Minorities and their rights matter to prevent conflict, says expert

22 April 2022
Special Rapporteur on Minorities issues Human Rights Council Minorities (OHCHR Page)
“The position of minorities across the world is grave – and is getting worse with a rise in hate speech and hate crimes targeting minorities around the world,” said Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues.
De Varennes was speaking to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where he presented his report on conflict prevention through the protection of the human rights of minorities.
Root causes of most violent conflicts
The report pointed out that the root causes of most violent conflicts are linked to violations of the human rights of minorities, and called for the mainstreaming of minority issues in conflict prevention efforts.
Conflicts globally are increasingly inside countries, the report states, often starting with an underlying tension around the treatment, or perceived weak position and place, of minorities.
De Varennes said that to address the common root causes of most conflicts, it is essential to deal with the grievances, real or perceived, before these can be instrumentalized by political forces or create explosive conditions that lead to violence.
“Since most contemporary violent conflicts involve aggrieved minorities, strategies to prevent conflicts involving minorities should figure prominently in international, regional and national initiatives and address directly the root causes of exclusion and injustice,” he said.
This includes ensuring equality in access to economic and social opportunities for minorities, effective political participation and representation, measures to ensure their identity, and particularly their languages, are used in education, and constructive development of practices and institutional arrangements to accommodate diversity within society.
Social media hate speech fuels violence
The special rapporteur also warned against new trends that have added another powerful factor contributing to the global increase in violent conflicts: the rise of hate speech, xenophobia, racism and populist nationalism in social media, which has been fueling violence and attacks against minorities worldwide.
“The phenomenon of hate speech in social media was neither as visible nor as prominent in 2010 but appears now to be a significant driver in creating a context where minorities may find themselves increasingly targeted as ´others´ or as threats to the majority ´nation´, leading to an ´us versus them´ polarization, instrumentality by majoritarian political personalities for short-term electoral gains,” the report states.
“Mainstreaming a human and minority rights framework is necessary to both provide a more effective early warning tool to help prevent violent conflicts and avoid sentimentalization of minority grievances by outside parties.”
Despite 2022 marking the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, the presence, position and treatment of minorities has not improved in recent years.
De Varennes said the UN failed to follow up on the prevention recommendations of the first Independent Expert on minorities more than 10 years ago. Those recommendations had said that attention to minority rights at an early stage – before grievances lead to tensions and violence – would save countless lives and promote peace and stability.
“Even at the United Nations and its initiatives, too many avoid or disregard the fact that certain minorities are often amongst the world’s most vulnerable communities – and not accidentally.”
The expert said the international community has to fill the significant gaps in early effective conflict prevention mechanisms that are failing to focus on the main drivers in most contemporary conflicts.
“Dangerous drift towards exclusion” in the U.S.
In his address to the Council, De Varennes also spoke about his recent mission report to the United States.
While lauding the Biden administration for what he called a commitment to respect international human rights and reconnect with the international community in the field of minorities, the Special Rapporteur expressed concern over a “dangerous drift towards exclusion of those with different colors of skin, forms or prayers, or sounds of their voices.”
The Special Rapporteur said minorities in the U.S. are vulnerable to the gaps and omissions of a patchwork federal and state human rights legislation and protections first enacted in the 1960s civil rights movement.
De Varennes recommended the adoption of comprehensive national human rights legislation to include the USA’s international human rights obligations, particularly on the recognition of the right to equality without discrimination on grounds such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
“It is inconceivable that millions of American citizens, overwhelmingly minorities as my report highlights, cannot vote. The increasing number of barriers to vote without any discrimination and to be elected at genuine periodic elections by universal and equal suffrage are inconsistent with the Government’s obligations under international law. It also constitutes a direct and immediate danger to democracy in the country.”
Minorities in all regions of the world continue to face serious threats, discrimination and racism, and are frequently excluded from taking part fully in the economic, political and social life of their countries. Today, minority communities face new challenges, including legislation, policies and practices that may unjustly impede or even violate minority rights. The outcome document of the 2005 World Summit of Heads of State and Government, approved by the General Assembly, notes that “the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities contributes to political and social stability and peace and enriches the cultural diversity and heritage of society”.
Respect for minority rights assists in achieving stable and prosperous societies, in which human rights, development and security are achieved by all, and shared by all.
The dynamics of majority/minority relationships lead to the emergence of a range of minority issues which provide challenges and opportunities for States and societies as a whole. Such issues, in all spheres of life, are identified and articulated both by minorities and by States seeking to manage diverse societies. Within this wider context of minority issues, the normative framework provided by minority rights should be understood as a necessary element to ensure integrated societies and to promote social inclusion and cohesion. In such societies, various national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups are able to live confidently together, practice their religions, speak their own languages and communicate effectively, recognizing value in their differences and in their society’s cultural diversity.
The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues was established in resolution 2005/79 by the Commission on Human Rights on 21 April 2005. The mandate was subsequently renewed by the Human Rights Council in its resolutions 7/6 of 27 March 2008, 16/6 of 24 March 2011, 25/5 of 28 March 2014 and 34/6 of 23 March 2017. Resolution 34/6 renews the mandate under the same terms as provided by resolution 25/5.
In resolution 25/5 the Human Rights Council extended the mandate as Special Rapporteur on minority issues for a period of three years and requests the mandate holder:
(a) To promote the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, including through consultations with Governments, taking into account existing international standards and national legislation concerning minorities;

(b) To examine ways and means of overcoming existing obstacles to the full and effective realization of the rights of persons belonging to minorities;

(c) To identify best practices and possibilities for technical cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner, at the request of Governments;

(d) To apply a gender perspective in his/her work;

(e) To cooperate and coordinate closely, while avoiding duplication, with existing relevant United Nations bodies, mandates and mechanisms and with regional organizations;

(f) To take into account the views of and cooperate closely with nongovernmental organizations on matters pertaining to his/her mandate;
(g) To guide the work of the Forum on Minority Issues, prepare its annual meetings, to report on its thematic recommendations and to make recommendations for future thematic subjects, as decided by the Human Rights Council in its resolution 19/23;

(h) To submit an annual report on his/her activities to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly, including recommendations for effective strategies for the better implementation of the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities;
The mandate of the Special Rapporteur complements and enhances the work of other UN bodies and mechanisms that address minority rights and minority issues, including the Forum on Minority Issues.
Current mandate holder
Fernand de Varennes is Extraordinary Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Pretoria (South Africa), Adjunct Professor at the National University of Ireland-Gal way (Ireland), and Cheng Yu Tung Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong (China). He was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues by the Human Rights Council and assumed his functions on 1 August 2017.
Read Fernand de Varennes’s full biography
Methods of work
In carrying out his mandate, the Special Rapporteur will:
– receive information from diverse sources including States, expert bodies, United Nations agencies, regional and other inter-governmental organizations, NGOs and other civil society organizations. Based on such information, he will issue communications to States concerning implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Minorities, where appropriate;
– submit annual reports on the activities undertaken by the mandate to the Human Rights Council  and General Assembly, including thematic studies on key minority rights issues;
– undertake, at the invitation of Governments, country visits to further constructive consultation with States on minority rights, observe relevant programmed and policies for minorities, register concerns, and identify areas for cooperation. During these visits, the Special Rapporteur will study and provide recommendations on national legislation, policies, regulatory frameworks and institutions and practices related to minorities, in order to promote the effective implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Minorities.

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