Managing and preventing conflict: a minority rights-based approach

By Chris Chapman

From the outset in 1970, MRG reported on many areas of violent conflict where the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples were denied and where others remained silent for fear of being associated with secessionists or ‘terrorists’. By 1990, the wide range of contexts and communities covered by MRG included Northern Ireland, Eritrea and Tigray, the situation of Basques and Catalans in Spain, Nagas in India, Kurds, and Palestinians, as well as other areas such as Burundi, Cyprus, East Timor, Lebanon, Uganda and Sudan.

More were to follow. In 1990 MRG became heavily involved in the CSCE/OSCE processes following the ending of the Cold War. A violent conflict was already underway between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there were ominous signs of an imminent violent conflict in Yugoslavia, and major tensions were developing elsewhere.

MRG had a two-pronged approach. Firstly, it worked for the establishment of the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities with a strong conflict prevention mandate and in due course supported their work.  Secondly, MRG worked closely with the Helsinki Committees and minority communities throughout Europe to promote the realization of minority rights, ultimately leading to the creation of MRG’s regional office in Budapest in 1996.

MRG’s work on preventing, managing and transforming conflicts focused on identifying the causal links between violations of the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples, and the onset of violence. The organization also advocated with decision-makers – both at the national level and in international organizations such as the UN – to have those causal links understood and addressed in policy and practice. Furthermore, it provided practical support to communities living in, or emerging from, conflict situations through research, capacity-building and advocacy support.

Before the organization embarked on this work, various studies had already found that many conflicts would be avoided if ways were found to incorporate minorities into public life and respect their rights. MRG set out to understand better how specific aspects of minority rights violations – such as hate speech and hate crimes, denial of identity, and exclusion from political processes, economic livelihoods and state services – were linked to the outbreak of conflict. In a qualitative study of conflicts between 2007 and 2013, the organization found that 71 per cent of the world’s conflicts were linked to tensions involving minorities and indigenous peoples.

This is not to say that minority and indigenous communities have themselves been active participants in the violence: in most cases, in fact, these groups have primarily been targeted by armed actors, such as state or paramilitary groups. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, MRG provided evidence to the International Criminal Court that the warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba persecuted and tried to exterminate the indigenous Bambuti people in Ituri province as part of a drive to control territory and access precious minerals, in a conflict in which Bambuti were themselves innocent bystanders. Similarly, in Rwanda, during the genocide in 1994, the state unleashed deadly violence on the Tutsi community, and indigenous Twa were often caught in the crossfire.

Even in cases where communities have themselves taken up arms, this has generally occurred against a backdrop of protracted discrimination and exclusion. In Nicaragua, for instance, MRG’s research showed how, for some 200 years, the indigenous and Afro-descendant communities of the Atlantic Coast were cut off from economic development, while their unique cultures and languages were denied by a central government wishing to create a homogeneous European-oriented national identity. It was only in the 1980s, following the imposition of a Spanish-language literacy programme on the Atlantic Coast, that community members took up arms against the government.

It is of course one thing to identify the problem, and another to find solutions. MRG lobbied governments and intergovernmental organizations such as the UN to include a minority rights lens in their work to prevent and manage conflicts. Surprisingly, however, a study by a UN expert, for which MRG provided research support, found that agencies tasked with conflict prevention and resolution had no access to expertise on minority rights and did not include a minority rights lens in their policies and approaches.

In Cyprus, Iraq, Egypt, Nicaragua, Fiji, Sri Lanka and other countries, MRG supported local communities in pressuring governments to include them in peace-building efforts. In East Africa, MRG prioritized small-scale, grassroots interventions to tackle local-level conflicts over land, which could escalate and lead to many deaths and loss of livelihoods for remote communities already experiencing deprivation. For example, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, the organization supported a local community NGO, Samburu Women for Education and Environment Development Organization, to strengthen communications between Samburu and Pokot elders, helping to diffuse tensions over livestock and land. The NGO also worked to ensure women’s participation in the traditionally male elders council.

Photo: A Tamil child displaced by civil war living in the damaged remains of a railway station in Sri Lanka / Howard Davies