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New Approaches to Minority Protection

1 January 1995

Since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, over 100 major conflicts around the world have left some 20 million dead. Poverty, disease, famine, oppression and despair abound, joining to produce 17 million refugees, 20 million displaced persons and massive migrations of peoples within and beyond national borders. New racial tensions are rising and finding expression in violence while fierce new assertions of nationalism and sovereignty spring up and the cohesion of states is threatened by brutal ethnic, religious, social, cultural and linguistic strife. Democracy within nations requires respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as outlined in the UN Charter. It requires, as well, a deeper understanding and respect for the rights of minorities and respect for the needs of the more vulnerable groups of society, especially women and children.

It was in these words that Boutros Boutros Ghali, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), referred to conflicts involving minorities in different sections of his Agenda for Peace (UN Doc. A/47/277, S/24111). He could have continued by reflecting that the greatest threat to peace today, locally and regionally, arises from internal conflicts within states ranging from former Yugoslavia to Angola, while communal violence can erupt all too easily in established democracies ranging from India to the United Kingdom.

The purpose of this report is to promote new approaches to minority protection. These approaches are based on a major three-year research programme by Asbjørn Eide for the UN Sub-Commission, a set of recommendations drawn from the debate of several international groups of experts and also on internationally agreed standards. These proposals merit wide debate as some of the most comprehensive ones produced so far which promote the rights of minorities alongside peaceful cooperation between communities.

Asbjørn Eide has for many years been the independent Norwegian expert on the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. He is also Director of the Norwegian Institute for Human Bights and has a distinguished career in the field of human rights, international law and in combatting racial discrimination. It was therefore obvious that Minority Rights Group (MRG) should seek to publish his recommendations but also ask him to write on minority protection. His views and his recommendations are entirely his own, however much other bodies such as MRG may value them.

There is no pretence that this short publication can be a comprehensive overview of minority protection. Those who wish to develop a deeper understanding of the subject should study the full 80-page report presented to the Sub-Commission, the various annexes to this and the two interim reports of Asbjørn Eide in 1991 and 1992. Additionally they should take advantage of the wide range ofstudies that MRG has published, which are highlighted at the end ofthis report. These range from reports written a decade ago on The Social Psychology of Minorities and on Constitutional Law and Minorities to the new titles on education rights and land rights of minorities. Much can also be learnt from the studies on specific minorities, how situations have developed over time and the different forms of tension or cohesion that emerge. No two situations are identical, though many have common themes.

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.

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Asbjørn Eide