Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Introduction: The end of hate and the dawn of a sustainable future – an existential fight for humanity
By Joshua Castellino, Executive Director of MRG
The best qualities of humanity have, throughout history, attracted individuals of high calibre to step beyond their comfortable worlds to reach out in support and assistance to others. Their actions, born out of kindness and empathy, and extolled in countless stories and exhorted for centuries by philosophers and faith leaders, led them to stand up for the oppressed, while seeking to amplify their voices and do what they can to safeguard those far from sites of power against their oppressors.
Minority Rights Group International (MRG) owes its existence to this tradition. In the days when David Astor imagined the need for such an organization it was clear that there were people ‘with voice’ and those with none. It was a period of hope, but old fears loomed not far away. Decolonization had freed vast swathes of territories from colonial rule, the devastation of the Second World War was in the rear-view mirror, and fledgling African and Asian states were beginning to take their places on the world stage. However, stories of ethnic violence and unrest were never far from the surface, whether rooted in recent history – the reappearance of anti-Semitic graffiti in European streets, for instance – or new developments, such as the arrival of African and Asian families in search of work whose experiences of stigma and discrimination continue to echo generations later. Giving voice to the voiceless may well have been a theme that motivated and drove our predecessors at MRG, sustained by a belief that research, insight and reason would enable conversations about truth to power that would ultimately prompt lasting change. Written into this was the assumption of the good in the human spirit: that empathy with humanity would win the day.
It is beyond any doubt that MRG was born of privilege. Its early pace-setters chose to use that privilege as a platform to argue, reason and negotiate with those in power with the specific purpose of achieving significant administrative, legislative and judicial changes that would ensure the realization of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual from a minority or indigenous background. Located in London, the capital city of one of the modern world’s most notorious colonial powers, the United Kingdom, it sought to use its place at the table to argue for those not invited to attend.
Fifty years is a very long time for an organization of the size and complexity of MRG. This collection of essays draws on the many strands that characterize our work across this time period, written by some of the incredible people who worked and continue to work for us. In the initial phases much of this work probably sought to ‘give voice to the voiceless’. Looking back at our earliest reports, it is clear that our predecessors drew attention to minorities and indigenous peoples whose issues had not received much, if any, world attention. The impact this had – the simple act of public recognition for communities who were sometimes not even officially acknowledged by their own governments – should not be underestimated: time and again, we hear from now elderly minority and indigenous activists who contact us to say that an early MRG report was instrumental in their own rights awareness.
But the more we have listened, learnt from and grown in our admiration of the communities we partner and struggle with, the more we have realized our own implication in a deeply unjust international society and sought to, instead, refocus our efforts on disrupting, fixing and reconstructing sound systems to tune out the ambient noise that continues to silence the voices of minority and indigenous communities. This requires, of course, the courage not only to call out the abuses of governments, corporations and armed groups, but to also reflect on our own positionality in the power structures that serve to exclude and marginalize these groups.
Minority rights is one of the oldest antecedents to the development of the Law of Nations. Its prevalence in the earliest treaties and agreements signed between states was far greater than principles of human rights law. Yet power and privilege over centuries ensured that it stayed in the margins, called on at key moments to present a civilizing hue to naked quests for power and domination that sought to subjugate all who presented themselves as obstacles. Minorities and indigenous peoples never self-defined themselves that way, nor specifically sought to stand in anyone else’s way. We merely became ‘minorities’ and ‘indigenous peoples’ as others sought to harness what we had and sought to rally their greater numbers in a bid to revoke rights through the exercise of force and subterfuge.
The human rights framework that emerged most strongly with the creation of the United Nations (UN) appeared to have finally found a way to guarantee the rights of all. In the centuries-old legal battle between Order and Justice, almost always won by Order even when it meant imposing an unjust order, it instead emphasized the notion of Justice. However, at its very foundations the minority experience was relegated from the human rights headlines, despite the specific experience of Jews and others as minorities targeted by genocidal actions, that led to the key moments in the founding of the organization. The task adopted then, especially relevant in today’s troubled times, was that rather than emphasizing that minorities’ lives matter, it was important instead to guarantee that all lives mattered. The key difference, then as now, is that one calls for structural change, the other is merely a statement of an obvious value.
For indigenous peoples, a different equally promising dawn appeared. High on the UN priority list was the celebration of the notion of self-determination, accompanied by stirring words against oppressive colonial rule. In many cases, however, the processes that flowed from this principle merely transferred power from white colonial rulers to men from dominant ethnic, religious or linguistic communities, often aligned closely with power and speaking its language, to start a reign of a different hue.
So here we stand – more than 50 years later in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected minorities and indigenous peoples. The failure to create inclusive societies has simply meant that ever more mediocre men from dominant majorities can ascend to power. Hate has been decimating our societies, dividing us into narrow vote banks, fostering artificial ‘majorities’ as desperate despots keen to seize levers of power, with neither the vision nor the solutions to societies’ many problems, utilize the obvious: large numbers trump small numbers.
The quest for democratic governance has turned into a simple game of numbers far removed from the hallowed values that underpinned its birth. The generation of these is achieved through complicated algorithms that use personal identity data available to a select group of corporations. This facilitates the construction of complex formulas to ensure that scapegoating of opponents can, through a calculated reach that includes a toxic mix of hate speech, fake news and intimidation, result in influencing individual voter decisions. These mechanisms disseminated en masse, targeted to an angry disenfranchised public faced with a sense of crisis and the drying up of economic opportunity, has created our distasteful dissonant present. The state of disrepair in public life, especially the conspicuous lack of governance abilities among many of those supposedly responsible for governing, has been deeply exposed by the recent outbreak of the pandemic. Global society today has effectively reached a fork in the road.
The perpetrators of hate politics who drive narrow conceptions of identity to scaremonger have, unsurprisingly, proven unable to deal with real threats. These include the steady decline in the ability to generate meaningful employment for gainful return, apathy and indifference towards the emerging devastation of the climate crisis and, of course, more dramatically, failures to control the spread and potency of the pandemic that has decimated societies. Those divisive formulas that won power, ostensibly in the name of the majorities, failed to evoke a response that could safeguard life, generate standards of living, or come to terms with the problematic histories that led to the call for #BlackLivesMatter.
The result is a loss of authority and respect for governance, tokenistic actions regarding the climate crisis, and eye-watering death tolls as individuals without the requisite governance experience find themselves out of their depth, but are not endowed with the spirit or courage to resign in realization of their own limitations. Rather they have decided to ‘fight back’: stirring more hate, deflecting blame while continuing to drive humanity towards disaster by inaction and ineptitude, ensuring only that they squeeze out profit for their wealthy friends with insatiable appetites.
This caricature of some democracies stands in sharp contrast to others. Covid-19 has served as a testing ground for the democratic health of many countries, particularly their ability to prioritize the safety and well-being of all their citizens regardless of religion, language or ethnicity. Societies that invested in generating and reconstructing an inclusive national fabric have facilitated the development of the collective talent present in the entirety of its society. These states, led by individuals (often women), listened to the unfolding crises carefully and hastened to ensure the pandemic would not spread. They did not worry about identities and entitlements, nor seek to construct bluffs or displays of bravado, resorting instead to long hours of meticulous planning to ensure that the entirety of their populations would come through the crisis. They realized the virus would not discriminate and put in place measures to ensure safety and security especially for the vulnerable, conscious that leaving the virus festering among subaltern communities would be not only morally dubious, it would effectively prolong the economic crisis that will inevitably follow to hinder compete eradication.
In many ways, the pandemic has brought to light many long-standing issues such as exclusion, inequality and invisibility that were already recognized in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with their emphasis on ‘leaving no one behind’. These are the key challenges for minority and indigenous rights in the next few decades, even once the devastation of the current pandemic has passed. While Covid-19 may become the defining crisis of the early twenty-first century, it looms against the larger, more entrenched environmental crisis: this, like the virus, is already impacting disproportionately on minorities and indigenous peoples.
The SDGs call for urgent action at scale in addressing planetary issues such as climate change through reducing consumption and reversing damage, while seeking solutions to benefit life in its entirety on the planet, including the seas; they focus on ensuring that people-oriented benefits – the end of poverty, equitable access to health, education and sustained work – accrue to all, with none left behind; and they outline a range of processes, including the active reduction of inequality, the elimination of gender disparity, and the entrenching of global solidarity and institutions to harness cooperation in achieving this vision.
The message for us at MRG is clear: we need to work actively in cooperation with others to out-think and out-manoeuvre the bullies that lurk ready to seize opportunities to enrich themselves, while actively designing solutions and systems that invest in the people that can replace them. One option saves lives here and now. The other is focused on winning the future in such a manner as to make the angry men irrelevant. Most crucially, this has to be done by educating majorities, schooling them in the ways of empathy – the same foundational value that led the smartest and hardiest to reach out beyond their worlds to others. This time we do not need saviours at high table, just the collective power and determination of the many, to imagine and implement solutions for a world where differentiated human identities are a source of celebration, not a red line between existence and annihilation.
Top photo: An elderly Nyangatom man in Omo valley, Ethiopia / Alamy | In-text photo: Two Lisu girls in Shan State, Myanmar / Jenny Matthews/Alamy