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Multi-ethnic States and the Protection of Minority Rights


In today's world, multi-ethnic states are the norm. The traditional nation-state, where a distinct national group corresponds to a territorial unit, has become an endangered species. Globalization and the increasing movement of people across borders threaten to kill off the nation state once and for all. However, some myths resist reality, and majority or dominant cultures in countries around the world still seek to impose their identity on other groups with whom they share a territory.

Attempts to impose uniculturalism in multi-ethnic environments often come at the expense of minority rights. To avoid marginalization, minorities often intensify their efforts to preserve and protect their identity. The hardening of opposing forces -assimilation on the one hand and preservation of minority identity on the other -- can cause increased intolerance and, in the worst case, armed ethnic conflict. In such cases and in order to prevent escalation, the protection and promotion of minority rights becomes essential.

What can be done

Even though the events of the twentieth century have taught us to think of the term ethnic conflict as one word, the two concepts do not have to go hand in hand. That is, ethnic conflict is not inevitable in multi-ethnic states.

Good governance plays a vital role in involving minorities in societies and protecting their rights and interests. Through recognition, dialogue, and participation, all the citizens of a diverse society can form a greater understanding of one another's concerns. The media and education have important roles to play in this regard, as do political representatives and community leaders.

Although no country has a perfect record on minority rights, a country like Finland for example has worked hard to implement legislation in order to promote good ethnic relations among its population. The Swedish-speaking Finns are the largest minority in Finland at 5.71 per cent of the population. The status of the Swedish-speaking Finns is exceptional compared to that of other national minorities, due to the fact that Swedish is, in addition to Finnish, an official language of Finland. In recent years, the Government has redoubled its efforts to settle the question of land ownership by the Sami, the indigenous people of Finland. Finnish, Swedish or the Sami language is taught as the mother tongue of the student, and under the new legislation, children who reside in Finland permanently, thus including immigrant children, have both the duty and the right to go to comprehensive school.

Other positives action taken by States include: legislative measures that introduce higher maximum penalties for racially motivated crimes; the use of ethnic monitoring to ascertain the number of persons of particular ethnic and national origin in various kinds of employment and the setting of targets to increase the employment of persons of minority origins in fields where they were under-represented; the establishment of new advisory bodies on matters relevant to combating racism and intolerance, including the launching and implementation public awareness campaigns intended to prevent racial discrimination and increase tolerance; and the establishment of human rights institutions and ombudspersons for ethnic and racial equality.

States authorities need to ensure that minorities enjoy the fundamental right to equality, both in written legislation and in society at large. The roles of local government, civic organizations and NGOs are important in this respect. Police, prosecutors and judges need to be more aware of what constitutes racial discrimination and racially motivated crimes and in some cases, changing the composition of police forces to better reflect the multi-ethnic communities they serve may be appropriate. It is also incumbent upon minorities to integrate themselves into their communities. Other recommendations include monitoring hate speech, promoting empowerment through education, and ensuring adequate housing and access to health care.

It is when States lack the foundation for protecting minority rights or governments actively encourage intolerance for minority groups that conflict-ridden environments ensue. As tensions involving national minority issues are enflamed, disenchantment with one's government can evolve into conflict situations. In the past ten years alone, ethnic conflicts have plagued a hand full of countries such as Rwanda and Burundi, the former Republic of Yugoslavia and more recently, Indonesia, East Timor and Fiji. It is tragedies like these that compel the international community to encourage a dialogue between minorities and governments within all societies.

Almost three years after former President Suharto's dictatorship collapsed, Indonesia's problems with its minority communities are growing despite the benefits brought by democracy. The new government faces separatist activities in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya, East Timor has yet to recover from its vote for independence, and ethnic violence has recently erupted in the Indonesian section of Borneo. Human rights groups estimate that between 3,000 and 4,000 people died in separatists and ethnic violence last year in Indonesia and that more than one million people are now homeless because of those conflicts. Although there have been new efforts to devolve power to Indonesia's regions, the Government has yet to implement pro-minority policies, which means there may be more trouble ahead.

The case of the Roma

Although there are many minority populations worldwide that need support, the Roma population in particular has become a major focus of the human rights community, especially as it prepares for the World Conference against Racism. The majority of the estimated eight to ten million Roma, whether nomadic or sedentary, live in Europe and discrimination against them is often seen as a European problem, but Roma reside in other parts of the world as well, including North and South America, Australia and India.

For centuries, the Roma have been subjected to ill-treatment, rejection, exclusion and discrimination in various forms. Racial discrimination faced by Roma in many ways symbolizes some of the most common contemporary forms of racial discrimination experienced by other minority groups in the world. It is hoped that successful attempts to address the issue of discrimination against Roma will benefit other minority groups.

In a report submitted to the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights at its fifty-second session (June 2000), an independent expert, Yeung Kam Yeung Sik Yuen, identified the four main areas of concern for the Roma population: housing; education; employment; and political participation.

Many Roma live in the most squalid and derelict housing estates and often live in Roma-only sections, which has encouraged segregation from the mainstream population. The proposed building of a four-metre high wall in one district of the Czech Republic in order to separate Roma from non-Roma is a clear example of the attempt to disengage Roma communities. Although the municipality's decision was eventually suspended for infringement of article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, de facto settlement patterns with regard to the Roma minorities and decrees banning Roma from certain territories continue to exist.

In the area of employment, Roma are absent from the service sector and are mainly employed as garbage collectors or factory workers. The unemployment rate ranges from 60 per cent to 90 per cent in less prosperous areas. In certain countries in Central and Eastern Europe, there has been a systematic routing of Roma children to "special schools" for the mentally disabled. What's more, Roma have little or no say at the political level as they are either unrepresented or under-represented at all levels of Government.

The Roma communities are subject to hostile perceptions across an extraordinary range of countries. As Mr. Yuen states in his report, Roma are often barred from restaurants, swimming pools and discotheques and they are often the victims of violent racist acts by skinheads. In 1994 the Roma were persecuted by the Serbs during the hostilities in Bosnia and even now they suffer hostilities from the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo because some of them had allegedly sided with the Serbs prior to the intervention by NATO. It is not surprising that the most immediate concern for many Roma is their lack of personal security.

Of course, the news on the Roma front is not all bad. There have been initiatives that have worked to considerably improve the condition of this minority population. In Hungary, the radio and television board recently awarded a license for an FM radio frequency to radio C in Budapest, Central Europe's first independent station run by Roma. Regarding housing for Roma, there have been initiatives in Romania and Slovakia that have brought together Roma and non-Roma to build houses, which has worked to stem negative stereotypes of Roma as passive recipients of social benefits. In addition, the Roma themselves have founded several political parties and movements in many societies and have grouped into several dozen civic associations. The fact that Governments have simply admitted that the Roma are the victims of intolerance and discrimination has been a major step forward in some countries.

The search for solutions to the problems faced by the Roma has come from many corners and the recommendations can be applied to all situations where minorities are struggling for equal rights. It has been agreed that a key element is to establish trust among all parties, including the minority community, the mainstream community and the Government. A move in that direction may be accomplished by establishing independent agencies that work to enhance dialogue between all parties. It may also be necessary to establish specialized State bodies, such as a Commission on Minority Rights, to combat discrimination.

Max van der Stoel, the High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded in his report on the situation of Roma in the OSCE area that countless programmes for Roma have been destined to fail because they were developed without Roma participation, and correspondingly, with scant awareness of the specific culture and needs of the intended beneficiaries. The active engagement of a minority group in developing and implementing projects helps to ensure that they do not inadvertently create or perpetuate dependency and passivity on the part of the intended beneficiaries.

Pre-supposing that an ethnic minority is geographically located in a certain area of a country, a well thought out plan for autonomy may be appropriate. However, as Mr. Yeun states in his working paper, "any proposal for autonomy must take account of the particular characteristics of the area concerned and of its populations, and its acceptance by minority and majority populations is crucial". In such arrangements, the central government retains control over the major affairs of the state, such as defense, foreign affairs, immigration and customs, and monetary policy, while the local or regional bureaucracy could manage local authority over education and culture. Such arrangements can also help maintain the territorial integrity of a State while placating minority concerns.

The United Nations

Born out of the horrors of the Holocaust, the United Nations is all too aware of the dangers of intolerance when it comes to minority populations. With a view to leaving ethnic warfare's heyday to the last century, the United Nations and its agencies have advocated protecting and promoting minority rights and identities within multi-ethnic states. The Secretary-General himself has taken up this cause, recently saying, "The United Nations work to promote intolerance is fundamental to both conflict prevention and peace building. Without tolerance, our work on development and good governance would achieve little".

In 1992, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. As the only United Nations instrument that specifically addressed the special rights of minorities, the Declaration can be viewed as a point of reference for the international community. It includes a list of rights that minorities are entitled to, including the right to enjoy their own culture without interference, and the right to participate effectively in decisions at the national level, among others. States are requested to take measures in the field of education in order to encourage knowledge of the history, traditions, language and culture of minorities existing within their territories. Also, States are asked to implement national policies and programmes with due regard for minority interests.

Multilateral monitoring of the compliance of states to their international commitments with regard to protecting minority rights has increased transparency. Within the United Nations system, this responsibility is shared by the Commission on Human Rights, the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. A Working Group on Minorities has also been established in order to review the promotion and practical realization of the Declaration. It serves as the focal point of the United Nations in the field of minority protection and is the main forum for constructive dialogue on the treatment of minorities by Governments.

Although all of the above mentioned bodies are integral to the promotion of minority rights, it is the reports submitted on behalf of the State parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination that provide an overview of the status of minorities within a specific country. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) meets twice a year to review State party reports as well as shadow reports submitted by NGOs. In extreme cases, the Committee implements early warning measures to assist Governments to prevent problems from escalating into conflicts and identify cases where there is a lack of an adequate legislative basis for defining and criminalizing all forms of racial discrimination.

In the two sessions held in 2000, the Committee examined the reports of countries that were extremely varied in their ethnic make-up but similar patterns of discrimination against minorities were found across the board. The reporting guidelines ask State parties to describe the ethnic characteristic of the country and the legislative, judicial, and administrative measures being taken up on behalf of minorities. It is the long held position of the Committee that racial discrimination exists in all States and territories, and admitting its existence is fundamental to improving conditions.

Among the concerns that have been noted by the Committee in its concluding observations of reports on various States are: that there have been reports of excessive violence being used against minorities; that there is inadequate protection of the political rights of minorities, including their participation in elections, national parliaments and the public service; that there is often a lack of adequate legislation and remedies to protect victims of racial discrimination; and that there is an absence of legal guarantees of bilingual and bicultural education for minorities.

The World Conference against Racism

At the Regional Seminar of Experts for Central and Eastern European States, which took place in Warsaw from 5-7 July 2000 in preparation for the World Conference against Racism, exports focused on the protection of minorities and strengthening human rights capacity at the national level. Opening the seminar, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said, "The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and regional instruments of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, have sought to undergird the legal protection of minorities and vulnerable groups. Their faithful implementation, in letter and in spirit, remains a key challenge before us".

During the Warsaw meeting, experts emphasized that regional cooperation remained key to combating racism. Special attention was paid to the rapid proliferation of hate speech, hate crime, and hate sites on the Internet. Experts agreed that many countries in the region often did not acknowledge that racial discrimination existed and seemed to consider it only a problem in the United States and South Africa. In that regard, discrimination against the Roma was often seen as natural or normal. The World Conference, experts said, should help ensure that international and regional minority rights instruments were publicized and understood by disseminating information in relevant languages and conducting public education campaigns.

The protection of minority rights and the prevention of ethnic conflict was also discussed at the October 2000 Regional Seminar of Experts for Africa, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Seminar agreed that greater attention must be paid to the economic problems that give rise to outbursts of ethnic conflicts in Africa. It further recognized that the realization of economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development is of crucial relevance to the prevention of ethnic or racial conflicts in Africa or any other region. It therefore encouraged "full participation in political life for all, non-discriminatory treatment of all regions and ethnic groups within a country, and respect for the rights of minorities".

Ultimately, implementing policies for minorities should be done to foster long-term stability and not just to appease the international community. Through dialogue all parties can share their concerns and work toward finding a common ground. As the High Commissioner on National Minorities for OSCE has said, "Accommodating minority interests should not be interpreted as political correctness or pandering to special interests groups. Nor should it be diminished through tokenism or short-term concessions. Instead there should be a genuine commitment to protect the identity of national minorities and create conditions for the promotion of that identity".

The World Conference will offer an opportunity for putting the issue of the protection and promotion of minority rights on the floor for debate and into the plans of action. A declaration and programme of action of the World Conference, if adopted, would condemn any doctrine of racial superiority as scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous. It would urge Governments to create favorable conditions and take measures that would enable persons belonging to national or ethnic minorities within their jurisdiction to express their characteristics freely and to participate on a non-discriminatory and equitable basis in the cultural, social, economic and political life of the country in which they live.

The main objective is to prevent conflicts in multi-ethnic states before they happen. As the Secretary-General has repeatedly said, "At both the human and the financial level, a culture of prevention is more beneficial than a culture of reaction". All States as well as the international community can work together to increase dialogue among parties and create an inclusive approach to national identity. It is important for States to make a commitment to equal treatment of all persons regardless of their racial or ethnic origin.

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