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Relevant reading

Protecting and promoting minorities

by Nina Eschke

In depth

Every one has human rights: the Karo are an ethnic minority in Ethiopia.

Every one has human rights: the Karo are an ethnic minority in Ethiopia.

Since the 1990s, the international community has been paying increased attention to the protection and promotion of national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. Nonetheless, discrimination and marginalisation continue all over the world. Recent publications assess the situation and propose measures to improve things.

Members of minorities are affected disproportionately by poverty and unemployment, according to national and international statistics as well as reports by the United Nations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). If they have access to health care, education and decent accommodation at all, such access is only limited. In too many cases, they are excluded from societal life and have no political voice.

Two good introduction to the complex issue of minority rights are Kerstin Henrard’s article “Minorities, international protection” in the Max Planck encyclopedia of public international law and Gudmundur Alfredsson’s article “Minority rights: norms and institutions” published in 2009. Along with a brief outline of the history of international protection of minorities, both publications give the reader a profound insight into the principles of international law relating to minorities.

Like all people everywhere, members of minorities have a right not to be discriminated against. Their human rights are enshrined in diverse treaties and need to be observed. Some of those treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, contain minority-specific standards, albeit only vague ones. Moreover, there are many instruments and declarations at international and regional level that are concerned specifically with minority rights. They include, for example, the 1992 UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

Both Henrard and Alfredsson examine what role existing human rights instruments play in protecting and promoting minority rights. The authors also highlight shortcomings. Moreover, they point out that there is no universally accepted definition of the term “minority”. They then flag up the long-running controversial debate on whether there are human rights that should be granted only to minorities and not to humanity as a whole.


Causes of hate crime

The London-based NGO Minority Rights Group International is one of the few organisations at international level that is dedicated exclusively to championing the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. Since 2005, it has published an annual report, “State of the world’s minorities”. The series provides an overview of the current situation of minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide based on official figures and studies. Each year, the report focuses on a different aspect, such as the right to health (2013), access to land and natural resources (2012) or women’s rights (2011).

The most recent report (2014) looks at the causes, manifestations and severity of hate crime and hate speech towards minorities and indigenous peoples in all parts of the world. Presenting lots of practical examples, it illustrates what kind of devastating and often unnoticed negative impacts expressions of hate have on minorities’ participation in public affairs, access to basic services and their economic and cultural life.  

The authors demand that governments take steps to protect minorities. For instance, the report contains far-ranging recommendations and describes promising models of how civil society and state action can help to dismantle hatred and promote social diversity in individual countries.

The fact that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are being supplanted this year by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is fuelling debate worldwide. The MDGs failed to bring about a fundamental improvement in minorities’ lives – a matter addressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Rita Izsák, in her 2014 report “Ensuring the inclusion of minority issues in post-2015 development agendas”. As reasons for the failure, the report cites failure to consider or involve minorities in the implementation of the goals. Moreover, Izsák points to a lack of discourse on why minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty.

The UN Special Rapporteur analyses the situation of minorities in the eleven focal areas of global SDG debate: inequality, education, health, economic growth and employment, food security, conflict, environmental sustainability, governance, energy, water and population dynamics. She supports her analysis with data and statistics wherever possible and shows what a devastating effect the combination of inequality, poverty and discrimination has.

The report is an appeal to all governmental development actors to involve minorities in drafting future development goals and strategies. It also calls for taking more account of minorities’ rights at the implementation stage. Moreover, it emphasises the immense importance of improving data collection and differentiating more clearly between minorities. A realistic picture of different minorities’ lives is essential for defining policy measures and monitoring their effectiveness.


Policy guide

In 2011, the UN High Commission for Human Rights published the practical guide “Minority rights: international standards and guidance for implementation.” Its purpose is to help gear national development strategies and programmes more closely to the protection and promotion of minorities’ rights. The target group is primarily UN staff, but the guide is definitely relevant for other development actors as well. It is based on all international legislation relating to minority rights. At its core are checklists and advice on how individual rights such as access to basic services and decent work, freedom of assembly and association, and participation can be protected and guaranteed in development programmes.

The guide pays special attention to the situation of specific minority groups. It contains guidelines for action relating to religious minorities as well as to women and girls from disadvantaged minority groups. The latter are often victims of multiple discrimination – because of their gender and their minority status.

Civil society plays an important part in monitoring and promoting human rights. For many years, therefore, the UN High Commission for Human Rights has been  publishing information for human-rights defenders and civil-society organisations. In 2012, to mark the 20th anniversary of the politically binding “UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities”, the UNHCHR published a guide to minority rights entitled “Promoting and protecting minority rights: a guide for advocates”.

The publication is intended to serve those working as minority-rights promoters and defenders. It provides a comprehensive overview of international and regional institutions and organisations concerned with minority rights. It contains detailed information about existing mechanisms, processes and forums and shows how they can be used by civil-society actors to draw attention to the plight of minorities and thus help improve their situation.


Nina Eschke is a policy adviser at the German Institute for Human Rights (DIMR).



Alfredsson, G., 2009: Minority rights – norms and institutions. In Boyle, K., (ed.): New institutions for human rights protection. Oxford University Press.

Henrad, K., 2013: Minorities, international protection. Max Planck encyclopedia of public international law (MPEPIL).

Minority Rights Group International: ‘State of the world’s minorities’ reports.

OHCHR, 2010: Minority rights – international standards and guidance for implementation. Geneva/New York.

OHCHR, 2012: Promoting and protecting minority rights – a guide for advocates. Geneva/ New York.

UN Human Rights Council, 2014: Report of the independent expert on minority issues. Rita Izsák: Ensuring the inclusion of minority issues in post-2015 development agendas. A/HRC/25/56.