Promise of Declaration on Protecting Minority Rights Still Not Fulfilled, Speakers Tell High-Level Meeting Marking Adoption’s Thirtieth Anniversary
Thirty years after its adoption by the General Assembly, the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities has yet to fulfil its promise, speakers stressed, during a high-level meeting today on the side lines of the Assembly’s general debate.
Adopted by consensus on 18 December 1992, the Declaration — which builds on Article 27 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights — is based on the premise, found in its preamble that the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities “contribute to the political and social stability of States in which they live”.
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, summarized the Declaration’s three core truths: that minority rights are human rights, that the protection of minorities is integral to the Organization’s mission and that promotion of those rights is vital to advancing political and social stability and preventing conflict. Thirty years on, however, minorities continue to face forced assimilation, persecution, prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, hatred and violence. “We need political leadership and resolution action,” he said, calling on Member States to take concrete steps to protect minorities and their identity.
Nadia Murad, a Nobel Peace Laureate who is also the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking and a member of the Yazidi community from Iraq, said that discrimination and the deprivation of human rights is a reality for many minorities around the world. Urging States to take concrete steps to make the ideals contained in the Declaration a reality, she emphasized that the minority communities in Iraq “are not going to give up, but we are going to need your help” to avoid the terrible consequences of inaction.
Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, echoed that stance, added that minorities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, conflict, financial crises, structural inequalities and resurgent nationalism. Early warning signs are turning into alarm bells and there is no time to waste. “The answer is not unity based on imposed assimilation, but a celebration of diversity,” she said.
Fernand de Varennes, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, said the anniversary is an opportunity to complete an unfinished story at a time of increased hate speech and the use of social media to target minorities. He called in particular for the establishment of a permanent forum for people belonging to minorities as well as the creation of a voluntary fund to pursue the promise of justice, equality and dignity for all.
Heads of State and Government, Ministers and representatives of more than 40 countries took the floor during the meeting to outline the efforts being made by their respective Governments to uphold the rights of persons belonging to minority groups, with several emphasizing how diversity can strengthen social fabrics and avert internal and cross-border conflict.
Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, President of Zimbabwe, said that more attention is being given to the learning and teaching of minority languages, which now number 16 in his country’s Constitution. The extensive translation of materials related to the COVID-19 pandemic proved invaluable to Zimbabwe’s pandemic response strategy. He underscored the vulnerability of refugees and migrants, emphasizing that their rights must be protected under international law. He also noted that his country’s ongoing agricultural reforms are pursuing ways to improve food and nutritional security for displaced persons.
Bogdan Aurescu, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Romania, said that while multiculturalism is essential for building democratic societies, the defining element is interculturalism and dialogue between the many cultures and identities within a society. That requires policies which aim towards the protection and promotion of different distinct identities while also fostering interaction between those identities.
Adaljiza Albertina Xavier Reis Magno, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Timor-Leste, said that the struggle to eliminate discrimination and to implement the Declaration has gone through its ups and downs. In many countries, minorities are targets of hate speech and hate crimes, and even calls for genocide. It is not enough just having good legislation, she said, stressing the need for political will and good policy implementation.
Denis Moncada Colindres, Minister for Foreign Relations of Nicaragua, reiterated that international cooperation is essential in order to achieve a more just and inclusive world. That includes promoting the rights of minorities and fighting exclusion. He described how his country’s national plan to combat poverty provides for the development of school materials in minority languages to strengthen literacy.
Phindile Baleni, Director-General at the Presidency of South Africa, said that her country is, at its core, a country of national minorities, with no single ethnicity considered to be significantly more than another. That medley of diverse cultures and ethnicities has been key to its nation-building. South Africa recognizes 11 official languages, with South African sign language to become the twelfth once legislative processes, now underway, are completed.
Yogesh Jitendra Karan, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Fiji, said that the Constitution protects the rights to land ownership for Fiji’s indigenous people, the iTaukei and ensures its children are taught the iTaukei and Fiji Hindi languages in school. As well, Christmas, Easter, Diwali, and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday are all public holidays. However, he stressed he could not declare mission accomplished. “Unity is an ideal, not a destination. It requires constant vigilance against the forces of extremism, intolerance, and racism,” he noted.
Closing the all-day meeting, Danilo Türk, President of the Club of Madrid and former President of Slovenia, noted that much has been covered since the launch of negotiations on the drafting of the Declaration. At the time, few States were in favour of it. Gradually, countries have engaged on the issue, even if the topic is still the subject of neglect. This is due to its political sensitivity.
The question of minorities is complex, and individual rights do not solve all the problems, he said, noting that additional measures are necessary, he said. Enabling conditions, among others, include peace, the peaceful settlement of disputes and non-interference, he noted, adding that individual rights are not a panacea, but the necessary basis for meeting the needs of minorities. He also observed that the United Nations has not always been up to the challenge of the issue of minorities, which must be at the top of the priorities of the international community. He voiced hope that, in the future, the issue of minorities will be given more attention than at present, notably mentioning the idea of creating a new entity.
Csaba Kőrösi, President of the General Assembly, urged that minorities have access to education in their minority language. He also commended those among the Member States who are committed to promoting education about tolerance. Adding his support for the proposal to create, within the United Nations, a permanent body dedicated to minorities, he called on the international community not to let the next 30 years be marked by inaction, underscoring: “We will all be losers if we fail to implement the Declaration.”
Also speaking were Heads of State and Government, Ministers and representatives of Austria, Timor-Leste, Switzerland, Paraguay, Comoros, Gabon, North Macedonia, Ghana, Montenegro, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bahrain, Ukraine, Pakistan, Republic of Moldova, Georgia, Poland, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Costa Rica, Argentina, Iran, Panama, Thailand, Belarus, Italy, Sweden, Côte d’Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Hungary, Mozambique, India, Senegal, United States, Belgium, Nepal, Mongolia, Greece, Egypt, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, China, Türkiye, Armenia, Ecuador, Mexico and Liechtenstein.
The European Union, in its capacity as an observer, spoke, as did observers of the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta. Four representatives of civil society addressed the meeting as well.
The representatives of Pakistan, Iran and India took the floor in exercise of the right of reply
CSABA KŐRÖSI (Hungary), President of the General Assembly, recalled that hopes were high when, in 1992, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. That moment could have marked a major shift in the lives of many communities and millions of people around the world. “But we are not there yet,” he said, emphasizing that the Declaration is more relevant today than ever. States must act urgently to protect the rights of their minorities and to create a world in which diversity is seen as a strength, not as a liability. During today’s high-level meeting, participants should strengthen agreed upon common ground; engage constructively; share ideas, experiences, best practices and pledges; and commit to implementing the Declaration’s provisions, he said.
ANTONIÓ GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that the Declaration — the only United Nations international instrument entirely devoted to minority rights — enshrines three core truths: that minority rights are human rights, that the protection of minorities is integral to the Organization’s mission and that promotion of those rights is vital to advancing political and social stability and preventing conflict. Thirty years on, however, the world is falling short as minorities confront forced assimilation, persecution, prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, hatred and violence. More than 75 per cent of the world’s Stateless people belong to minorities, while the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities, with women often being the worst off.
“We need political leadership and resolution action,” he said, calling on Member States to take concrete steps to protect minorities and their identity. His Call to Action for Human Rights provides a blueprint for Governments to address long-standing issues of discrimination, including through partnership with community leaders. States that protect the rights of minorities are more peaceful, economies which promote the full participation of minorities are more prosperous, and societies that embrace diversity and inclusion are more vibrant. Today’s commemoration should be a catalyst for action, he said, calling for everyone to make the Declaration a reality for minorities everywhere.
ILZE BRANDS KEHRIS, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said that after 30 years, the commitment laid out in the Declaration — which builds on Article 27 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights — remains unfulfilled. Minorities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, conflict, financial crises, structural inequalities and resurgent nationalism. Hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise and human rights defenders face growing harassment and intimidation, both online and offline. Early warning signs are turning into alarm bells and there is no time to waste.
“The answer is not unity based on imposed assimilation, but a celebration of diversity,” with pluralistic, multiple and multilayered identities fostering understanding and mutual respect, she emphasized. Progress is within reach through the implementation of good practices and the sustained engagement of civil society actions, especially minority representatives. Existing United Nations mechanisms should be strengthened to support Member States on matters relating to minority rights protection. In that regard, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) stands ready to assist as well. “Member State and multilateral action is urgently needed to raise the priority of minority rights on the global agenda,” she said, adding that the United Nations system itself must also step up and promise joint action across the entire Organization.
FERNAND DE VARENNES, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, said that the Declaration, at its adoption, was only meant to be a first step towards better recognition and protection of minorities. He welcomed the many initiatives undertaken to protect vulnerable communities and to increase their visibility and presence within the United Nations. In that regard, he cited the establishment of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Permanent Forum of People of African Descent and the declaration of years and decades intended to draw attention to situations faced by vulnerable communities.
This thirtieth anniversary of the Declaration is an opportunity to complete an unfinished story at a time of increased hate speech and the use of social media to target minorities, he said, pointing to the proliferation of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, anti-Roma and anti-Asian discourse, as well as the demonization of minorities. Also expressing concern at the unprecedented number of violent internal conflicts throughout the world, he called for the establishment of a permanent forum for people belong to minorities and a voluntary fund that could help pursue the promise of justice, equality and dignity for all.
NADIA MURAD, Nobel Peace Laureate, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking and President of Nadia's Initiative, noted that she grew up as a proud member of the Yazidi community in Iraq, a country “which we loved despite the difficulties”. Like other minority groups in that country, the Yazidi community suffered from discrimination and the deprivation of their rights. Unfortunately, this is a reality of many minorities around the world, many of whom are not recognized by their own countries. She called on States to take concrete steps to make the ideals contained in the Declaration a reality.
The marginalization of minorities in Iraq has made the entire country vulnerable, she continued, recalling that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Da’esh, understood that the minority groups it was attacking would not be protected. Eight years after Da’esh destroyed their villages, most Yazidis still live in camps in Kurdistan. Minorities in Iraq want security and anti-discrimination legislation, as well as respect for the diversity of all minorities in the countries in which they live. “We are not going to give up, but we are going to need your help,” she said, warning of the terrible consequences that could result from inaction.