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Minorities and Conflict Prevention: The Case for a Special Representative

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The body of international law that can be applied to minorities reflects a welcome development in the past decade. Evidence of the increased attention given to minority rights is provided by the adoption, in 1992, of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and the establishment of the United Nations Working Group on Minorities in 1995. There is also evidence, however, that more needs to be done. Minorities’ exclusion from political participation and socio-economic development persists and is a major source of inter-community tension in many parts of the world. The severity and the frequency of disputes and conflicts attributable to violations of minority rights indicate that minority protection has to be taken further and that new avenues of conflict prevention need to be found.

The United Nations (UN) recognizes that inter-community tensions and conflicts are serious threats to the peace and stability of a region, but it has not yet adequately addressed the interconnected dimensions of minority rights and conflict prevention. Relevant human rights special procedures of the Commission on Human Rights and treaty bodies – none of which are entrusted with a minority-specific mandate – may highlight concerns with respect to minority issues within their broader human rights mandates. However, there is insufficient follow-up to their conclusions and recommendations. Alarmingly, there is a serious lack of coordination between the human rights programme in Geneva and the organization’s decision-making bodies in New York. The Secretariat’s failure to act on information from a special procedure of the Commission resulted in what has been referred to by the UN itself as the ‘preventable genocide’ of 1994 in Rwanda. Grave atrocities, such as the one in Rwanda, have alerted UN human rights mechanisms to the need for procedures that can prevent or limit the outbreak of ethnic conflicts.

There is a clear need to introduce an effective minority-oriented conflict prevention mechanism into the UN human rights system. The appointment of a UN Special Representative of the Secretary- General on Minorities would provide the best institutional response to existing or potential situations involving minorities.

The proximity of the Special Representative to the UN Secretariat would ensure effective early warning on situations involving minorities and proper follow-up to such situations within the core activities of the UN organization. Preventive activities would be pursued by the Special Representative in cooperation with relevant UN bodies and agencies, as well as regional institutions and mechanisms. The Special Representative’s task would be to ensure adequate solutions to specific problems that are both politically viable and in line with international minority standards. The nature of this expert’s involvement would also enhance the focus on technical assistance to address the problems that lie at the root of tensions and conflicts involving minorities.

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