Making minorities and indigenous peoples visible: the role of MRG’s research and publications

By Peter Grant

In 1970, shortly after our foundation, MRG launched our first publication: Religious Minorities in the Soviet Union. This was followed shortly after by other reports, ranging from the situation of Aboriginal Australians and that of Ainu, Burakumin and Koreans in Japan, to Asian minorities in East and Central Africa and human rights in ‘Eritrea and Southern Sudan’ (long before either region achieved independence). This snapshot offers a small glimpse of the sheer breadth and diversity of the hundreds of reports, books and briefings that have come in their wake.

Research has always played a central role in MRG’s work. In many cases, these publications helped document the challenges facing communities whose predicaments might otherwise have gone unreported. From media engagement to public advocacy, they were instrumental in achieving some of the organization’s first successes and continue to shape its activities to this day. For academics, journalists, policy-makers and, most importantly, for the communities themselves, these resources have helped to highlight the discrimination, exclusion and stigma that still define the lives of so many groups worldwide.

From the beginning, the impact of MRG’s publications was considerable. Its second ever report, The Two Irelands: The Double Minority (1971), was praised on publication for its balanced assessment of a situation too often presented in highly partisan terms. Described by Chatham House as ‘the best pages on Ireland’s contemporary political problems that have found their way into contemporary literature’, the report was credited with having an enduring impact and was still shaping discussions surrounding the Good Friday Agreement more than 25 years later. In 1997, MRG launched the book Scorpions in the Bottle: Conflicting Cultures in Northern Ireland, by John Darby (the founding Professor at the UNU International Conflict Research Institute (INCORE) in Belfast) at its international conference in London. This was accompanied by speeches from the Irish ambassador and a spokesperson of the British government’s Northern Ireland Office, both of whom commended MRG’s publications and referred to the inter-governmental discussions that were then underway.

MRG was also one of the first organizations to produce an accessible account of the Armenian genocide for an international readership. The report, The Armenians, was first published in 1976 and updated on a number of occasions over the following decade. This work was awarded the United Nations Association Media Peace Prize in 1982 for shining a light on this ‘hidden holocaust’ and the legacy of discrimination that Armenians were still experiencing in Turkey. Many of MRG’s other reports were also similarly ground-breaking in documenting the situations of communities which, at the time, had often received little or no coverage even in their own countries.

Perhaps the central achievement of our reports over the years has been to challenge the invisibility and silence that generations of minorities and indigenous peoples across the world have endured. Unseen and unheard, governments, armies, landowners and corporations have been able to exploit them in part because in many cases the communities have not even officially been recognised. When MRG published No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today in 1995, for instance, Afro-descendant populations in many parts of Latin America were still not included in national censuses. Increasingly, now, these communities are being acknowledged, and self-identification is growing after decades of assimilation. More recently, our 2015 online multimedia resource, Afro-Descendants: A Global Picture, drew attention to the presence of Afro-descendant communities in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, many of which are still struggling for recognition.

MRG has remained at the forefront of the discussions around minority and indigenous rights, with its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, first published in 1990 and then developed further in 1997 as a reference book and currently being updated in its online format, still regarded as the most authoritative resource in this area. MRG has also produced regular annual reports that have covered some of the most urgent concerns of the time, with recent volumes exploring urbanization, migration and climate change. These publications have both reflected and anticipated the changing human rights environment for minority and indigenous communities. As these challenges have evolved, so too has MRG’s approach to its research, with communities playing an increasingly central role as partners, rapporteurs and authors in describing their situations and articulating their own needs to national governments and the international community.

While looking through the back catalogue of MRG’s reports can provide many examples of hard-fought progress, it is also a salutary reminder that the struggle for justice and equality is rarely over. From Roma in Europe to Haitians in the United States, many of the groups we were working with decades ago are still experiencing the same problems today – or have new challenges that make their situation even more precarious. But it is also true that, without MRG’s reporting, the challenges facing many of these communities would not even be under discussion, and that is what will continue to drive our research in the decades to come – the need to ensure these communities are seen and heard.

Photo: Collage of report covers produced by Minority Rights Group in the 1970s-1980s