In recent years, the world community has woken up to the problems of the minorities, resulting in the adoption of several measures at the international level. Although the sub-commission on prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities was formed as a subsidiary body of the United Nations commission on human rights as early as in 1947, new approaches towards the implementation of policies for an effective international protection of the ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities was becoming necessary.
The rise of domestic conflicts around the world, resulting in suffering, displacement of people and social disruption during late Eighties and early Nineties brought minority rights into focus. The disintegration of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were accompanied by ethnic strife. Added to these were the prevailing internal conflicts in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many of these conflicts had their roots in the disaffection of minorities, arising from long-standing grievances and discrimination. Assertions of identity, often politically manipulated, were expressed in claims to self-determination. Denials of these claims have resulted in violence and civil wars.
The world cares
The most comprehensive UN human rights document devoted solely to minority rights is the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted consensually by the UN general assembly in 1992. The declaration’s preamble states that the promotion and realization of the right of the minorities is integral to the development of society. It asks all signatories to take necessary legislative measures to uphold the principles of the declaration.
The former secretary-general of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has observed that “in spite of the growing cooperation of both regional and continental associations of state, fierce new assertions of nationalism and sovereignty spring up and the cohesion of states is threatened by brutal ethnic, religious, social, cultural or linguistic strife. One requirement for solutions to these problems lies in commitment to human rights with a special sensitivity to those of minorities, whether ethnic, religious, social or linguistic.”
The conference on security and cooperation in Europe appointed a high commissioner on national minorities in December 1992 as a conflict-prevention measure. This official provides early warning and takes appropriate action when tensions involving minority issues arise in the territories of the participating states.
The framework convention on the protection of national minorities, adopted in Europe in November 1994, is a legal instrument devoted to the protection of national minorities. The convention covers the right to linguistic freedom and education and participation in public life.
The international community has, however, failed to find effective remedies in many cases. This underlies the need for developing preventive diplomacy in order to ease tensions before they lead to conflicts. Peaceful ways must be sought and preventive measures developed to root out the causes of grievances among the minorities.
When supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamat-e-Islami resorted to oppression of the Hindu minority community in Bangladesh in the post-election period of October 2001, Amnesty International representatives visited Dhaka and urged the then prime minister, Khaleda Zia, to check the atrocities on the minorities.
In a similar gesture, when the minority Muslims became victims of genocide in Gujarat in March 2002, Amnesty International called upon the Indian government to make an impartial inquiry into the communal atrocities. But this is not enough. The UN agencies must make their presence felt and play an effective role in protecting minorities and their rights in various countries through careful vigilance and sterner embargos.