essential component of a peaceful and democratic society. In order to promote such participation, governments often need to establish specific arrangements for national minorities.
Where members of minorities are not fully represented, the state must consider the introduction of measures to facilitate representation. This may be achieved by the removal of barriers to participation that is to be preferred. Where minorities are concentrated territorially, single-member districts may provide sufficient minority representation.
The inclusion of minorities into the mainstream of society is a critical task to many states. The achievement of this goal would be easier if members of minority groups are equally active in politics as members of the majorities and measures are taken to ensure effective participation by minorities in the deliberative and decision-making processes of the democratic state.
Finally, any disadvantageous access to employment and public service and inferior situations within political institutions, under which minorities frequently suffer, can become a potential source of conflict. The outbreak of conflict could reverse the development achievements of decades, so the integration of minority rights in the development agenda should be perceived as an essential and not a peripheral component of all development efforts.