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10 December 2012

The fifth session of the Forum on Minority Issues marks 20th anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities

The Forum on Minority Issues aims to provide a platform for promoting dialogue and cooperation on issues pertaining to national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities. It reviews thematic contributions and expertise by the Independent Expert on minority issues and identifies and analyzes best practices, challenges, opportunities and initiatives for further implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1992. Since its establishment in 2008, the Forum has addressed the following themes: in 2008, “Minorities and the Right to Education;” in 2009, “Minorities and Effective Political Participation;” in 2010, “Minorities and effective participation in economic life;” and in 2011, “Guaranteeing the rights of minority women and girls.” Click here for the recommendations made at these sessions.

The fifth session of the Forum, organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), was held on 27-28 November 2012 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. As it marked the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration, the session specifically focused on the theme: « Implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities: Identifying positive practices and opportunities ».

Following a video message of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in which he reminded the audience of ongoing human rights violations towards minorities and of the UN’s crucial role to protect them, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay highlighted progress made in implementing the Declaration, which she defined as a duty for every Member State. She also emphasized the importance of existing human rights instruments in the protection of minorities and human rights, such as the institutionalization of the Independent Expert and the Forum. Laura Dupuy Lasserre, President of the Human Rights Council, added that despite progress and efforts made, there is still a lot of work to do in order to make the implementation of the Declaration concrete everywhere in the world.

Rita Izsák, Independent Expert on minority issues, described the Declaration as an essential international norm that becomes especially relevant in conflict areas and in protecting political stability. She referred to the fact that in various conflict zones a rise in violent acts against minorities has been observed.

Chair of the fifth session and member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Soyata Maiga, reminded the audience that the fifth session provided an opportunity to identify obstacles in the full implementation of the Declaration. She concluded the Forum’s opening session by calling on Member States to renew their commitments to protect minorities’ rights, underlining that achieving “the rights of minorities is part of the evolution of a society.”

During an ensuing session, entitled “The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities: 20 years on”, Patrick Thornberry, member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination mentioned that although the rights of minorities were already recognized by the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, as well as mentioned in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) [1], it was only in the early 1990s that the rights of minorities received more attention, which resulted in the 1992 Declaration.

Gay McDougall, former Independent Expert on minority issues, referred to the increasing role civil society has been playing in promoting the rights of minorities. It is characterized by increased collaboration at national level, making it easier for minority groups to identify those organizations that they need to contact in order to help them defend their rights. Ms. McDougall continued by noting that greater emphasis should be given to the prevention of conflicts, as minorities are often the main victims of violence in such situations.

The session on the “Practical use of the Declaration: identification of good practices and positive measures” highlighted examples from around the globe that aimed to promote minority rights in practice. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) presented a project called “Educating Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam” which provides mother tongue bilingual education. The latter is seen as a means to overcome education gaps between the national majority and minority groups. The H’mong ethnic group in Vietnam, for example, has a literacy rate of 38%, whereas the national average is 94%. The right to be taught in one’s mother tongue is stated in article 4.3 of the Declaration. Another example came from the Greek Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, which explained how its country had used quotas in universities and the civil servant exam to better guarantee the inclusion of religious minorities.

On the second day, the Forum focussed on “Challenges and problems encountered in the practical implementation of the Declaration.” Martin Chungong, Deputy Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), identified the marginalization of minorities in decision-making processes as one of the main problems that prevented the effective implementation of the Declaration. He explained that IPU aims to make sure that national parliaments represent minorities – whether in parliament itself through deputies belonging to minority groups or through minority representation during parliamentary discussions.

After interventions of the panel members, representatives of diplomatic delegations, NGOs and minorities had the opportunity to intervene to give their opinion and share their experience. Several speakers pointed to the fact that in many countries and regions, such as China, Vietnam, Nepal, Tanzania, Indonesia, Baluchistan, Ukraine, France, Egypt, Belgium, Iraq and South Africa, some minority populations still suffer from discriminations linked either to their religion, language, ethnicity or nationality. Because of this discrimination, they are still denied the same rights as the majority of the population.

The afternoon discussion addressed “Consideration of future opportunities, initiatives and further possibilities for raising awareness of the Declaration, and ensuring its practical implementation.” International Chief Littlechild, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People, presented a new set of “Draft recommendations on implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities: identifying positive practices and opportunities.” The recommendations target five categories of actors:
(1) national, regional and local governments;
(2) national human rights institutions;
(3) minority groups and civil society organizations;
(4) United Nations agencies, funds and programmes;
(5) regional intergovernmental bodies.

Recommendations include the incorporation of the provisions of the Declaration and of other relevant international and regional minority rights standards in domestic law (paragraph 21); the establishment of specific mechanisms by national human rights institutions, such as a department or focal point on minority issues (paragraph 39); and the creation of specific minority group and civil society programmes that aim to inform minorities of their rights and of remedies available to them in the event of violation (paragraph 49). “Minority groups and civil society organizations should also assist minorities by providing legal counseling, advice and representation in legal proceedings” (idem).

The document was adopted during the fifth session of the Forum in Minority Issues.

Side event on “Strategies to protect and promote the rights of religious minorities – effective participation in public and political life”

Parallel to the fifth session of the Forum, a side event entitled “Strategies to protect and promote the rights of religious minorities – effective participation in public and political life” was hosted by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and the Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations in Geneva. Among other things, it debated challenges related to the simultaneous promotion of human rights and democracy. Speakers insisted on the fact that it is not given that these two notions go well together. Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of MRG, referred to the situation in the Middle East, where promoting democracy and human rights simultaneously can negatively affect minority groups. For example, democracy can be dangerous for minorities as long as inclusive discourse has not yet been embedded in the democracy of a nation.

The Italian delegation asked whether the early warning systems designed by the UN to detect religious hatred and discrimination were still adequate. Mr Lattimer acknowledged that early warning is fundamental, but noted that the current early warning system was developed in the 1990s during conflicts in the Balkans and the Rwandan genocide. It is therefore not up to date and rather biased towards ethnic relations.

For more information on the Forum, click here.

[1] with the exception of national minorities

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