A commitment to pluralism
Conflicts between majority and minority populations, and often between minorities themselves, are among the key problems of pluralistic societies. Although the term "minorities" has been used in different senses, the accepted international usage is to designate marginalized or vulnerable groups who live in the shadow of majority populations with a different and dominant cultural ideology. These groups share systems of values and sources of self-esteem that often are derived from sources quite different from those of the majority culture.
Minorities often find it difficult to participate fully in the activities of societies that favour dominant groups. Sometimes this discrimination is embedded in the legal framework that denies these minorities access to education, employment and political representation. More generally, however, the lack of participation is less a matter of official policy than of everyday practice. The challenge consists in first removing discriminatory barriers and then creating the basis for the empowerment of these minorities.
Minorities are subject to repression -- both organized and spontaneous, often violent -- in many countries. Indeed, minority rights have been a major geopolitical issue in this century, with antecedents going far back in history. In Europe, international regulations protecting minorities go back to 1555, when the Peace of Augsburg provided for the protection of religious minorities. Later the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the Polish-Russian Convention of 1767 and 1775 guaranteed rights of dissidents in Poland, while the Vienna Treaty of 1815 gave religious minorities not only freedom to practise their faith but also certain civil rights. The peace treaties of 1919 required many old and new states to assure full protection to all their inhabitants without distinction of birth and nationality, language, race or religion. In subsequent years, the League of Nations worked out a procedure for the settlement of minority disputes. However, the League's treaties were only feebly enforced.
After the Second World War, states in the newly-created United Nations chose to focus the Organization's human rights machinery on a universal and individualistic conception of rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not mention the protection of minorities , although some countries wanted it. Their proposals were rejected because it was feared that they may promote separatist tendencies and movements, and because it was thought that rights are best thought of as inherent in each human being, irrespective of what cultural group he or she may belong to. Since 1989, however, it has proved impossible to evade the question. The Charter of Paris adopted by the CSCE Summit meeting on 21 November 1990 and the creation of a High Commissioner for National Minorities are examples of this growing awareness. In 1992 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, the first comprehensive, universal standard-setting instrument in this area. It formulates the obligation of states to protect the existence and identity of minorities within their respective territories. At the same time it adheres to the view that rights are inherent in individual human beings, and that group rights can be defined only in conjunction with these individual rights.
Among the rights of persons belonging to minorities it lists the right to enjoy their own culture; to profess and practise their own religion; to use their own language; to participate in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life, as well as in the decision-making process concerning the minority to which they belong; to establish and monitor their own associations; to establish and maintain without any discrimination free and peaceful contacts with other members of their group or other citizens of other states to whom they are related by national, or ethnic, religious or linguistic ties.
The thought behind the minorities issue is the confrontation between two political conceptions of the state: that of ethnic (or religious) nationalism against that of the civil state. The ideal of the civil state implies the respect for the interests of the members of all groups on the basis of common citizenship rather than bonds based on real or imaginary blood-ties. Instead of a dominant group's claim to privileged access to economic and political power all groups have equal rights and are encouraged to defend their symbols, values and interests.
A recent world-wide survey of national policies reveals a range of policy stances towards minorities. Some states provide no legal framework to deal with their needs. While the fiction of a homogeneous nation, consisting of a single ethnic group, is not current today, most governments still define and practise policies of assimilation. These, however, are beginning to give way in the face of pressures, lobbying and activism on the part of many minorities. A number of states recognize minorities, and governments provide arrangements such as group autonomy on a territorial basis, special representation in the legislature, formal and informal power-sharing, and administrative protection.
Minority rights are at the intersection between individual and collective rights, for although they result from membership in a group, they can also be asserted by any individual belonging to that group. As a corollary, they must include the right of any individual to leave the minority group voluntarily. Multicultural societies need therefore to consider very carefully whether there are groups within them that should be treated as minorities and if so, they should develop principles to recognize this status. In advocating the cultural rights of minorities it is important to consider cultural awareness and cultural exchange projects to raise their profile as people with their own sense of self-esteem and distinct identities. In our age of massive migrations it is important also to encourage projects for community cultural development that facilitate interactions between dispersed and displaced populations and their root cultures.
One of the most sensitive issues is that of language, for a people's language is perhaps its most fundamental cultural attribute. Indeed the very nature of language is emblematic of the whole pluralist premise -- every single language spoken in the world represents a unique way of viewing human experience and the world itself. Language policy, however, like other policies, still is used as an instrument of domination, fragmentation and assimilation. It is hardly surprising that claims for language are among the first rights that minorities have asserted; such claims continue to pose problems ranging from the official and legal status of minority languages, language teaching and use in schools and other institutions, as well as in the mass media. The problem of endangered languages is discussed in Chapter 7 in connection with the cultural heritage.
Enlightened policy towards minorities should preserve their languages, while providing them with the opportunity to enter into the larger community. Schools should teach several languages, in particular both the local (or minority) and majority language, so as to provide people with the choices which enhance their capabilities. This is tantamount to designing a form of education that is truly multicultural, i.e. one that would give minority cultures a better place not only in the educational system but also in the image of the "national culture" each country seeks to adopt and project. Such an approach still faces resistance, however, whether from the politicians who still see this as a threat to national integration, or from societies in which successive waves of immigration have created the "melting pot" ethos that requires immigrants to assimilate.
Some states (Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore and South Africa) have attempted to resolve problems such as the ones discussed above. Many others have ignored or neglected them. A few governments have even become parties to conflict itself, when they are controlled by or identify strongly with a dominant or majority ethnic group, or occasionally with a powerful, dominant minority. Some of the world's most acute and avoidable political conflicts stem from the inability or unwillingness of governments to respond to the increasingly vocal demands of the groups that do not control power.
The demands of minorities have fluctuated and varied between full social integration into the larger society, economic, technical and functional equality without full social integration, the opposite of political cessation and independence, and the permission to leave and get out. For most minorities, it is a question of one or other form of integration. Independence is asked for only if the process of integration has broken down. World opinion by itself cannot prevent a state from maltreating its minorities. But criticisms and sanctions can be effective. Few countries are capable of defying international public opinion totally. There is evidence that countries have yielded to outside pressures.
Conor Cruise O'Brien:
Despite its defects, I believe that on the whole the universalist approach, based on rights inherent in each individual being, remains the most hopeful one. We ought not, after all, to idealise minorities or to forget that today's underdog may be tomorrow's power-crazed bully. Or that certain custodiams of minority cultures, and certain vehement exponents of minority political rights, may already be playing that role in their own little community. In these conditions, we ought in effect, I suggest, to be saying to governments something like this: "We seek no special rights for minorities, your ones or any other ones. Members of minority groups should have the same human rights as members of majorities, no less and not necessarily any more for the moment than those set out in the Universal Declaration to which you subscribe. But we have evidence that shows that members of such and such a minority are being denied with inevitably undesirable results for your country's reputation and prospects." Our most pressing concern should now perhaps be not to define what rights minorities should have, but to find what techniques are most appropriate for conveying to governments the message that decency in relation to minorities is a quality helpful to any country in its international relations.
Conor Cruise O'Brien