Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
European societies have never been static, and transformation continues in the 47 members and one state candidate of the Council of Europe (COE): from Iceland in the North Atlantic to Eurasian Russia and Turkey in the East. Political and economic upheavals and war have spurred migrations to and within Europe over the centuries. The churning of European populations and influx of migrants have rendered some indigenous peoples minorities and created societies that are rich in ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity. In recent years major developments affecting minority groups have included the collapse of European communism and the Soviet Union itself; conflicts in the Balkans and beyond; deepening economic disparities between Europe and poor—particularly African—countries; low birth rates in many European countries; and the expansion of the European Union. These factors and others have variously brought persecution and crisis, but increasingly new opportunities and protections to European minorities.
Some indigenous peoples in Europe have long experienced pressure from newer arrivals whose cultures have become dominant through some combination of shifting numerical majorities, overt policies of assimilation, economic disparities and imperialism. Today such indigenous groups generally have similar interests in cultural preservation, language rights, political representation, access to justice and, often, land rights.
For marginalized indigenous peoples such as those in Russia’s North, Far East, and Siberia, challenges can shift with political circumstances: in their case from threats of Russification, forced settlement, and industrialization in the Soviet era, to loss of land due to booming extraction industries today.
Indigenous groups often straddle borders, and are subject to differing policies. For example, while Norway, Sweden and Finland have all improved policies to protect the language and culture of the Sami people, the Sami language is an official language in Norway, broadly recognized in Sweden, but regarded as a regional minority language in Finland.
Governments don’t always treat their indigenous and minority peoples equally. While Ireland has made great strides in protecting and promoting the Irish language, it maintains legal obstacles to the traditional nomadic culture of Travelers, who still face discrimination, especially by local authorities.
Indigenous and non-indigenous minorities in Europe can be confronted by discrimination and even denial of citizenship. Across the continent, Roma remain the most vulnerable group, often excluded from employment, housing, education and access to health services or justice. They are frequently targeted for violence, all too often with police acquiescence or even participation. Roma children encounter racism, segregation, and systematically lowered expectations in many schools across Europe. Roma women can face double discrimination, for example through coerced sterilization in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. With vast under-representation in European governments and institutions, it has been difficult for Roma to find political redress to violations of their rights.
Minorities in one country who form a majority in another frequently have become political targets. Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic stoked fears among Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia about their minority status, and backed the resulting separatist movements. In Croatia in the 1990s, the government played into Milosevic’s hands by embracing anti-Serb rhetoric, symbols and policies. In Estonia, discriminatory policies against the Russian minority have similarly provided fodder for a Russian government eager to re-assert itself in what it regards as its ‘near abroad’. The prospect of EU and NATO membership helped to diffuse similar tensions regarding the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania, by requiring legal protections for minority rights and an end to inflammatory political rhetoric from Budapest, Bratislava, and Bucharest.
Likewise, the strengthening of the EU’s common institutions may make states more willing to follow the lead of the UK and Spain in devolving power to minority-dominated regions. Secessionist groups who receive more local power may be more or less likely to seek divorce from national capitals, but as borders within the EU lose their significance, the stakes in such disputes might, eventually, be much lower.
Immigrant populations have long existed in Europe. South Asians and Chinese immigrants have made major contributions to the UK’s culture and economy, and yet all remain prone to everyday discrimination, and some subsets of these groups have remained marginalized. Newer arrivals to Europe from Africa often face racism and marginalization in education and employment. Traditional immigrant societies have come into conflict with national and European guarantees on the rights of women in areas including equal access to education. In France, North African immigrants have been largely ghettoized, face rampant discrimination in employment, and become the objects of anti-immigrant political demagoguery. French schools have banned headscarves and other religious symbols. Muslim communities across Europe have felt targeted by new anti-terror laws in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attack on the USA and subsequent bombings in London and Madrid. The new Islamophobia runs the risk of strengthening radicals among Muslim communities and feeding into a cycle of distrust.
Strengthening minority rights protections
Despite ongoing problems, there is a strong overall trend in Europe toward the improvement of minority rights. EU expansion has been explicitly linked to minority rights protections: in order to join, aspirant countries must reach certain benchmarks on their treatment of minorities. Often, these surpass the standards of long-established EU members. NATO expansion has also provided important incentives for democratic reforms and responsible policy-making regarding minority issues. The European Convention on Human Rights among COE members has become the most effective human rights treaty in the world. The European Court of Human Rights interprets the treaty and hands down binding decisions that member States must implement. It has issued far-reaching rulings on a huge range of issues that have tangible effects on the lives of Europe’s citizens. For example, the Court has issued ground-breaking decisions on topics as diverse as what constitutes torture in the European context, the scope of religious protection under the treaty, and the right to privacy.
The 1998 Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is another key treaty. Although France, Turkey, Andorra and Monaco have refused to sign up to it – because they officially cling to the notion of a homogenized state – this instrument has begun to gain traction in most COE countries. Its principles point the way forward for minority rights protections in a Europe that is becoming ever more diverse.