Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples
By Alan Phillips
The year 1989 was a watershed for minority rights in Europe. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall in Germany symbolized the rejection of the Communist system by the people of Central and Eastern Europe. Although MRG was a very small organization then, it responded speedily and effectively, drawing on its expertise, reputation and strong links with minority communities. On the one hand, there was an extraordinary atmosphere of change sweeping through Europe but also fear, particularly among western governments, that there was a strong possibility of violent inter-ethnic and inter-state conflicts mobilized by nationalist politicians.
MRG realized that it was time for a radical change in its approach. Over the previous two decades it had published a substantial series of printed reports, most of them around 20,000 words – short enough to be read in an evening. These were written by respected journalists and academics, and achieved an excellent reputation for their accuracy and analysis that attracted a wide readership. By 1989 there were already 80 titles with 440,000 copies sold over the previous 20 years. MRG adopted a radical new strategy of advocating minority rights in international forums, by promoting new international standards on minority rights and by targeting its publications to support this advocacy.
Crucially, it decided to publish a comprehensive new volume, The World Directory of Minorities: drawing on its rich library of reports and with the support of its network of authoritative experts, it synthesized its existing research, supplemented it with many new contributions and documented key minority rights standards. The concept was developed with the major publisher Longman to maximize its global outreach. MRG had already published three little known, short paperbacks, the first in 1977, with descriptions on ‘World Minorities’ that, while dated, provided a useful blueprint.
The World Directory of Minorities was published in 1990 with 160 major entries covering hundreds of named minorities. It also included major national and international standards on minority rights. It was a ground-breaking reference book designed to reach out well beyond academics, students and the UK press to an international audience of decision-makers in governments and intergovernmental agencies, including the UN Commission on Human Rights.
The directory never claimed to be comprehensive, nor was it suggested that it could be totally objective. Although it was a substantial hardback book of over 450 pages, it was based on entries that had been well researched and peer reviewed to ensure that it provided valuable, reliable information and promoted a greater understanding of the circumstances of minorities. The intention was to produce a living directory and, in the first editions, MRG strongly encouraged researchers to make contact if they could introduce us to a body of research that would ensure a more comprehensive coverage in future. It was seen as work in progress.
The first edition was widely acclaimed and was reprinted in 1991. It was costly to publish in a book form, but a new edition extending to over 800 pages was published in 1997. By then, the directory had played a significant role, not only in documenting the situation of minorities, but also in enhancing the reputation of MRG and adding to its authority. MRG used this in promoting the CSCE/OSCE standards on minorities (1990) and also in promoting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Minorities (1992), which subsequently inspired the Council of Europe’s (CoE’s) Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995), and the crucial UN and CoE monitoring mechanisms.
The directory, now known as the World Directory on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, has for the last decade been an online reference and was recently updated again with new entries. It will now be regularly refreshed to include recent developments and remain relevant for the policy-makers, academics, journalists, activists and others who rely on it for information. With thousands of unique users each year, it is one of MRG’s most widely used publications today – a testament to the lasting value of this resource three decades on.