Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Making voices heard at the international level
By Neil Clarke
MRG’s work with the UN has been one of the cornerstones of its work and identity over the last 50 years. The organization’s profile as the leading international non-governmental organization (NGO) in the field of minority rights has meant that MRG has been the ‘go-to’ organization in the development of international minority rights standards and their implementation.
Pre-dating the UN, the League of Nations, founded in 1920, had the protection of minorities as a central aim of its mandate. However, following the Second World War and the founding of the UN with its key document, the UN Declaration on Human Rights, followed by a succession of other treaties, detailed reference to the rights of minorities was far more limited. This was the result of sensitivity regarding how the claims of ethnic and religious minorities might provide a casus belli for states to engage in further conflict. However, in time, it became increasingly clear that the existing norms were insufficient for the protection of minority rights and a long process began, though little progress was made on this initially with some states being adamantly opposed to recognizing the existence of minorities.
In 1989, a new order began to emerge with the new democracies in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, MRG became heavily involved in the CSCE/OSCE processes, involving 51 states. It was a period of hope but old fears loomed not far away.
MRG, in partnership with the Helsinki Committees, organized major conferences in Copenhagen and Leningrad to promote a democratic and minority rights-based approach to these latent conflicts. Central to these two conferences was the engagement of civil society, including minority representatives, government officials and international scholars. The recommendations of the conferences and the mobilization of minorities directly influenced the OSCE minority rights regimes adopted in Copenhagen in June 1990 and provided a new momentum and agreed language for making progress on the text at the UN of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
MRG emerged as the key civil society counterpart to government representatives at the UN during the negotiation of the text, utilizing its own expertise, led by Patrick Thornberry (later to become Chair of MRG’s International Council from 1998 to 2002) and drawing heavily on its own close discussions with minorities. Subsequently, MRG provided a platform for minority activists from around the world to argue for the adoption of the UN Declaration and the establishment of a mechanism to promote its implementation.
Eventually, in 1996, a UN Working Group on Minorities was established where MRG organized the advocacy training and facilitated the participation of representatives of minority communities. Throughout the next two decades MRG continued to play a key role in shaping international minority rights norms, not only at the UN but also within European mechanisms, leading to the adoption of the Council of Europe (CoE)’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the founding of the OSCE’s Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities.
Throughout the last 50 years, one of the crucial areas of engagement of MRG has been in promoting the implementation of minority rights. A Director and then a Council member were independent expert members of the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Another Director was the President of the CoE Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM); two of our Chairpersons have been members of the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD); and a member of MRG’s International Council has chaired the United Nations Expert Mechanism of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP),
A further highlight of MRG’s 50-year track record in international advocacy was its role in leading civil society lobbying for the creation in 2006 of the role of the UN Independent Expert on minority issues, subsequently renamed as the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, and then the establishment of the UN Forum on Minority Issues the following year, after a campaign led by MRG and the International Movement Against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). The success of the campaign for adoption was very much against the odds: indeed during the UN reform process that took place in the mid-2000s, it was feared that a space for minorities at the UN would be abolished altogether. The success of the campaign lay mainly in the coalition of 80 largely minority-led civil society organizations (CSOs) from around the world, which MRG and IMADR were able to convene, all of which engaged in lobbying and the drafting of recommendations.
However, it is not the architecture of the UN or the international normative system that is at the heart of MRG’s engagement – it is in ensuring that the presence and voices of minority activists and communities are seen and heard on the international stage and, most crucially, that these platforms can be used by activists to effect real change for their communities. Indeed, many of the CSOs which supported the campaign for the establishment of the Forum were graduates of MRG’s annual training program on UN advocacy, now running in Geneva for close to 25 years, often in cooperation with the OHCHR (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) Minority Fellowship Programme. These days the training specifically precedes the Forum in November each year, allowing participants to attend the event and apply their skills through active participation. Sadly, the accessibility of the Forum to minority activists is still limited, due to the failure of the UN to provide adequate funding. So MRG’s support to activists, particularly those from the global south, has been critical in ensuring the genuine presence of minorities at the UN.
There are now several other international organizations engaging with minority rights at the UN, particularly within the normative framework and development of the Forum. However, our focus on practical advocacy and strategic use of UN mechanisms, in cooperation with partners, is still unique. Indeed, while there is genuine reason for scepticism as to whether UN mechanisms are able to influence change for minority communities, our partners find different and unique values in the process. Often their presence at a UN meeting can enable a minority activist to engage in direct dialogue with a government official or create media visibility for the issues they face – opportunities that may be unavailable to them at the national level. Besides finding crucial allies and partnerships through networking opportunities they would not normally have access to, participation at a UN event can also be greatly empowering in its own right for our partners, not to mention members of MRG’s own team.
Photo: MRG staff and partners at the UN Forum for Minority Issues in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 2019