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World Directory of Minorities

1 January 1997

This publication is the first version of the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, published in 1997. The full Directory is now available and updated on our website.

The large majority of violent conflicts in the world today are conflicts within states, with groups polarized across ethnic and religious divides and not across borders. Ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities are often among the poorest of the poor, suffer discrimination and are frequently the victims of human rights abuses. Time and time again in the past, the United Nations system, governments and even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the field of ‘conflict prevention’ have failed to promote the human rights of minorities or to take early action to promote cooperation between communities. Early action may have prevented the loss of millions of lives in many countries, ranging from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia, and from Sri Lanka to Guatemala. It is also significant that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989 and to Jose´ Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo in1996 as a result of their peaceful campaigns to promote the rights of their people.

The situation of minorities is, then, a matter of major concern, and it is essential that accurate, objective and up-to-date information is made available. This Directory contributes to that process.

It is difficult to assess accurately what proportion of the world’s population identify themselves as belonging to minority communities. Conservative estimates place this above 10 per cent, and some suggest that more than 20 per cent of the world’s population belongs to several thousand different minority groups and subgroups. National statistics are often skewed for political reasons, and there is no universally accepted definition of ‘minorities’. The word has different interpretations in different societies throughout the world, while the United Nations General Assembly has not sought to reach a definition beyond that implied in the title of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities adopted in December 1992.

Minority Rights Group focuses its work on non-dominant ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, whether or not they are numerical minorities. The concept thus relates to any self-identified community that is marginalized, without power, unable to take decisions over its destiny and often experiencing high levels of illiteracy, under-education and overt or covert discrimination. The basic rights of such communities need protection and promotion.

There is, however, a danger of generalizing about minorities and forgetting the complexity of their social composition, including the rural poor, urban migrants, older people, women and children. These groups may be considered as doubly vulnerable. What makes their situation particularly problematic is that there is often a deliberate political policy on the part of majorities and states not to give due regard to the legitimate interests of minorities, while members of minorities see their identity as central to their social and economic situation. They are often excluded from political power and decision-making in the development process, without equal opportunities to secure a better quality of life.

One further danger may lie in regarding ethnicities as fixed, rather than as the potentially fluid phenomena that they often are. ‘Situational ethnicity’ does occur, and individuals and groups do modify their self-identifications depending on circumstances.

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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Miles Litvinoff

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