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Minority Rights: A Guide to United Nations Procedures and Institutions

7 June 2004

This guide explains the mechanisms, procedures and institutions of the United Nations. It shows how minorities and minority-based non-governmental organizations can use the UN to promote respect for minority rights. It offers practical advice and step-by-step guidance on working with the UN. Beginning with how to identify the best entry points for minority issues, the guide goes on to explain how to provide information, follow up cases and lobby for issues in the most effective way.

The aim of this Guide is to encourage people belonging to minorities and the groups themselves to use the procedures and forums of the United Nations (UN) increasingly and effectively in order to promote respect for their legitimate rights. The Guide also emphasizes the contributions of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with and without the so-called consultative status they can obtain from the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

This Guide gives a briefsurvey or overview ofthose instances in the UN human rights programme where violations ofminority rights and othersituations involving minorities have been and can be brought up, and where they can be further pursued. The focus is on relevant and available institutions and forums where state compliance with international human rights and minority rights standards can be subjected to monitoring and implementation procedures.

In this Guide we do not attempt to define the term ‘minority’. In general though, one can say that:

  • Self-identification with the group or the subjective element
  • Objective characteristics, that is national, racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious elements which distinguish the minority from other population groups in a country
  • The numerical aspect, that is the requirement that the group comprises less than one-half of the state population, and
  • The establishment of a group on a territory over a considerable period oftime, are likely to constitute the main elements of a definition.

The Guide concentrates on the UN. It does not deal with specialized agencies such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) or regional organizations like the Council of Europe and the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), although most of their standards and monitoring methods with regard to minority rights are similar in content and nature.

Likewise, the Guide does not aspire to be comprehensive in its coverage of UN institutions, procedures, case law, general comments, resolutions and other products and avenues. Instead, the contents are intended to demonstrate the art of the possible. It is not a textbook, but rather points to available and feasible avenues for minorities and NGOs pursuing cases and lobbying for change, with the emphasis on institutions and monitoring mechanisms. There follows only a brief outline of the applicable international minority rights standards, which are, of course, the point of departure for any use of the procedures.

In describing the UN monitoring or implementation procedures, the Guide attempts to answer some practical questions.

  • What are these procedures all about?
  • How have they been used to the benefit of minorities in recent years?
  • How can minorities gain access to them?
  • What kind of information should minorities contribute and through which channels?
  • In what other ways can the minorities themselves, or NGOs on their behalf, make use of the UN human rights procedures and forums?
  • Will such efforts make a difference?
  • Which procedures are most likely to bring positive results?

It is true for almost all the issues dealt with in this Guide that the minorities themselves, or their representatives, can influence the outcome of the proceedings. This will be pointed out from time to time. The UN is not unlike a national government with legislative and executive branches which must be lobbied for change. No results will issue from the judicial branch, or the quasi-judicial UN complaints procedures, unless and until cases are brought before them.

International standards have been adopted over decades, but monitoring activities are more recent. One has to remember that as an international organization, the UN is composed of states, and it is the states that take all the major decisions. It is also states that commit themselves to comply with international standards. In so doing, one must expect them to have regard for their national interests and concerns, such as the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity. These concerns are reflected in the reluctance many states show towards the adoption of minority standards with effective monitoring procedures for the protection of minorities.

There is some truth to the observation that the UN and other intergovernmental organizations are slow or negligent in responding to minority concerns, but there is more to the story. This Guide will demonstrate that there are several UN monitoring procedures and forums to which violations of minority rights and other situations involving minorities can be submitted for serious review with reasonable expectations of positive results.

One recent development (1995) is the establishment of the Working Group on Minorities (WGM), authorized by the UN Commission on Human Rights and the ECOSOC, and reporting to the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. This is a major innovation for the UN and a potential vehicle for change. It constitutes one more monitoring procedure, but it also introduces a forum to the UN where, for the first time, the UN can seek to facilitate dialogue between groups and governments. The WGM is the subject of chapter 13 (pp. 31-2) in this Guide.

Please note that the terminology in the fields of minority rights and indigenous peoples’ rights has changed over time. MRG strives to reflect these changes as well as respect the right to self-identification on the part of minorities and indigenous peoples. At the same time, after over 50 years’ work, we know that our archive is of considerable interest to activists and researchers. Therefore, we make available as much of our back catalogue as possible, while being aware that the language used may not reflect current thinking on these issues.

Download (1998 edition, PDF, English)
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