“The world was full of hope,” said Paulo David, Head of UN Human Rights’ Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section, during a virtual roundtable discussion on the adoption of the UN Declaration on Minority Rights..
The engaging conversation was organized by UN Human Right’s Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section and Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and is part of the year-long commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Minority Rights.
The webinar brought together minority rights experts from the United Nations, academia, and NGOs to reflect on lessons learned over the past 30 years and challenges that remain including those connected to gaps in normative protection on minority rights.
David added while the adoption of the Declaration brought hope 30 years ago, this feeling was quickly lost due to the armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia. He also said that minorities continue to be instrumentalised in many conflicts, including in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Minorities remain invisible and vulnerable
“Minorities remain – well completely and surprisingly left out from any significant progress in the last 30 years,” said Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues. “Minority issues are extremely low on the UN agenda – and the time has come to review, reflect and reform since the rights of minorities are being too often side-lined or even ignored.”
He highlighted the fact that there have been several cases where minorities were intentionally removed from the lists of vulnerable or targeted groups needing protection in United Nations documents and initiatives.
“We are again entering in a critical period where this attention needs to be refocused,” he said.
This refocus is necessary because there are more than 100 million forcibly displaced people due to the global upheaval in the last decade of wars and internal conflicts, which involve minorities, he said. Also, more than three quarters of the world’s stateless are persons who belong to minorities.
“In many countries around the same proportion are the targets of hate speech and hate crimes in social media – and we are seeing an increase in calls to genocide against minorities…,” he said.
As de Varennes explained, world events have made it even harder for minorities with the compounded effects on minorities due to the pandemic and sustained structural discrimination. This has led to deepened disenfranchisement, exploitation, and victimisation, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed deeply rooted discrimination, exacerbated inequalities within and among countries, and ushered in an economic and social crisis affecting the enjoyment of all human rights, including disproportionally those of minorities, he said.
While the outlook may look dim, UN Human Rights launched several initiatives to help advance minority rights including the Anti-discrimination Guide, the Minority Artists Awards on Statelessness, and the Minorities Fellowship Programme.
Also, a major achievement of the Declaration is that it provided longstanding protection of the existence of minority groups, said Rita Izsàk, Former Special Rapporteur on minority issues.
“But minorities need more knowledge on how to preserve their identity, language, culture, and religion,” she said.
She stressed the shrinking of civil space for minorities is dire and they are not given the opportunity to be part of decision-making.
It is not enough to have good legislation.
RITA IZSÀK, FORMER SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON MINORITY ISSUES
“We need good implementation of the policies,” she said. “The right to participation is essential because if minorities are part of the process, we have a better chance of their needs being reflected.”
Joshua Castellino, Executive Director of MRG, said that minorities appear to be lower on the diplomatic agendas of states, and the threat to minorities has been growing as populist politics become based on contestations of their identities and belonging.
“The analysis of the situation and the normative gaps reflected suggest that there needs to be renewed emphasis in ensuring that swathes of communities who are increasingly coming within the headlamps of strife benefit from the myriads of international legal standards that exist to mitigate their plight,” he said.
Castellino said that democracies are being used to scapegoat minorities and the only way to mobilize communities and institutions is a binding treaty because the Declaration hasn’t been enough to protect minorities.
According to Larry Olomofe, Founder and Managing Director of Cosmodernity Consultants, efforts should be made to change the negative rhetoric that is used to promote minority rights, such as affirmative action efforts in the United States.
“There needs to be critical mass and political will to give credibility to some principles, and to establish precedents leading to stronger norms and practices,” he said.
John Packer, Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, said, “the problem of minorities is the problem of majorities: it relates to diversity, choice, and self-determination.”
He stressed the need for a convention-making initiative that will generate conversation. He expressed support for the development of a full and comprehensive normative framework on minority rights with an implementation mechanism.
Corinne Lennox, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights at the University of London, said that it would be advantageous to decouple different minority groups, as their needs and interests may not be the same. For instance, she referred to how “the indigenous peoples” movement started with non-discrimination, which was not sufficient to achieve their goals, so they expanded its scope to include other norms.
“It is important not to reduce minority rights to non-discrimination: the protection of minorities goes far beyond equality and non-discrimination, towards self-determination,” she said. “A treaty could consolidate the rights of minorities in a single instrument, considering the ongoing proliferation of norms.”
Lennox said this is why it’s important the UN invests more in the minority framework.
“We’re entering a crisis, and at the risk of hyperbole, what we are dealing with might be better described as a vacuum rather than gaps,” de Varennes said. “You are here to consider what started 30 years ago and the need to refocus the international community’s much needed attention in a period of global crisis.”