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EXPLAINER: Why are minorities gathering in Geneva this week?

30 November 2022

By Miriam Lawson, Communications Officer at Minority Rights Group 

Minority Rights Group (MRG) and partners from across the world are in Geneva this week for the 30th UN Forum on Minority Issues. But what is this forum and why does it matter?  

The history

The UN Forum on Minority Issues was established fifteen years ago, in 2007, out of the failure of existing UN mechanisms to call governments to account for minority issues. MRG was instrumental among a group of NGOs in its creation, to carve out a space where the issues affecting minorities around the world could be discussed, that reported to the UN Human Rights Council and where any member of a minority could participate without necessarily belonging to an accredited NGO. Though certain states resisted the creation of such a space, they were thankfully unsuccessful in stopping it –the UN Forum on Minority Issues was born. 

MRG has been present at every forum to date and this year is no different. Avoiding to speak ‘on behalf’ of anyone, we are bringing together members of minority communities from around the world to speak directly with UN and state representatives about the issues their communities are facing. 

The present moment is one of elevated danger for minorities. As we mark the 30th anniversary of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Minorities, the forum is asking minority human rights defenders about their roles in promoting minority rights, about the gaps in the implementation of the Declaration, as well as offering them an open channel to discuss the issues important to them. 

Real change comes from the grassroots, from the local organizations and activists fighting for the rights of their communities. The forum offers an opportunity for them to enter a hall of power and make their voices heard.

MRG staff and partners at the UN Forum for Minority Issues in November 2019.

‘This is theory, we need practice’

While the forum this year starts on 1 December and will last two days, as always, MRG dedicates time in the days leading up to the event to deliver training on minority rights and forum participation. Yesterday, I sat in on one – it was arresting to hear from minority rights defenders in person.  

One mentioned how ‘we have a real problem of representation, and women and minorities don’t have positions of power.’ Though she was speaking about her own country, this rings true the world over. ‘It’s high time to have a real conversation’, she said. Indeed, even in those states where the most egregious violations of human and minority rights occur, governments often profess lofty claims of equality. At the forum, minority rights defenders can expose the often gaping chasms between the state-sanctioned discourse on minority rights in their country and the reality on the ground. 

The forum is a channel for the lived experience of minorities to shape UN policy. As we learnt about international minority rights law at the training yesterday, one participant remarked, ‘this is theory, we need practice.’ This is why the forum matters.  

The UN itself cannot unilaterally depose oppressive regimes or end exploitative global systems. But the forum is an occasion for minority rights defenders to take up space on the global stage, to speak directly, to make sure that the actions that are taken by the UN are as meaningful as they can possibly be in the fight for minority rights.

Ghofrane Binous, Black Tunisian activist speaking at an MRG training on minority rights and the UN system. Geneva, November 2022. Credit: Miriam Lawson/MRG.

A place to connect, a time to listen

The minority rights defenders participating in the forum are advocating for their communities in traditional media, spreading awareness via social media, fighting legal battles or building solidarity with civil society organizations. For individuals with such diverse backgrounds, this is not merely a place to share their experiences, but also the expertise they have built. It is a vital opportunity for individuals to forge connections across borders and share the tools they have used to create change in their own countries with one another. It is also a space where broader support can be built through meetings with representatives of the UN itself, of its member states or of NGOs. 

In the next two days, members of minority communities will take the challenges their communities face and turn them into recommendations for change. Many have travelled great distances and navigated unwelcoming or even hostile bureaucracies to travel to Geneva. Some are doing so at great personal risk. The forum offers them an opportunity to advocate for their communities in what is for some a far more secure environment than at home. It is also an opportunity for the international community to reflect on the progress made and alarm bells ringing.  

This is a space for minority rights defenders to speak where the world is watching. Though we cannot guarantee change, the UN Forum on Minority Issues offers a critical channel for defenders of minority rights to call for it, in their own words.  

We must listen.

Follow us on Twitter for updates from the UN Forum on Minority Issues this week.

Photo: The United Nations in Geneva. Credit: Anna Alboth/MRG.

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