Challenges and opportunities for minority rights

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We are a decade on from what was proclaimed as the ‘end of history’ a time when, according to many predictions, we would now be living happily in a world of liberal capitalist democracies, buttressed by the inexorable rise of human rights. Central to this optimistic view of the early 1990s was the idea that, following many ethnic and religious conflicts, minority rights were beginning to be taken more seriously. In reality, the twenty-first century has so far been one of bewildering change accompanied by the destruction of certainties, among them that of the inevitable rise of human rights. It is clear that gains that were once thought permanent can quickly be lost.

However, it remains clear that many ethnic, linguistic and religious groups are under threat, whether this threat is to the physical existence of individuals or to their identity as a group.

The issue of minority rights today cannot be looked at in isolation as it is impacted by general trends that affect global politics and human rights. Therefore it is necessary to examine, briefly, the current global changes that are likely to have the greatest impact on the protection of minorities. This is followed by a section on the main issues in human rights today; global institutions and human rights; the issues that affect minorities in particular, for good or ill; and a look at possible positive signs and opportunities.

Global Trends

Three key trends that will almost certainly dominate the rest of this decade are: continued globalization, in particular the ever-expanding communications revolution; a general breakdown in global and local certainties; and the end of the ‘Third Wave’ of democratization.


Globalization has become a label for many of the world’s ills. It means many things to many people, but four key areas should be noted.

First, the ever-increasing power of communications. This is important enough to necessitate further examination below. It is one of the critical aspects of globalization, perhaps the critical factor that makes this era different from previous periods of apparent global coming-together.

Second, the rise of a global capitalist marketplace, with ‘one size fits all’ economic policies being pressed on many of the world’s governments through organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The classic solution advocated for all economic problems for the last 20 years has been that of free trade, privatization and ‘open markets’ with the aim of integrating all the countries of the world into one world financial economy. The reason for this appears to be rooted in the ideological dominance of one economic model in Western (particularly English-language) universities, think-tanks and media, which has permeated the ranks of international policy-makers and is seen as the only option for the world. This globalization is in some ways similar to the financial globalization of the nineteenth century.

Third, an apparent move towards a mono-culture in much of the world, in which people watch the same films, buy the same clothes, eat in McDonalds and drink Starbucks coffee (this form of globalization is notably being pressed forward by American multinational corporations [MNCs]).

Fourth, what appears to be a rise in migration, caused by ever-increasing ease of travel; wars and other human-made catastrophes; environmental disasters; and economic expectations. This migration is a mixture of forced movement and increased voluntary movement, the latter propelled by the growing accessibility of communications and travel. While the novelty of this phenomenon should not be exaggerated, it is clear that much, if not most, of the world is facing immigration on a scale that it has not seen before.

The communications revolution is important enough to be considered in more depth. The Internet has become a part of people’s lives in the rich part of the world (including rich parts of the south), while the mobile phone has become almost totally ubiquitous, transforming human relations and increasing access to knowledge in parts of the world which previously had no access to modern communications. This means that issues such as human rights violations and poverty can be brought to the attention of the world far more easily and quickly than before.

At the same time, the positive aspect of the growth of global knowledge should not be overestimated. The rise in ease of communication allows those who wish to know about international affairs to be better informed, but the increase in choice of communications means that those who do not wish to be aware have the option of restricting their knowledge input to what they want to hear. Information overload is a growing problem, meaning that people have to make distinct choices as to what information they wish to process. One outcome is that news needs to be sensational in order to get noticed, and such news stories are often ephemeral.

Breakdown of certainties

The rise in a global marketplace, the breakdown in isolation of much of the world (particularly when people feel ‘invaded’ by outsiders), and the increased knowledge of the rest of the world have led to what should be called an age of uncertainty. This can be seen to have begun with the end of the Cold War and the breakdown of structures across the world that emerged during that period. But the breakdown of certainties has continued, and even speeded up, with a resultant rise in fear and anxiety.

One key cause of such anxiety is environmental change. Global warming is an example of how change in the environment is profoundly affecting people’s lives and communities. Another physical change ‘the AIDS epidemic’ has also had profound effects. One effect of such changes will be even greater migration of peoples.

Another cause is the rise of globalization. Economic globalization is penetrating local economies, overturning fundamental certainties such as the ‘job for life’ and changing patterns of work that have lasted for centuries. At the same time the rise in global migration, including refugees, is an aspect of globalization that appears to threaten identity, and combined with racism, is producing a backlash in many countries across the world.

The use of terrorism has been a defining feature of this new century and, in itself, probably represents a backlash against change. Terrorist groups have carried out attacks in parts of the world that had thought themselves immune. This is a relatively new aspect of globalization. But terror is the right word for what much of the world feels today. A vicious circle has begun, with governments using the fear caused by the lack of certainty and the threat of terrorism to curtail rights, which breeds new terror.

Finally, of most importance to governments, particularly dictatorships, is the rise of democracy and the empowerment of individuals (often helped by the communications revolution) that continues to threaten their old certainties of unchallenged power.

A real danger of lack of certainty is that the resultant fear leads to a backlash, which is likely to be directed against those seen as a threat or who are easily used as scapegoats, that is, minorities.


The ‘Third Wave’ of democracy that began in the mid-1980s appears to have finally ebbed (although Mexico and Senegal show that this force is not entirely spent). It has left a significant improvement in people’s lives, from East Asia across Eastern Europe to South Africa and South America, while at the same time overturning certainties and long-standing repression, sometimes (as in Indonesia, Nigeria and Yugoslavia) with violent consequences. The main trends for the remainder of this decade are likely to be a mixture of:

  1. Consolidation: Some states seem fully on the road to democracy as it has been generally understood: with relative stability, non-violent changes of government and the operation of the rule of law. Central Europe (with the pull of EU membership) is the strongest example, but the new democracies in South America and South Africa for the moment also appear to be strong.
  2. Dramatic democratization: ‘People power’ bringing down dictatorships is always a possibility, and there may well continue to be advances in Africa. China and the countries of the Middle East do not seem likely contenders for democratization at the moment, although nothing should be ruled out.
  3. Failure: The failure of democracy has already occurred in countries such as Belarus, Nepal, Pakistan and Zimbabwe and some countries in Central Asia. It is likely that some new democracies will fail spectacularly in this decade (e.g. Indonesia). The main causes will be insufficient democratization; war (often ethnically based and caused by years of repression); economic collapse; and corruption. The ‘war on terror’ will be used by many governments to justify repression, and possibly also the sudden or gradual abolition of democracy (one possibility of the latter being in Israel). Countries where democracy has been imposed from the outside will be under considerable threat.
  4. Stagnation: What may well be the defining feature of this decade is the stagnation of electoral democracy. The idea of democracy as being primarily and perhaps nothing more than turning out to vote every few years is losing strength both in old and new democracies, as seen by declining turnouts everywhere. Worse is the systematic corruption being revealed in many states, where it is clear that, even in a democracy, the rich can have a very high degree of control over the government. Russia is one example, but just as worrying is the health of democracy in Western countries, including Italy and the United States. It is clear that more accountability of government is needed, and it needs to be shown that government can benefit all.

The prime examples of stagnation and failure of democracy may be where there is international involvement. Of all the major international ‘democracy building’ missions of the last decade (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Iraq, Kosovo/a, Namibia), only East Timor can be considered a success so far, with Afghanistan and Iraq still very far indeed from any degree of success. These failures are partly due to a still-widespread view that elections are the most important sign of democracy, with the international democracy builders concentrating their attention on conducting elections.

It is clear that a new paradigm of democracy, as a form of government that brings benefits to all, is required. This should include: providing security, the rule of law, the protection of human rights and freedom to develop, and, perhaps above all, the accountability of all decision-makers to those whose lives they affect.

Human rights in the new century

What was once seen as the ‘inevitable’ development and implementation of human rights has been shown to be easily reversible, and this decade will be a testing one in this respect. The strength of the idea of human rights should be assessed in three areas: first, does it have moral authority; second, is it seen as a practical solution; and third are there institutions in place to protect it?


The strength of human rights has always been derived from its perceived morality, meaning that what human rights standards indicate that states and others should do is widely accepted as the ‘right thing’. Therefore the basis for these standards is critical if they are to have the necessary moral weight. In a multi-religious world, the acceptable basis for human rights is often seen as international legislation, meaning law that has been drafted and agreed by a body that is generally accepted as having the authority to do so (usually the United Nations [UN]), and has been accepted by most of the nations of the world. But, more than that, the moral basis for human rights relies on the ability of the idea of human rights to permeate into peoples’ consciousness in their day-to-day lives, so that those who have rights believe they can claim them, and those who should implement the rights feel under pressure to do so.

Human rights have continued to make many advances in general moral acceptability, for example, in the widespread view in many societies of the unacceptability of obvious discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or sexuality. And yet the last few years have shown that, worldwide, popular acceptance of basic human rights principles is weak. By using the public’s fear of ‘terrorism’ or even ‘crime’ governments, often supported by large sections of the media, have not only been allowed to take retrograde steps such as reintroducing the death penalty, mass detentions and even torture, but have even won popularity for doing so. The popularity of media that take an anti-minority stance is apparent across much of the world, often playing on public insecurities. In the democracies of Australia, India and Western Europe far-right parties and even mainstream parties that have adopted anti-minority policies have reaped electoral success.

A major problem is that the concepts, and even the idea of human rights still do not receive much popular support. Although most people would like to consider that they do believe in what is ‘morally right’ the term ‘human rights’ is still often seen as an elitist one which, in the view of many, is only used to protect criminals and terrorists. Part of the blame for this lies with human rights ‘professionals’ who are often elitist, and speak mainly to each other and to government officials and lawyers, and often complicate the human rights message unnecessarily. Insofar as the general population is seen as involved in the development of human rights at all, from these professionals’ point of view, they are there to be ‘trained’ and human rights are not seen as central to their lives. One example is that the fundamental shift in British legal culture represented by the Human Rights Act 1998, which will affect every UK citizen, has scarcely permeated the British consciousness.


Human rights have not just developed because they have been seen as the right thing to do, they have developed because those in a position of power have seen that human rights make practical policy sense both in their own country, or often, even more so, in others.

The factors that have led governments to implement human rights in their own countries are often a mixture of morality, particularly for new governments, or newly democratic ones. To be seen to protect human rights is also, of course, important for governments that want to preserve their international reputation (and this goes for rich countries, such as those in the Council of Europe, as much as poor ones), but avoiding economic sanctions can also be an issue. Protecting human rights can be seen as a step towards stability.

In their external relations, states have often adopted similar postures on human rights. The idea of appearing morally correct in foreign policy has been attractive, particularly in democracies, for over a century. Modern media can present human rights issues in a way that can put heightened pressure on governments to take action against human rights abuses. Many states promote human rights in other countries in the belief that states that protect human rights are better able to avoid conflict, are more stable and thus can promote economic development, with benefits all round. This has become even more important in an era of globalization. (One should note the development of the EU’s strict accession criteria, designed to guarantee that new members will protect human rights, in the belief that by doing so, the new member states will be stable.) The Kosovo/a intervention was significant: it showed that states were willing to interfere in what would have once been seen as the internal affairs of a country due to their fear of instability in the region (and resultant refugees).

It is increasingly apparent that the long-standing ‘double standards’ of many countries (applying one rule for the rest of the world and one to themselves) are becoming more and more difficult to sustain, particularly as modern communications technology makes it easier to discover and publicize these contradictions. A crisis faces the United States, which for many years has had a strong human rights component in its foreign policy, but which has always rejected any human rights ‘interference’ in its domestic affairs. Although the current administration has made it clear it will sacrifice the USA’s international interests when these come into conflict with its domestic freedom of manoeuvre (for example over the International Criminal Court), many others in the USA argue that this approach will result in long-term harm. Addressing questions of double standards can be very important in the development of states’ views on minority rights, when they are interested in minority rights outside their borders. Hungary is an example of a country with a direct interest in minority rights externally, which has therefore sought to apply them at home in order to avoid allegations of inconsistency.


The development of human rights has rested on several pillars: international institutions, particularly the UN and regional bodies, including international courts; governments; popular support; and NGOs. While this paper primarily addresses what is motivating the other actors, it may be fair to say that a crisis of identity is also looming for human rights NGOs.

Without NGOs there would be no human rights understanding as we have it today. And yet the raison d’être and legitimacy of NGOs are increasingly questioned. Very simply, the recent history of human rights NGOs can perhaps be separated into three stages. First, that of monitoring and standard-setting, where human rights organizations worked with governments to draw up international standards, as well as documenting and publicizing violations of human rights around the world. Then, having seen that merely publicizing the violations did not necessarily stop them, human rights NGOs often moved on to ‘human rights education’ in schools and with professionals. However, both this work and that of monitoring relied on the assumption that simply informing people about human rights and abuses would bring them to an end. Therefore, more recently, human rights NGOs have begun to focus on implementation, which normally involves working with governments. This has brought a big increase in their funding, given that governments have found the practical benefits of focusing on human rights increasingly useful. However, the danger has been co-option by governments and that, in growing too quickly, human rights organizations have lost their analytical skills, often dropped much of their ‘boring’ monitoring and retreated to simple, but often ineffective, education (which is easy to justify to governments). Many human rights professionals today spend their time travelling to conferences to see other professionals, including those in governments, without ever really addressing those with the power to make a difference.

The real challenge for human rights organizations today is to ensure that they and their staff both develop their specialist knowledge and work in the real world, dealing with the actual implementation of human rights.

To give examples of the positive and negative challenges of human rights today, the most negative challenge to human rights has been the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ while the most positive move of the last few years has been the implementation of justice and accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses.

The ‘war on terror’

The ‘war on terror’ represents a fundamental challenge to the human rights movement. The sight of the most powerful country in the world displaying contempt for human rights and the rule of law through acts such as kidnapping persons from around the world, detaining them indefinitely in intolerable, arbitrary conditions and threatening them with execution following trial in an executive-controlled court presents a huge challenge. There are further threats to fundamental values, such as the growing toleration of torture by governments and the media (reopening a battle that the human rights movement had thought had been won); the support given by the USA to governments that are widely believed to engage in widespread human rights violations (e.g. countries in Central Asia, Colombia, Egypt and Israel); and the use of the war on terror by many governments to step up repression against their own minorities in the name of ‘fighting terror’ (e.g. Israel, the Philippines, Russia). Of particular concern is the way that the judiciary in some countries appears to have become more susceptible to pressure, and has upheld breaches of fundamental rights.

Yet, it should be remembered that such actions are not new. ‘Terrorism’ has always been an excuse of repressive governments when they reduce human rights; and the backlash against the human rights abuses that such policies inevitably produce often strengthens human rights. The key for human rights movements will be to continue to understand and make clear what is unacceptable and why.

Justice: the human rights movement of this time

The last decade has seen major steps towards the implementation of human rights in terms of ‘justice’ meaning legal decisions on human rights violations, with clear remedies for victims, and prosecution of criminal perpetrators of these violations. Many of these developments have been in the field of criminal justice against senior people in governments. Members of governments carrying out human rights abuses have for long believed they would benefit from impunity. Yet this last decade has seen the setting up of the twin international tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, with a series of prosecutions including those of leading politicians, culminating in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. Most importantly for minorities, these have also included the first international convictions for genocide since the Genocide Convention was signed in 1948. At the same time, the decision by the UK courts that Augusto Pinochet would not benefit from immunity when accused, inter alia, of torture, and the attempted prosecutions of Ariel Sharon and Henry Kissinger, showed that no one should be considered immune from justice. The culmination of this has been the creation of the International Criminal Court, due to a very well-organized NGO campaign. On the other hand impunity is far from over – one egregious example being the tolerance of the possible election to power in Guatemala of Efrain Ríos Montt, who was President during the 1982 genocide of the indigenous communities.

But the movement towards justice is even wider. The justiciability of human rights, where governments comply with national or international judgments, has continued, perhaps surprisingly, to increase. The European Court of Human Rights is now established throughout the continent, and while it still faces a big challenge in Russia, its Convention is now part of domestic law in almost every country and is referred to more and more as fundamental law. To a lesser degree, the Inter-American system has also strengthened, and there are now moves towards an African Court of Human Rights. Members of minorities such as the Kurds and Roma have been able to have their cases heard, and responded to. Furthermore there has been an increased use of human rights in courts at the national level, the most spectacular example of the last decade being the South African Constitutional Court, which has set leading examples on the abolition of the death penalty, indigenous land rights, and the right to health to name but a few.

Among the most difficult issues, but one that is unlikely to go away, is that of ‘historical justice’. One reason for this is that historical injustices, particularly towards minorities that remain in a disadvantaged position, are rarely forgotten as long as that group retains a distinct identity. Issues of land are particularly strongly felt and long-lasting (e.g. the Jewish diaspora continuing to assert a claim to Palestine over 2000 years). Another reason for increasing reference to ideas of historical justice is that the strengthening of international and national law and subsequent accountability of governments before courts has made the idea of taking action to right historical wrongs appear more feasible. And of course, with an increased profile of such issues have come attempts, by some, to jump on the ‘bandwagon’.

Recent legal successes include those of indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand, and the Ilois people of the Chagos archipelago (Diego Garcia), who have at least had some of their historical injustices recognized in courts. And yet, historical justice can not be satisfied more widely until there is more common agreement on what should and should not be addressed by law, particularly when historical cut-off dates should be set (e.g. on reparations for slavery) and, in particular, how countries will come to terms with their colonial periods (this is not just a question for Western European countries, but potentially affects every group/state which once dominated another).

Global institutions and human rights

In an era of globalization one would expect global institutions to be deepening and strengthening their work, particularly on human rights. However, like much of the world they are suffering an identity crisis (particularly the UN) after the optimism of a decade ago.

Among global human rights institutions, the UN remains the only one with any legitimacy or power. Reports of its death have long been exaggerated, but it remains unclear how the invasion of Iraq and subsequent conflict will affect it. There is a chance it may emerge strengthened as the only body that can legitimize international intervention.

However, the UN’s role in human rights is likely to remain confused for the rest of this decade. One reason for this is the end of the spurt of optimism and rapid development of human rights which occurred a decade ago with the end of the Cold War. The most notable outcome of this optimism in the UN was the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, thus providing a focal point and coordinating body for human rights in the organization. The idea of UN intervention in the name of human rights became feasible, lasting to the end of the decade and the intervention in Kosovo/a (which, although not supported by the Security Council, was subsequently given approval by the creation of a UN administration). And yet today, there are no signs of any further movement forward, but rather a cutting back of the UN’s human rights institutions (particularly its Charter Bodies).

Second, the move from the UN as setting standards, to the UN as implementing human rights, presents a great challenge to the organization and all its member states, and it has become clear that the UN does not have the institutional machinery to address it. In particular, the UN Charter Bodies (the Commission on Human Rights and its various sub-commissions, including the Working Group on Minorities) do not appear to be the right bodies for this task. As the Commission itself (being made up of member states) is an intensely political body, and all member states would potentially face some very strong criticism from any effective human rights institution, it is clear that the attempts to make the Commission and its subsidiaries an effective mechanism for dealing with human rights abuses will always run into state opposition. The political horse-trading at the Commission becomes ever more unedifying and runs the risk of portraying each human rights issue as a matter to be negotiated between governments, destroying the idea of human rights as an objective standard against which individuals and groups can hold governments accountable. It is clear that many of the member states of the Commission are increasingly anxious to limit the activities of its more neutral, expert-led sub-groups, in particular the Sub-Commission and other bodies that are becoming too effective and presenting objective evidence of human rights abuses.

The Working Group on Minorities, the only UN specialized body on minorities, runs the risk of being part of this crisis in the Charter Bodies. It is now under attack from some governments that allege it has not been effective in changing conditions on the ground, even though it was not designed to, nor given the budget that would allow it to do so. On the other hand, if it did become effective in challenging governments those governments would then attempt to clip its wings through the Commission.

Perhaps the greatest failing of the UN on human rights is that it still does not adequately integrate its core roles of security and human rights. Despite this Secretary General’s attempt, as none before him, to recognize human rights as the priority of the UN that permeates all of its work (i.e. cross cutting all the other priorities), in practice human rights work is still mostly left to Geneva and seen as ‘soft’ whereas the ‘hard’ issues are dealt with in New York with the link rarely being made.

But the UN does have mechanisms that are relatively objective on human rights, and that even individuals can use its Treaty Bodies. These are perhaps the best hope for implementation as they are much less political than the Charter Bodies. If allowed to, they have the potential to develop an authority that will make it difficult for governments to resist compliance (this has been the case with the regional bodies in Europe, and, it is to be hoped, increasingly so in the Americas and Africa).

The key issues for the UN, which remains the only source for international human rights authority, are to strengthen its Treaty Bodies, find a human rights role for its political Charter bodies and above all, to integrate human rights protection throughout its work, particularly on security.

Other global institutions are of less importance. The International Criminal Court (associated with, but not a UN body) represents a hope for the future, but will need strong support against the attempt by the Bush administration to render it ineffective. The Commonwealth, with a quarter of the world’s population, is reaching for a human rights role, but so far this remains limited to moral pressure. The international finance and development institutions (particularly the World Bank, IMF and WTO (the latter itself a creation of the 1990s optimism) are also facing up to their role in a globalizing world in which a backlash is directed against them. There is some welcome recognition in these institutions that in order to legitimize their existence they have to acknowledge their human rights responsibilities, but changing such technocratic bodies, and their culture that there is one (free-market) answer to everything, and persuading them to look at the effects of, and the legal basis for, their policies, rather than simply focusing on economic processes, will require a massive culture shift.

Finally, in terms of its global impact, one cannot ignore either the USA (a hyperpower in military terms at least) nor the other potential global superpower, the European Union. The USA’s approach to human rights (often promoting it strongly externally, except when it clashes with perceived national interests, while denying any role for international human rights at home) may become untenable, as the USA itself cannot escape the effects of globalization. A welcome sign was the recent referral by the US Supreme Court to international law in its ground-breaking decision on the unacceptability of criminalizing homosexual sex. The European Union will take many years to find its international role, but it is clear that when it does united to take action, it could be as, if not more, powerful than the US. The death of integration in the EU has long been predicted but has never occurred, so it is reasonable to assume for the moment that the voice of the EU as more than the sum of its parts will gradually grow.

Threats to minorities

Threats to minorities are today the same as they have ever been: destruction, whether physical (i.e. genocide) or cultural (i.e. assimilation and the loss of identity). Added to this is the intolerable discrimination faced by many.

Physical destruction

The worst genocides of the last century are acknowledged to include those of the Herero in Sud-West Afrika in 1904; Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915; Jews, Roma, Slavs and others in Nazi-occupied Europe 1941; the indigenous population of Guatemala in 1982; Muslim Bosniaks in Bosnia in 1991; and the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. The ethnic or religious cleansing of states was undertaken during or immediately after both world wars (e.g. Greeks/Turks; expelling of German and Hungarian minorities) and when the end of colonial empires created new states and conflicts (e.g. Muslims and Hindus in India; Palestinians and Jews in Israel/Palestine and across the Middle East; the attempted ethnic cleansing in the break-up of Yugoslavia). Thus it appears that genocide or ethnic cleansing occurs during wars (internal or external) or at the creation of fragile new states with uncertain boundaries. Applying those lessons to today, possible major threats to minorities include threats to India’s Muslims in the event of a war with Pakistan; to minorities in Iraq and Afghanistan if conflict continues to increase there; and to minorities in countries in Central Asia, whose new states are fragile and far from democratic. Perhaps the greatest threat in the long term will be to minorities in an unstable China.

Loss of identity

Another threat to all minorities is assimilation, particularly through globalization processes and the destruction of identity by imposition of an economic model that requires integration with national and international markets. Education, while recognized by most minority groups as vital to their success, also represents a threat if the only education available is that of a different culture. Minorities still have to develop a way of engaging with the world, and of addressing issues such as women’s rights while retaining their essential identity. Of particular importance to many minority groups is the threat to their lands, particularly in a culture that (over-)values individual ownership. Yet those responsible for ‘development’ policies, with the exception of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and some bilateral donors, show little sign of recognizing this.


Even when the actual existence of minorities is not under threat, many continue to live in intolerable conditions due to discrimination, whether overt or concealed, intentional or accidental. While formal, apartheid-type discrimination against ethnic and religious groups may be in decline due to its international unacceptability (with the exception of discrimination based on citizenship), indirect discrimination remains rampant.

Indirect threats to minorities

It is possible to identify three key issues which may indirectly lead to further threats against minorities.

The first such issue is conflict. All recent genocides and most ethnic cleansings, have occurred during or immediately after external or internal wars. Conflicts heighten tension, make killing more acceptable and provide an opportunity for settling scores. Mass killings of minorities can be an effect of wars that are not fought on ethnic or religious lines (e.g. in Democratic Republic of Congo, which has seen massacres of the Batwa), but often the greatest risk is when a minority is seen as ‘disloyal’ in a conflict to their ethnic or religious kin (e.g. in the war on terrorism).

At the same time more general instability is often a great threat to minorities. When there is a weak government, or no government, the most vulnerable suffer. Also, governments and societies that feel under threat may scapegoat disadvantaged groups (who, despite their powerlessness, may nevertheless be seen as a threat). The search for security in an unstable world is probably a major factor in the continuing rise of religious nationalism, apparent in much of the Muslim world, in India and in the USA, which often (but not inevitably) results in attacks on religious minorities. Instability in the world today affects so-called ‘failed states’ (those where the central government cannot make its writ run); of these, Afghanistan and Iraq may at present constitute the greatest threat to minorities. Instability also affects countries where ethnic or religious tensions are high, and minority rights are not respected. Instability also affects parts of the world where boundaries appear to be unstable, often because of ethnic or religious tensions. And it affects countries moving out of strong dictatorships (where a relaxation of repression may often lead to a rise in nationalism or religiosity and attacks on ethnic or religious lines). Indonesia is an example of this process; more problems in Russia are likely; and the government of Zimbabwe may persecute ethnic minorities again, as in the 1980s. Possible changes to regimes in the Middle East and, above all China, could be the greatest challenge yet.

A great source of insecurity in the world today is terrorism, often rooted in ethnic and religious grievances. This can give governments an excuse to persecute minorities (alongside the threat to Muslims worldwide, from the USA to Western Europe, to India and the Philippines). Israel has attacked Palestinians, in the name of the ‘war against terrorism’ and Algeria has repressed minorities on the same grounds with the support of the USA. Global militarism can also directly threaten minorities, as with the Ilois people of the Chagos archipelago, whose legal right to return to their home in Diego Garcia is made impossible by the US base there.

And already stated, globalization can be a major threat to minority communities, in particular the idea of moving towards one global capitalist market, and one culture.

Alongside the many threats to minorities in particular countries and regions, minority rights themselves remain under threat as an issue. As well as the ongoing threat to human rights per se, the position of minority rights within human rights remains tentative; it is often denied by governments and is rarely acknowledged by western NGOs. Since the 1992 UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, the idea of developing a legally binding international standard has stalled. In Europe, which in the last 10 years has taken the lead on minority rights, developments have been limited – with no minority rights protocol in the European Convention on Human Rights, and no mention in the draft EU Constitution (representing a backward step, as it may no longer even be a criteria for membership). While a few (small) European countries with minority issues of their own, including Austria, Finland and Hungary have taken up the issue of international minority rights, other countries with an interest in minority protection at home (e.g. Brazil, South Africa and the USA) or a strong interest in kin outside (e.g. Russia, China, India) have scarcely acknowledged the issue. When international policy-makers refer to ‘minority rights’ it is often without understanding, or simply with the idea of carving up a government by ethnicity, as in Afghanistan.

Opportunities for implementing minority rights

For those who experienced the optimism of the 1990s, when it appeared that anything was possible in the field of global human rights, the uncertainties of this decade may appear depressing, particularly when minority rights appears in danger of being forgotten. However, it would be wrong to say that minorities today face significantly greater problems than in previous eras (the early 1990s saw genocide in the Balkans and in Rwanda), and it is important to identify the opportunities that this decade will bring. Just a few possible opportunities are sketched in below.

Pro-diversity movements

One important opportunity lies within the protest movements that have sprung up recently, which (often misleadingly) have been labelled ‘anti-globalization movements’ In fact the motivations of the people involved in the various campaigns of the last few years have been very varied, and some have an anti-human rights agenda. However, several inchoate, but nevertheless strong forces motivating many people today include a desire for global accountability of decision-makers; for ‘fairness’ for diversity; and against ‘one size fits all’ mono-cultural globalization. All of these vague desires could be channelled into support for minority rights. Engaging with these issues could provide an opportunity to make minority rights an issue for many people rather than a few.


Globalization is an opportunity as well as a threat, however, particularly for the human rights movement (which is itself a movement for globalization). Of most importance is the astonishing rise in global communications over the last decade, which, it appears, can only continue to increase. Although, to some degree, limited by economics, there is now scarcely a part of the world that has not been affected by the Internet, the mobile phone or both. The opportunity for any international human rights organization is that this means that human rights violations can be discovered and broadcast ever more quickly. It also means that human rights campaigners who rely on the publication of human rights abuses may have to speed up their procedures – including demanding ‘instant’ responses that they know will have a long-term impact, and making messages easy to understand without diluting their content. In addition, the growth in communications means that networks of groups tackling similar problems can be set up, and can diffuse international law and standards in a way that links up with real, day-to-day problems. However, like businesses, NGOs and all others working internationally may need to assess what they do and what the communications revolution means for them.

Conflict prevention

As has been the case since at least 1919, the key practical argument for minority rights, in the eyes of most policy-makers, will remain the argument that, by implementing minority rights, states and societies will become more stable and less prone to violent conflict. In a world of instability that has seen many conflicts with abuses of minority rights as their cause, this argument, if made carefully but forcibly, should have an even greater force.


Finally, the human rights issue of today, the implementation of ‘justice’ (i.e. international rights as law, and individual and institutional accountability for crimes) holds opportunities for minorities. The strengthening of the rule of law both nationally and internationally holds many opportunities for the effective implementation of minority rights as law. The requirements will be that the rule of law includes the rights of minorities, that minorities understand and are able to use this law, and institutions that implement this rule of law can and do address minority concerns. When the law protects the disadvantaged it is a very powerful weapon.

Human rights, and particularly minority rights, are today at a critical juncture. In an uncertain world, perhaps the critical issue is to make the international standards real and relevant to minorities’ lives, and in the decisions of those who have power over them. The key opportunities just described are also opportunities for those who wish to promote minority rights and to make them relevant, which will be the best way to secure them.

By Clive Baldwin

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