Supporting the creation of a new UN minority issues mandate

By Evelin Verhás

By the early 2000s, the indigenous peoples’ rights movement had successfully achieved the creation of several UN mechanisms devoted to indigenous issues, including a Working Group, a Permanent Forum and a Special Rapporteur. In contrast, the Working Group on Minorities (WGM) was the only UN mechanism exclusively dealing with minority issues. The role of the WGM was crucial in providing a platform for minorities to have a voice within the UN system, take part in policy debates and engage in dialogue with states. However, its expert-dominated agenda and limited mandate created frustration among minority representatives as they increasingly felt that their specific concerns remained unaddressed.

In an attempt to address these shortcomings, following a series of consultations with its local partner organizations, MRG launched a campaign, with support from other international NGOs, to establish a new mandate: the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Minorities (SRSG). It was envisioned that the SRSG would complement the work of the WGM and have a mandate focused on conflict prevention. By sending communications to governments and conducting country visits, the SRSG would monitor specific situations and engage with governments in a constructive manner in order to resolve issues causing tension between them and minority communities.

After gaining the support of key stakeholders, including the government of Austria, the OHCHR Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section, as well as the WGM, the campaign concentrated on targeting member states of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to ensure that the draft resolution calling for the creation of an SRSG put forward by Austria would pass. During the discussions at the CHR meeting, the focus on conflict prevention was deleted from the wording of resolution and it was agreed that the new mechanism would be called an Independent Expert on minority issues (IEMI).

In April 2005, the CHR resolution 2005/79 established a new special procedure, and Gay McDougall (who would go on to become Chair of MRG’s International Council from 2014 to 2020) was appointed IEMI by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in July 2005. As the first IEMI, she had the opportunity to play a crucial role in shaping the new mandate. She aimed, as she put it, ‘to give the mandate and the Declaration a global face and perspectives, and to give the issue of minority rights a twenty-first-century makeover’.

McDougall clarified the normative foundations of the mandate, articulated some definitional issues and outlined the scope of application of minority rights. She also identified thematic priorities for her work in response to the current situation of minorities. Recognizing the relationship between discrimination and poverty, she sought to increase the attention paid to minority communities in the context of poverty alleviation and development. She addressed extreme measures of exclusion, such as discriminatory denial or deprivation of citizenship, and emphasized the role of minority rights protection in preventing conflicts and promoting stability. She also worked towards mainstreaming minority issues at the UN and increasing cooperation with UN specialized agencies, treaty bodies and other human rights mechanisms.

In her six years, the IEMI sent numerous communications to governments regarding their failure to fulfil obligations to protect the rights of minorities. McDougall also carried out 12 official country visits, affording opportunities to strengthen the link between minorities and the UN. During each visit she met with minority organizations, communities and representatives, including minority women, listened to their concerns and then took these up the governments, incorporating them into her mission reports as appropriate.

In 2007, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution establishing the UN Forum on Minority Issues, replacing the WGM, to ‘provide a platform for promoting dialogue and cooperation on minority issues’ as well as ‘thematic contributions and expertise to the work’ of the IEMI. The IEMI was charged with guiding the work of the Forum and invited to incorporate the forum’s recommendations into her reports to the HRC.

The establishment of the Forum created the opportunity to present minority voices not only as victims describing violations but also as experts involved in formulating solutions. The IEMI also ensured that the Forum’s annual outcome documents reflected the views and recommendations of all Forum participants, including in particular those of minority communities, so the usual government-negotiated language focusing on minimum standards was avoided. Under McDougall’s guidance, the Forum became what it is today, namely an important platform for amplifying minority voices at the UN and strengthening the participation of minorities in assessing and developing international guidelines and policies aiming to improve their situation on the ground.

Photo: Ludovic Courtès, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons