Although minority rights are not the only protection necessary to prevent genocide, where minority rights are lacking or altogether absent, the likelihood of genocide—or any other type of violent conflict involving minorities—is that much greater. As Minority Rights Group International (MRG) wrote in a 2004 briefing paper, titled “Genocide and Minorities: Preventing the Preventable,”
“The UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities captures the spirit of the Genocide Convention in that it emphasizes that the right of national, ethnic, linguistic and religious groups to physically exist is not enough: states have a duty to protect the existence and identity of such groups (see Article 1  of the UN Declaration on Minorities). Governments must respect and support the rights of minorities to use their own languages, enjoy their cultures, profess and practise their religions, and participate effectively in public life.”
The authors of the paper also note:
“Sustainable prevention requires the development of ways for groups to at least peacefully coexist, and in time to integrate on the basis of shared values and interest. This implies the entrenchment of the rule of law based on the full and equal respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, and governance for the good of the whole population. The principles of non-discrimination and effective participation in public life both protect minority groups and ensure that their voices are heard in decision-making.”
With that in mind, this post marks the first in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through a new online course offered to the public free of charge by MRG, “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy.” The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.
The first course topic is basic concepts in human rights and minority rights. The first question posed is, Who are minorities? MRG uses the following working definition: The term minorities refers to ethnic, national, religious, linguistic or cultural groups who are smaller in number than the rest of the population and may wish to maintain and develop their identity. In differentiating between minorities and indigenous peoples, MRG provides another definition: Indigenous peoples are distinct ethnic communities who are the first inhabitants of a geographical region, and whose identities and cultures are inextricably linked to the land on which they live and the natural resources on which they depend.
The next section poses the query, What are human rights and minority rights? Human rights are freedoms and entitlements that all human beings have because they are human. They are to be enjoyed without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political and other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. This means they are universal. There are different categories of human rights, all of which have equal importance:
- Civil and Political: These rights protect people’s status and participation in the public sphere, e.g., the right to be free from torture, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
- Economic, Social and Cultural: These rights concern material and social welfare, e.g., the right to education, the right to health, the right to work and fair conditions of work.
The three main elements of minority rights are non-discrimination, protection of identity, and effective participation. There are two types of discrimination: direct and indirect. Direct discrimination is less favorable or detrimental treatment accorded to an individual or group of individuals due to their possession of one or more specific characteristics (for example, ethnic group, religion, language or sex). Indirect discrimination is when a practice, rule, requirement or condition outwardly appears to be neutral but it impacts negatively on a particular group in a disproportionate way. Protection of the distinct identity of a minority group in a particular country means that governments must guarantee the physical existence of that group. This means protection from genocide, forced expulsion or ethnic cleansing, and forced assimilation into the dominant community.
The right to participation for minorities includes three main elements:
- Participation in decision-making on issues that affect the minority
This principle is especially important. Minorities should be involved at all stages of the decision-making process and at all levels – local, regional, and national.
- Participation in all aspects of public life
It is essential for minorities to be able to contribute to the wider society and effectively participate in decision-making processes as members of the majority do, for example, through standing for elections.
- Participation in economic progress and the benefits of development
Minorities must benefit from wealth they generate, for example when they live in areas with valuable natural resources. Also, minorities should benefit from the proceeds of wider development agendas.
The next section seeks to expose commonly held misconceptions about minority rights. The first is that minority rights are divisive; the second is that they lead to breakup of the state; the third is that they are privileges for groups; the fourth is that taking action to support minorities discriminates against the majority.
As noted above, this blog post is just an outline; the course itself is more in-depth. The following links are suggested further reading for this section:
- UNDP, “Marginalised minorities in development programming,” pages 7–14
- MRG World Directory of Minorities (organized by country)