United Nations Working Group on Minorities

Statement by

Asbjorn Eide
Chairman of the United Nations Working Group on Minorities

at the World Conference against Racism


I address you as the Chairman of the United Nations Working Group on Minorities, in order to explain the relationship between measures to prevent discrimination on racial or ethnic grounds, and on the other hand the protection of the right of persons belonging to ethnic minorities to preserve and develop their own culture. and identity.

In doing so, we need to take into account the particular experience of South Africa, which until a decade ago was the worst offender of racial discrimination. One feature of Apartheid is often overlooked. Apartheid - keeping apart - was a conception that
exploited and permeated the very concept of ethnic and linguistic groups. It was used in order for one minority to dominate and rule and to facilitate racial discrimination. A prominent feature was the Bantu Education Act, whose intended effect was to keep South Africans culturally separate from each other and thereby to be no threat to the white, hegemonic minority. Another aspect was the ` Homeland' policy, by which persons were forced to reside in certain areas designed as their ethnic homeland. Through this policy the Apartheid system perverted the whole notion f minorities and made it a direct contradiction to the prevention of racial discrimination. The history of apartheid is a lesson which tells us what we should not do when we seek to protect minorities.

My purpose today is that a genuine application of minority protection is not in contrast to, but a support to the elimination of discrimination
Efforts to establish international mechanisms of minority protection were for a long time resisted by states. It was thought that an international system might become s a pretext for interference in States' internal affair, and that preservation of the identity of minorities could be a threat to State unity,and stability. It has since been recognized, however, that the stability of states is better safeguarded by recognizing the needs of the different ethnic groups both to work together in society as a whole and to be able to preserve their own identity, culture and language. Repression of identity leads to tension and conflict and thus to a much more serious risk to the unity of the state,

There was also another concern: It was feared that special protection of minorities could be used to justify reverse discrimination. There has indeed been circumstances where that has actually happened, but it depends on the way in which the minority rights are implemented, and with proper regulation it would not be too difficult to avoid that problem

When finally the United Nations General Assembly in 1992 adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, it sought to combined two purposes: One is to guarantee persons belonging to such minorities equality in the enjoyment of all human rights through equal treatment and equal opportunity as described above; the second is to protect and promote conditions for the group identity of minorities.

Identity requires not only tolerance but a positive attitude towards cultural pluralism by the state and the larger society. Required is not only acceptance but also respect for the distinctive characteristics and contribution of minorities in the life of the national society
as a whole. Protection of the identity means not only that the state shall abstain from policies which have the purpose or effect of assimilating the minorities into the dominant culture, but also that it shall protect them against activities by third parties which have assimilatory effect. Crucial in these regards are the language policies and the educational policies of the state concerned. Denying minorities the possibility to learn their own language or instruction in their own language, or excluding from the education of minorities transmission of knowledge about their own culture, history, tradition and language, would be a violation of the obligation to protect their identity.

Promotion of their identity requires measures intended to facilitate the maintenance, reproduction and further development of the culture of the minorities. Cultures are not static, but minorities should be given the opportunity to develop their own culture in the context of an ongoing process.
While on the face of it, the protection of minorities might seem to be at odds with the prevention of discrimination, it is fully possible to find a harmonious combination of the two. The ultimate purpose should be to obtain and effectively maintain equality of treatment of everyone. Prevention of discrimination is essential in the common domain, where everyone should interact on a basis of equal treatment. Transitional affirmative
action should be taken, particularly in the economic and social field, in order to ensure equal opportunity for all. It is essential, however, that such affirmative action ends when the intended aim of equality has been achieved, and the means used must not be disproportionate in terms of its impact on the enjoyment by others of their human rights. Otherwise, affirmative action can lead to group conflict

The additional concern in the field of minority protection is to have the necessary safeguards to preserve separate identities voluntarily maintained. While affirmative action measures are temporary and compensatory and are aimed at correcting conditions that impair the enjoyment of equal rights, protective measures for minorities aim at conserving a group's identity and cohesiveness, thereby making it possible for the group to develop its own culture within the broader, multicultural society in which they form a part. Properly handled, far from being a threat to the stability and unity of the state, this will be an enrichment for the society as whole.

There is one basic caveat, however. Basic human rights, including the principle of every human being's right to be equal in dignity and rights, must be respected at all times not only by majorities but also by minorities. Furthermore, nobody should suffer any disadvantage from choosing not to belong to the minority concerned. The state cannot impose a particular ethnic identity on a given person by the use of sanctions against those who do not want to be part of that group (which is what the apartheid regime in South Africa sought to do); nor can minorities subject to any disadvantage individuals who on objective criteria may be held to form part of their group but who subjectively do not want to belong to it.

Prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities are two sides of the same coin. They are both necessary in order to develop stable and just societies which can be held to be the common home of everyone living there. For that to happen, there must be equality for all in the common domain, but also a broad space of pluralism and diversity. Through the existing international human rights instruments, supplemented by the Declaration and the Program of Action to be adopted at that conference, we have adequate guidelines to build in every state that common house. The task is now to have those standards implemented. It is to that we should turn when we leave Durban.