Why are minority rights important?

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Minorities are all national cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities whose minority status has been recognised by national legislation or by internationally binding declarations as well as minorities that define and organise themselves as such[1].

Minority rights are based on the recognition that minorities are in a vulnerable situation in comparison to other groups in society, namely the majority population, and aim to protect members of a minority group from discrimination, assimilation, prosecution, hostility or violence, as a consequence of their status[2]. It should be highlighted that minority rights do not constitute privileges, but act to ensure equal respect for members of different communities. These rights serve to accommodate vulnerable groups and to bring all members of society to a minimum level of equality in the exercise of their human and fundamental rights.

European history has shown that the protection of national minorities is essential to stability, democratic security and peace in this continent. Pluralist and genuinely democratic society should not only respect the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of each person belonging to a national minority, but also create appropriate conditions enabling them to express, preserve and develop this identity. Creation of a climate of tolerance and dialogue is necessary to enable cultural diversity to be a source and a factor, not of division, but of enrichment for each society[3].

Minorities require special measures to ensure that they benefit from the same rights as the rest of the population. Hence, minority rights serve to bring all members of society to a balanced enjoyment of their human rights. In other words, their aim is to ensure that persons belonging to a national minority enjoy effective equality with those persons belonging to the majority. In this context, the promotion of equal opportunities at all levels for people belonging to a national minority is particularly important, since it empowers communities and promotes the exercise of individual freedoms.

Central to the rights of minorities are the promotion and protection of their identity. Promoting and protecting their identity prevents forced assimilation and the loss of cultures, religions and languages—the basis of the richness of the world and therefore part of its heritage. Non-assimilation requires diversity and plural identities to be not only tolerated but protected and respected.  Minority rights are about ensuring respect for distinctive identities while ensuring that any differential treatment towards groups or persons belonging to such groups does not mask discriminatory practices and policies.  Therefore, positive action is required to respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, and acknowledge that minorities enrich society through this diversity[4].

The participation of persons belonging to minorities in public affairs and in all aspects of the political, economic, social and cultural life of the country where they live is in fact essential to preserving their identity and combating social exclusion. Mechanisms are required to ensure that the diversity of society with regard to minority groups is reflected in public institutions, such as national parliaments, the civil service sector, including the police and the judiciary, and that persons belonging to minorities are adequately represented, consulted and have a voice in decisions which affect them or the territories and regions in which they live. Participation must be meaningful and not merely symbolic, and recognize, for instance, that minorities are commonly underrepresented and that their concerns may not be adequately addressed. The participation of women belonging to minorities is of particular concern.

The protection of minority rights is an exercise of tolerance and intercultural dialogue. By encouraging mutual respect and understanding, the different groups that comprise a society should be able to engage and cooperate with one another, while preserving their own identity[5]. The basic elements required for the realisation of this goal are to promote knowledge of minorities’ culture, history, language and religion in an intercultural perspective. In other words, the protection of minority rights can promote an inclusive, peaceful and cohesive society, with respect for diversity.

Inter-ethnic tensions, divisions and exclusion that remain unaddressed can easily become a source of instability and conflict. Dealing efficiently with minority-majority relations in the aftermath of ethnic conflict is central to achieving a durable peace. In this regard, the protection of national minorities is not only fundamental to enhance social cohesion in diverse societies, but also essential to achieve democratic security, sustainable development and peace in a context of instability.

  • Which documents and institutions are important?

United Nations

Protection of national minorities, rights and freedoms of members of minorities are all part of international protection of human rights. It is necessary to begin the consideration of the legislative framework as a base for creating positive regulations in signatory states with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Covenant is the only global treaty that includes a provision (art. 27) that specifically refers to minority rights.

Article  27
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 practise their own religion, or to use their own language.[6]

Accepting and respecting that the ideal of a free human being which has all citizen and political freedoms can be achieved only if all conditions that enable everyone to have their citizen and political rights.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Minorities requires states to protect the existence and identities of minorities. It also calls upon states to encourage the promotion of national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identities. Under Article 2(1) of this declaration, minorities shall have the right to practice their religion, enjoy their culture and use their own language in both public and private settings without any kind of discrimination. Article 3 of this declaration guarantees persons belonging to minorities the right to exercise their rights individually and in community with others without discrimination. It was adopted by the General Assembly resolution 47/135 of 18 December 1992[7].

Based on the universality of human rights and the fundamental principle of equality and non-discrimination, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights strives to promote and protect the human rights of all, everywhere. The promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities is therefore an integral responsibility and significant priority of the High Commissioner, including field presences. More specifically, the High Commissioner is called upon to promote implementation of the principles contained in the Minorities Declaration and to engage in a dialogue with Governments concerned for that purpose[8].

Council of Europe

Status of rights of national minorities was given by the Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights[9].

Article  1
The enjoyment of any right set forth by law shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

No one shall be discriminated against by any public authority on any ground such as those mentioned in paragraph 1.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages of 1992 provided mechanisms and instruments regarding the protection of rights of national minorities. The Charter is oriented on concrete mechanisms for protection of minority or regional languages in the field of education, public informing, cultural activities, economic and social life, criminal and civil cases where it is justified that the minority language is in official use, in the work of local and central administrations.

Two years later, in 1994, the Committee of Ministers of Council of Europe adopted the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), thus introducing clear standards for the protection of national minorities within the values of interculturalism, particularly stressing the matter of multilingualism in using regional or minority language in both private and public life as an inherent right mentioned in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[10].

Article  14

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

FCNM is the first international-legally binding document in the field of protection of national minorities adopted in the 90s during the time when a significant number of countries were facing transitional changes with the goal of creating standards for minorities to achieve peace and stability. It represents one of the most important documents in the field of minority rights: right to preserve one’s culture, tradition, language, religion and customs, right to educations in the native language, right to access to media, right to take part in economic, public and political life as well as to communication with the native people.

Until today, 39 out of 47 members of Council of Europe have ratified FCNM, most countries of Western Balkans among them. It is worth mentioning that states have thus accepted responsibility to execute the regulations mentioned in the Framework Convention and other documents of international law that concern the rights of national minorities that they have ratified.

By introducing international standards of rights of national minorities, Framework Convention has encompassed all three generations of minority rights in its regulations: right to freely declare one’s affiliation to a national minority and equality before the law without discrimination, right to preserve one’s own language, religion and tradition as well as right to participate in cultural, economic, political and public life. It is important to stress that the Framework Convention has introduced the basis for the development of the newest, third generation of rights, which ensures minorities’ participation in the process of decision-making.[11]

The implementation of the Framework Convention, primarily the compatibility with the European Convention for Human Rights, is intensively overseen by the Council of Europe.

An advisory Committee formed by 18 independent professionals was established to oversee the implementation of FCNM. The Committee co-operates and shares experiences with the bodies that deal with similar issues, for example the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), Venice Commission, Commissioner for Human Rights and other international organizations.

It is important that, despite sometimes being called a ‘’soft’’ instrument due to the lack of a firm mechanism to control the implementation, Framework Convention has become an instrument to combat discrimination as almost all countries have developed appropriate regulations on combating all forms of discrimination.


Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe  

 OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) gets involved in a situation if, in his judgement, there are tensions involving national minorities which could develop into a conflict. The High Commissioner addresses the short-term triggers of inter-ethnic tension or conflict and long-term structural concerns. If a participating State is not meeting its political commitments or international norms, the High Commissioner will assist by providing analysis and recommendations. Based on experience, the HCNM publishes thematic Recommendations and Guidelines that give advice on common challenges and best practice[12].

 The Ljubljana Guidelines on Integration of Diverse Societies by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) goes beyond supporting the recognition of minority culture, identity and political interests to additionally recommend that States ensure that communication and interaction are established across ethnic divides. These Guidelines suggest that national minorities should not only enjoy the legal right to effectively participate in the overall governance of the State, but that they should also be encouraged to do so[13].

 Guidelines on Political Party regulation together with the Interpretative Notes were prepared by the Panel of Experts on Political Parties of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in consultation with the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) of the Council of Europe. It aims to provide an overview of issues regarding the development and adoption of legislation for political parties in democracies.

Good and democratic governance serves the needs and interests of a State’s entire population. While democracy implies majority rule in political decisionmaking, it also includes safeguards against the abuse of majority power. This is achieved by ensuring the protection and participation of minorities, and by facilitating inclusive processes of governance that involve all members of the population.[14]

 Political parties are a collective platform for the expression of individuals’ fundamental rights to association and expression and have been recognized by the European Court of Human Rights as integral players in the democratic process. Further, they are the most widely utilized means for political participation and exercise of related rights. Parties are foundational to a pluralist political society and play an active role in ensuring an informed and participative electorate. Additionally, parties often serve as a bridge between the executive and legislative branches of government and can serve to effectively prioritize the legislative agenda within a system of government.[15]

Both Guidelines mentioned before recognize and emphasize exceptional importance of political parties in implementation of minority rights and their social integration regarding the critical role they play as political actors in the public sphere.

The prohibition of discrimination and the promotion of effective equality are principles expressed in international human rights instruments at both the universal and regional levels.

Establishing full membership in society, equal opportunities and equal treatment for all, including in accessing public goods and services, should be guiding principles when developing integration policies. This means that States have to proactively promote diversity and create conditions for everyone to feel like and act as full members of that society. The sense of belonging to a common society implies that, when the right conditions are in place, individuals, irrespective of their identity, should not only respect the legislation and the rights of others, but should also avoid self‑isolation and take full advantage of their opportunities to channel claims through the legitimate instruments provided by the authorities.

International standards recognize the important role of political parties in promotion of tolerance, cultural diversity and resolution of questions related to minorities. Politicians play an essential role in the processes of integration, both as legislators and decision‑makers, shaping the political discourse and contributing to the overall social climate, including with regard to inter‑community relations.

Political parties and actors, regardless of political and ideological lines, are bound by the same prohibition against discrimination as the rest of society. Although political parties’ and elected representatives’ freedom of expression when performing their duties is especially protected due to their key societal and democratic role, the prohibition against incitement to racial, ethnic or religious hatred applies to them as well. In addition, even within the broad limits of their freedom of expression, politicians must also be aware of the impact – both positive and negative – that their conduct can have on the prevailing climate of tolerance in society. If political parties and representatives engage in respectful dialogue and take a clear stance against the incitement to hatred, the political climate will become more conducive to the integration of society. Therefore, party systems should be pluralistic, encourage free competition among all parts of society and be inclusive across ethnic lines[16].



[1] Minority Rights: International Standards and  Guidance for Implementation, United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, Ney York and Geneva 2010

[2] A Guidebook for Professionals working with communities in Kosovo. European Centre for minority issues Kosovo. 2013, p. 172.

[3] https://www.coe.int/en/web/minorities/text-of-the-convention

[4] Minority Rights: International Standards and  Guidance for Implementation, United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, Ney York and Geneva 2010

[5] Human Rights Law Review, Ringelheim .J., vol. 10, Issue 1, 2010, Oxford University Press

[6] http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx

[7] http://www.equalrightstrust.org/content/united-nations-declaration-rights-minorities

[8] Promoting and Protecting Minority Rights: A Guide for Advocates, United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, Geneva and New York, 2012

[9] http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf

[10] Framework convention for the protection of national minorities and explanatory report, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 1995

 [11] Milena Klajner.  Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Zagreb.  The Influence of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on Minority Rights Implementation: Thirteen Years after its Coming into Force

[12] https://www.osce.org/hcnm

[13] https://www.osce.org/hcnm/ljubljana-guidelines

[14] The Ljubljana Guidelines on Integration of Diverse Societies & Explanatory Note, OSCE/HCNM, 2012

[15] Guidelines on political party regulation, OSCE/ODIHR and Venice Commission, 2010

[16] Guidelines on political party regulation, OSCE/ODIHR and Venice Commission, 2010


Photo: The Daily Mail

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