Virtually all countries in the world have national or ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities within their populations. Many violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights have a basis in discrimination, racism and exclusion on the grounds of the ethnic, religious, national, or racial characteristics of the victim group.
Minority issues have been on the agenda of the United Nations for more than 60 years. Already in 1948 the General Assembly declared that the United Nations could not remain indifferent to the fate of minorities. The 2005 World Summit Outcome reaffirmed the importance of minority rights’ protection and promotion to the work of the United Nations, stating that “the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities contribute to political and social stability and peace and enrich the cultural diversity and heritage of society.”
The main point of reference for the international community regarding the rights of minorities is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted by the General Assembly in 1992. It includes a list of rights to which persons belonging to minorities are entitled, including the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion and to use their own language. The Declaration reaffirms the rights of persons belonging to minorities to enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law. Other key principles include the protection of existence, promotion and protection of identity, and the right to effective participation.
Activities of the United Nations
- The Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Unit is the entity within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights specifically tasked with furthering the rights of persons belonging to minorities, including their struggle against discrimination. The Unit builds national capacity, including through human rights training for members of the civil society within the framework of the Minority Fellowship Programme; conducts research and analysis; provides substantive input to the work of the Independent Expert on Minority Issues and the Forum on Minority Issues; and engages with the wider community forging partnerships, raising awareness about the Declaration and other key standards and mobilizing support for anti-discrimination measures through legislation, policies and programmes. The Unit also coordinates the Inter-Agency Group on Minority Issues and provides support to the Office on the ground and UN country teams in their efforts to promote the rights of persons belonging to minorities and to eliminate discrimination against them.
- The Independent Expert on minority issues has a mandate to promote the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and to identify best practices and possibilities for technical cooperation by the UN human rights office.
- The Forum on Minority Issues serves as a platform for promoting dialogue and cooperation on issues pertaining to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and provides thematic contributions and expertise to the work of the Independent Expert on minority issues.
- The UN human rights office supports the activities of a number of human rights treaty bodies as well as special procedures which all devote attention to situations and rights of persons belonging to minorities (see especially the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Human Rights Committee).
- The UN human rights office supports the Working Group of Expert on People of African Descent, which elaborates short, medium and long term proposals for the elimination of racial discrimination against people of African descent.