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Improved protection for minorities vowed at UN Human Rights Council

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Member states of the United Nations from across the world regions made an important series of commitments to strengthening minority rights on 13 March at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Speaking at a special Council panel on the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, government delegations announced new programmes to promote minority languages, introduce affirmative action for communities facing discrimination, and increase minority representation in governance.

In her opening speech, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said: ‘Violations of minority rights constitute today a wide-scale problem, affecting all regions of the world, with multiple manifestations ranging from attacks on religious minorities to systematic exclusion of minorities from decision-making… These violations not only undermine human rights and sustainable development, but also fuel insecurity and conflict.'

Read Kyung-wha Kang's full speech.

The panel was convened by the Human Rights Council to mark the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to Minorities, described during the debate as one of the most important achievements of the UN system.

The Human Rights Council panel was moderated by Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of Minority Rights Group International. Mr Lattimer said: ‘The history of human rights over the last 20 years has been a history of gross abuses of the rights of minorities. As new conflicts erupt in the Middle East and elsewhere, we need to ensure that international legal protection for minorities is now implemented on the ground.'

Ms Kyung-wha Kang announced the creation by the UN Secretary-General's policy committee of a new UN Network on Racial Discrimination and Minorities, to be coordinated by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. ‘It is crucial that the entire UN system is engaged in this area,' she said.

Governmental and inter-governmental delegations made a series of important commitments during the course of the debate:

‘The government is actively pursuing minority-related programmes under the Prime Minister's new 15-Point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities … earmarking 15 per cent of the outlays for minorities in the flagship programmes of other ministries, enhancing education opportunities, equitable share in economic activities and employment and equitable flow of benefits in development' – Delegation of India

‘Under the right to social justice [in Nepal], the minorities have the right to participate in state structures on the basis of the principles of proportional inclusion' – Delegation of Nepal

‘The year 2012 has been declared as the Year for a Trilingual Sri Lanka. A ten-year national action plan has been formulated as the basis for a national programme to motivate the people to acquire language skills in all three major languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English' – Delegation of Sri Lanka

‘We are of the view that diversity management at the national and international levels is a key to address challenges that are being faced by minorities in their daily lives. At the same time, it is becoming imperative for governments to provide due political, social, economic and cultural space to minorities in their societies, including access to decision-making levels' – Delegation of Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

‘This battle continues in our own country as we vigorously enforce laws that protect the human rights of all individuals, including members of minorities, within the United States… We are committed to ensuring full political participation in our democratic process through enforcement of our voting rights laws' – Delegation of the USA

‘Ecuador ha adoptado resoluciones gubernamentales que obligan a las instituciones públicas a cubir un porcentaje de contratación de funcionarios entre personas de los pueblos y nacionalidades indígenas, afro-descendientes y montubias' – Delegation of Ecuador

‘The Angolan government recognizes the role of traditional authorities as entities directly linked to different communities and ethno-linguistic groups of Angola to solve and prevent conflicts on the basis of customary law' – Delegation of Angola

‘…la pratique a démontré que le respect des droits des minorités reflète le développement et la maturité de la société et représente un gage pour son progrès et sa prospérité' – Delegation of Morocco

‘…education in minority languages is a pre-condition for the preservation of minority cultural identity… Lavia finances obligatory primary and secondary education in eight national minority languages…' – Delegation of Latvia

‘The Italian government considers minorities' issues among the priorities of its agenda… It is worth mentioning the recent adoption of a National Strategy for the inclusion of Roma and Sinti communities, which inter alia provides for enhanced access to education, professional training, health services – in particular for vulnerable categories – and housing' – Delegation of Italy

‘Norway has launched a project to give minorities more attention in foreign policy… Key in protecting minority groups is to build rule of law' – Delegation of Norway

‘Austria will continue its commitment to the [UN] mechanisms established to promote and protect the rights of persons belonging to minorities, including the mandate of the Independent Expert as well as the Forum on Minority Issues … a unique platform within the United Nations' – Delegation of Austria

‘Recent developments in EU law and the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon make it clear that minority issues have moved to the forefront of the EU's political agenda' – European Union delegation