Minority rights

Introduction / Definition: 

In much of the political science and law literatures, the term `minority rights’ is used to refer to legal provisions that have two key features: first, they are intended to recognize or accommodate the distinctive needs of non-dominant ethnic or racial groups; and second, they do so by adopting minority-specific measures, above and beyond the non-discriminatory enforcement of universal individual rights that apply regardless of group membership. In this respect, minority rights are often distinguished from anti-discrimination policies, as two distinct (but complementary) tools for protecting minorities from injustice at the hands of dominant groups. Ensuring that members of minorities have equal access as individual citizens to the ballot box is an anti-discrimination measure; ensuring that a certain number of parliamentary seats are reserved for members of minorities, or establishing self-governing institutions within a minority’s homeland, are minority rights measures. Similarly, the right to speak or publish freely in a minority language is entailed by the basic individual right of freedom of speech – to forbid speech in a minority language would constitute discrimination in the exercise of that right – but to insist that the state provide road signs, public education or tax forms in a minority’s language is a minority right. Minority rights, in short, involve positive group-specific measures, not just the non-discriminatory enforcement of universal individual rights. Such minority rights may take the form of language rights, land claims, religious exemptions, guaranteed representation in legislative or advisory bodies, and various forms of territorial or cultural autonomy.

Not everyone agrees that minority rights are appropriate or needed: some commentators believe that anti-discrimination is sufficient. This indeed was the dominant view within the international community for much of the post-war era. Starting in the early 1990s, however, there has been an explosion of efforts to codify minority rights, both at the global level and at regional levels. Globally, the UN adopted a “Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities” in 1992, and a “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” in 2007. At the regional level, the Council of Europe adopted the “European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages” in 1992, and the “Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities” in 1995. Attempts to formulate these international standards have run into a number of problems, however, including difficulties in determining who are the relevant “minorities” to be protected, disagreements about the appropriate sorts of rights to attribute to minorities, and weaknesses in the monitoring and enforcement of these rights. While the category `minority rights’ is now widely accepted as a legitimate component of international human rights, it remains under-developed and controversial.

Historical Evolution: 

The recent wave of international activity in the field of minority rights rests on a simple but striking assumption – namely, in the words of the OSCE, that issues regarding the treatment of minorities are “matters of legitimate international concern and consequently do not constitute exclusively an internal affair of the respective State”.[1] This assumption has been affirmed by several international organizations since 1990 to justify the formulation of new norms and monitoring mechanisms.

This is sometimes described as a dramatic break with tradition, reversing the long-standing view that states should have a relatively free rein to manage ethnic diversity as they see fit. In reality, however, the international community has always been acutely aware of “the minority problem”, and concerned that it be managed properly. Disaffected minorities have been a source of conflict since the mid-nineteenth century, and the struggles of secessionist and irredentist minorities have repeatedly redrawn the map of Europe, often in violent and destabilizing ways. Awareness of this fact has never been far from the surface in the mind of the international community. When Woodrow Wilson in 1919 said “Nothing, I venture to say, is more likely to disturb the peace of the world than the treatment which might in certain circumstances be meted out to minorities”, he was repeating commonly-accepted wisdom (quoted in Krasner 1999, 93).

What has changed over time is the way this “minority problem” is conceptualized, and hence the proposed remedies. For the first few decades of the twentieth-century, the “minority problem” was seen primarily as an issue of irredentist minorities. As the Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman multination empires in Europe broke apart into several newly-independent countries, the “minority problem” focused on those people who ended up on the “wrong” side of a new international border – eg., the ethnic Hungarians who found themselves in Romania; or the ethnic Germans who found themselves living in Poland.

In response to this problem, bilateral treaties were established to ensure reciprocal protection of co-nationals in neighbouring countries. For example, Germany agreed to accord certain rights and privileges to ethnic Poles residing within its borders, so long as Poland provided reciprocal rights to ethnic Germans in Poland. This treaty system of minority protection was extended, and given a more secure international legal basis, under the League of Nations.

However, this approach collapsed in the 1930s, and after World War II, it was decisively rejected. For one thing, it only protected minorities who had a “kin state” nearby which took an interest in them. Moreover, the treaties were potentially destabilizing, because where such kin-states did exist, they could invoke the treaty to justify invading or intervening in weaker countries. For example, Nazi Germany justified its invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia on the grounds that these countries were violating the treaty rights of ethnic Germans on their soil.

So as the foundations for a new international order were being built after World War II, an alternate approach was adopted. This new approach was to substitute universal human rights for minority-specific rights. Rather than protecting vulnerable groups directly, through special rights for the members of designated groups, minorities would be protected indirectly, by guaranteeing basic civil and political rights to all individuals regardless of their group membership. Basic human rights such as freedom of speech, association and conscience, while attributed to individuals, are exercised in community with others, and so provide protection for a minority’s group life. Where these individual human rights are firmly protected, it was felt, no further minority-specific rights are needed. Inis Claude nicely captured the thinking involved:

“the general tendency of the postwar movements for the promotion of human rights has been to subsume the problem of national minorities under the broader problem of ensuring basic individual rights to all human beings, without reference to membership in ethnic groups. The leading assumption has been that members of national minorities do not need, are not entitled to, or cannot be granted rights of a special character. The doctrine of human rights has been put forward as a substitute for the concept of minority rights, with the strong implication that minorities whose members enjoy individual equality of treatment cannot legitimately demand facilities for the maintenance of their ethnic particularism” (Claude 1955, 211).


In short, the very idea of “minority rights” was discredited after World War II, on the grounds that it was both unnecessary and destabilizing. As a result, there were no references to minority rights in either the Charter of the United Nations or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. And this silence was replicated in various postwar regional charters of human rights, whether in Europe (the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950), the Americas (the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man of 1948), or Africa (the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1981).

The construction of a system of universal human rights under the UN is one of the great moral achievements of the twentieth century, committed to attacking the prejudice and intolerance that have poisoned ethnic relations around the world. But in relation to minority issues, the post-war replacement of targeted minority rights with universal human rights was not only, and perhaps not primarily, the result of moral idealism or a sincere desire to find an alternative means of protecting minorities. It also reflected a desire to control and disempower minorities. As Claude notes, the Nazi manipulation of the League of Nations system of minority protection, and the willing cooperation of German minorities in it, had created “a strong reaction against the concept of international protection [of minorities] …the hard fact was that statesmen, generally backed by a public opinion which was deeply impressed by the perfidy of irredentist and disloyal minorities, were disposed to curtail, rather than to expand, the rights of minorities” (Claude 1995, 57, 69, 81).

It was well-understood at the time that the human rights approach would not give minorities what they needed to be able to maintain their languages and cultures, such as the right to use their language in public institutions (schools, courts or public media), or to exercise some form of local or regional autonomy. Without these minority rights, centuries-old communities and regional cultures would be unable to resist the nation-building and assimilationist policies of the larger state. For some people, the fact that human rights norms did not protect minorities from this long-term assimilationist outcome was a regrettable limitation, but for many others it was in fact an important virtue. The experience of the League of Nations, it was felt, showed that the needs of minorities must be subordinated to the larger interest “in making the national state secure, and its institutions stable, even at the cost of obliterating minority cultures and imposing homogeneity upon the population” (Claude 1955, 80-1). In short, it was raison d’etat, as much as moral principle, which determined the rejection of pre-war traditions of minority rights.[2]

Whatever its underlying rationale, this opposition to the idea of international norms of minority rights held sway for most of the next forty years. Starting in the 1980s, however, attitudes began to change. Within the United Nations, these changes have followed two tracks: one for the specific case of “indigenous peoples”, and another for “minorities” in general.

Let us start with the indigenous track. In one sense, indigenous peoples have always had a unique standing within international law. Even in the heyday of the post-war opposition to any idea of group-specific minority rights, there was still some acknowledgement of the special status of indigenous peoples. This was reflected in the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 107 on the “Protection and Integration of Indigenous and Tribal Populations”, adopted in 1957. This was the clearest exception to the post-war rule that international law would not recognize any rights based on group membership. However, it was the exception that proved the rule. The Convention endorsed special measures for indigenous people, but only as temporary paternalistic protections for a vulnerable population that was seen as unable to cope with the rigours of modern life, until such as time as they were ready to stand on their own as equal and undifferentiated national citizens. The goal of these temporary special measures was to encourage the adaptation and assimilation of indigenous peoples to the institutions of the nation-state. In that sense, it actually fit quite well with the standard post-war orthodoxy.

However, by the 1980s, attitudes towards indigenous peoples started to change. The paternalistic and assimilationist premises of the ILO’s Convention 107 became an embarrassment, out of step with emerging human rights, with their strong commitment to equality and emancipation. As a result, a decision was made to redraft it, resulting eventually in a new ILO Convention on indigenous peoples adopted in 1989 (Convention 169). In the preamble to this new Convention, the ILO stated that the time had come to adopt new international standards with a view to “removing the assimilationist orientation of the earlier standards”, and to “recognizing the aspirations of these peoples to exercise control over their own institutions”. The new Convention covered a gamut of rights that were seen as specific to indigenous peoples, including land claims, language rights, and customary law.

This was the first real example of a “multiculturalist” international norm in the post-war era, unambiguously accepting the principle of positive, group-specific rights. But this Convention quickly became seen as an inadequate articulation of the rights of indigenous peoples, and there has been further norm-setting at the UN. A crucial text here is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, initially drafted in 1993, and finally achieving endorsement by the UN General Assembly in 2007. The Declaration not only re-affirms and strengthens the ILO Convention’s defense of indigenous rights regarding land, language and customary law, but also claims that indigenous peoples have a right to internal self-determination (ie., to extensive self-government within the boundaries of the larger state, although not to “external self-determination” or secession).[3]

In short, in the context of indigenous peoples, we see a clear trend to recognizing the necessity for certain targeted rights, although the content of these rights remains contested, particularly in relation to natural resources and political governance. This trend is often said to be “unique” and “exceptional” – an anomaly in the international system adopted in response to the specific needs of isolated indigenous populations, without any implications for the treatment of minorities generally. On this view, the post-war ground rules, based on universal human rights rather than minority-specific rights, remain unchanged for all other ethnocultural groups.

It is certainly true that the rapid acceptance of the idea of targeted indigenous rights is partly explained by the perception that indigenous peoples are a relatively small and somewhat exceptional case that doesn’t set a precedent for other ethnocultural minorities. But the shift towards a more “difference-friendly” approach has not been restricted to indigenous peoples. There have been important developments along a second track focusing on minorities in general that have changed the ground rules for all ethnocultural groups.

The reference point for this more general shift is a provision of the UN’s International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights of 1966. Article 27 of the ICCPR states:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.


When originally drafted, this article was not necessarily intended to provide any tangible minority-specific rights, as opposed to simply reaffirming the commitment to universal human rights. It can be read as calling on states to ensure that the members of minority groups have the same civil liberties as all other citizens, particularly freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience. As such, it can be seen as essentially an anti-discrimination provision, and in that sense duplicated other provisions in international human rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity.

However, as occurred in the context of indigenous peoples, attitudes towards the rights of minorities started to change in the 1980s, and Article 27 has gradually been re-interpreted to encompass positive minority rights. In its “General Comment on Article 27”, released in 1994, the UN’s Human Rights Committee argued that the Article not only imposes a duty of non-discrimination in the protection of civil liberties, but also may require adopting “positive measures” to enable and accommodate the minority’s exercise of this right to enjoy their culture. This idea was re-affirmed by the UN General Assembly in 1992 when it adopted a “Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities”.

In short, we see developments along two separate tracks at the UN: there is one track for “minorities” in general, grounded primarily in a “right to enjoy one’s culture”, and a separate track for “indigenous peoples”, tied to a right to internal self-determination. In both tracks, however, there is increasing acceptance of the need for provisions aimed specifically at the needs and aspirations of ethnocultural groups.

This increased acceptance of minority rights is not limited to the UN. We see important developments at the regional level as well, during roughly the same time period, particularly in Europe. Much of Europe today is consumed by an anti-immigrant backlash, and so may not seem like a propitious environment for the development of minority-friendly international norms. But in the European context, it is common to distinguish “historic minorities”, traditionally settled in a country, from “new minorities” or “migrants”. The category of historic minorities in Europe includes some groups that are considered as “indigenous peoples” (such as the Sami in Scandinavia) as well as other long-standing “national minorities”, such as the ethnic Germans in Poland, or the Scots in Britain. It is in relation to these historic “national minorities” that important developments regarding pan-European norms have taken place.

The idea of a minority rights charter for historic minorities was first debated in the European Parliament in the 1980s, without success. But since 1990, three of the most powerful European intergovernmental organizations have made firm minority rights commitments: the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The OSCE was the first European body to make an official declaration on minority rights, in its Copenhagen Document of 1990 and Geneva Document of 1991. It also established the office of the “High Commissioner On National Minorities” in 1993, and developed a series of important Recommendations relating to minority rights in the spheres of education (1996), language (1998), effective participation (1999) and broadcasting (2003). These documents, while not legally binding, all reiterated the general principle that positive minority-specific measures are often needed to achieve the peaceful and fair resolution of conflicts between states and national minorities.

Based in part on these OSCE norms, the Council of Europe adopted a “European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages” in 1992, and a “Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities” in 1995, and has subsequently established an Advisory Committee to monitor its implementation. The European Union, for its part, declared in 1993 that respect for minority rights was one of the “accession criteria” that countries (particularly post-communist countries) needed to meet if they wished to join the Union, and issued a series of annual Reports assessing how well candidate countries were performing on minority rights issues. And minority rights were listed as one of the foundational values of the EU in Article 2 of its (ill-fated) draft Constitution of 2004, and in its more successful 2007 Lisbon Treaty.[4]

Several other international organizations are involved in this field, but enough has been said to give an indication of the incredible scale and pace of these changes. For almost forty years after World War II, the issue of minority rights was essentially invisible within the international community. But it re-emerged in the 1980s, and reached the top of the UN and European agendas in the early 1990s, leading to a flurry of studies, negotiations and drafts, the results of which have gradually become institutionally consolidated and diffused around the world over the past fifteen years.

[1] OSCE, Geneva Report, Chapter II, para. 3 (1991).

[2] For overviews of this pre-war tradition, see Fink 2004; Macartney 1934.

[3] For helpful overviews of recent developments in indigenous rights, see Anaya 2004, Thornberry 2002.

[4] For helpful overviews of these developments at the European level, see Weller 2005; Malloy 2005.

Theoretical Implications: 

How are we to explain these shifts? How do minority rights fit into the larger framework of the values and principles of the international community? Some critics see the general movement to promote minority rights as a betrayal of the founding ideals of the international community. According to these critics, such as Alain Finkielkraut, the UN’s embrace of minority rights has involved abandoning Enlightenment universalism for cultural relativism:

“The United Nations, founded to propagate the universalist ideals of Enlightened Europe, now speaks on behalf of every ethnic prejudice, believing that peoples, nations and cultures have rights which outweigh the rights of man. The `multicultural’ lobby dismisses the liberal values of Europe as `racist’, while championing the narrow chauvinism of every minority culture” (Finkielkraut 1988).


Similar criticisms have been raised against the Council of Europe’s norms of minority rights, which are said to impose ethnic identities on individuals, and to privilege cultural differences over our common humanity.

In fact, however, both the UN and Council of Europe are unambiguous that minority rights cannot be used to “outweigh the rights of man”. The UN’s Declaration on minority rights states that any rights recognized in the Declaration “shall not prejudice the enjoyment of all persons of universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Similarly, the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention says that the Convention must be interpreted in a way that complies with the European Convention on Human Rights. In fact, every international declaration and convention on these issues makes the same point – the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples are an inseparable part of a larger human rights framework, and operate within its limits.

In short, the emerging international norms of minority rights are fundamentally liberal-democratic in character, and are both guided and constrained by a foundational commitment to principles of human rights, individual freedom and equality. Viewed this way, minority rights can be understood as a process of liberal-democratic “citizenization”. Historically, ethnocultural and religious diversity has been characterized by a range of illiberal and undemocratic relations – including relations of conqueror and conquered; colonizer and colonized; settler and indigenous; racialized and unmarked; normalized and deviant; orthodox and heretic; civilized and backward; ally and enemy; master and slave. The task for all liberal democracies has been to turn this catalogue of uncivil relations into relationships of liberal-democratic citizenship, both in terms of the vertical relationship between the members of minorities and the state, and the horizontal relationships amongst the members of different groups.

In the past, it used to be assumed that the only or best way to engage in this process of citizenization was to impose a single undifferentiated model of citizenship on all individuals. But the emerging theories and models of minority rights start from the assumption that this complex history inevitably and appropriately generates group-differentiated ethnopolitical claims. The key to citizenization is not to suppress these differential claims, but rather to filter and frame them through the language of human rights, civil liberties and democratic accountability. And this is precisely what international norms of minority and indigenous rights seek to do (Kymlicka 2007).

Practical Applications: 

Whatever the theoretical underpinnings, the more important question perhaps is how minority rights have operated in practice. Have they in fact helped to strengthen relations of democratic citizenship? Have they worked to defuse violent ethnic conflicts, or to reduce secessionist sentiments?

It is difficult to answer this question, in part because these norms are still fairly new. However, it has become clear that these norms face a number of difficult and unresolved challenges. The first concerns the categories of minority rights. As noted earlier, the UN framework operates along two parallel tracks: one track for indigenous peoples, endorsing a right to autonomy and internal self-determination, and one track for minorities generally, grounded on a “right to enjoy one’s culture”. (To complicate matters, indigenous peoples are themselves included within the broader category of minorities, and so are entitled to both the rights owed to all minorities as well as to the more specific rights reserved for indigenous peoples. Put another way, all indigenous peoples are included in the category of minorities, but not all minorities qualify as indigenous peoples). According to UN officials, there are three key differences between minorities and indigenous peoples which explain and justify this system of parallel rights: (a) whereas minorities seek institutional integration, indigenous peoples seek to preserve a degree of institutional separateness; (b) whereas minorities seek individual rights, indigenous peoples seek collectively-exercised rights; (c) whereas minorities seek non-discrimination, indigenous peoples seek self-government (Eide and Daes 2000).

This two-track approach has the virtue of simplicity, but it is arguably inadequate to the real-world challenges of ethnic diversity. In relation to indigenous peoples, the UN’s approach is widely seen as beneficial, helping to empower historically-subordinated groups, and to promote best practices for the effective participation and self-government of indigenous peoples. The UN has served as the nerve centre for a vibrant transnational network of community activists, NGOs, academics, philanthropic foundations, and policy-makers who have successfully diffused the ideas and standards found in the UN Declaration on indigenous rights. This network has been particularly effective in encouraging and legitimizing the mobilization of indigenous peoples in Latin America.[1]

The UN’s approach to minorities, by contrast, has been less successful. Even the UN’s 1992 Declaration on Minority Rights was unanimously approved by the General Assembly (unlike the 2007 Declaration on indigenous rights, which several countries opposed), it has not had nearly the same public impact, and is rarely invoked by minorities around the world. There are several difficulties confronting the UN’s approach to minorities, but one central problem is the underlying assumption that “ethnic, national, religious and linguistic minorities” can all be lumped together, and that they all can be accommodated through a “right to enjoy one’s culture” (rather than through rights to autonomy and self-government). In reality, some minorities share the same aspirations as indigenous peoples for autonomy and self-government. Indeed, some of the most well-known and protracted struggles for autonomy around the world involve groups that are considered minorities rather than indigenous peoples by the UN – groups such as the Scots, Catalans, Chechens, Kosovar Albanians, Kurds, Kashmiris, Tibetans, and Tamils. Indeed, it was precisely the upsurge of ethnic conflicts involving such autonomy-seeking substate nationalist minorities in the early 1990s that motivated the UN to formulate standards regarding “minorities”, resulting in the 1992 Declaration on minority rights. And yet the resulting UN standards, far from providing guidance for dealing with such minority claims for autonomy, actually render them invisible, by presupposing that minorities (unlike indigenous peoples) are only interested in integration and non-discrimination.

Partly to remedy this problem, there have been proposals to subdivide the category of “minorities”, and to develop norms that are targeted at the specific types of minorities that are inclined to seek autonomy. This, indeed, was one of the motivations underlying the attempt by European organizations to formulate norms that apply specifically to “national minorities”. In the initial debates in the early 1990s surrounding European norms, several people argued that the term “national minorities” should only apply to “historic” long-settled minorities, and that these “old” or “homeland” minorities should be recognized as having a legitimate claim to some form of autonomy.

For example, the very first statement by a European organization on minority rights after the collapse of communism – the OSCE Copenhagen Declaration of 1990 - explicitly endorsed territorial autonomy as a desirable practice. An even stronger endorsement of territorial autonomy came in 1993, in Recommendation 1201 of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. It contains a clause (article 11) stating that

in the regions where they are a majority, the persons belonging to a national minority shall have the right to have at their disposal appropriate local or autonomous authorities or to have a special status, matching this specific historical and territorial situation and in accordance with the domestic legislation of the State.


A concrete expression of this idea was the decision of the European Commission in 1991 to require Yugoslav republics seeking independence to establish a “special status” for regions where national minorities form a local majority, modeled in part on the South Tyrol example.

In short, for a brief period in the early 1990s, there was some indication that a right to autonomy would be recognized not only for indigenous peoples, but also at least for one particular type of minority – namely, historic “national” minorities. However, as it turns out, Recommendation 1201 reflects the high-water mark of support for territorial autonomy within European organizations. Since then, there has been a marked movement away from it. The Framework Convention, adopted just two years after Recommendation 1201, rejected the Parliamentary Assembly’s advice, and avoided any reference to territorial autonomy. Not only is territorial autonomy not recognized as a "right", it is not even mentioned as a recommended practice. Nor does territorial autonomy appear in any subsequent declaration or recommendation of European organizations, such as the series of Hague, Oslo and Lund Recommendations adopted by the OSCE from 1996 to 1999, or the new constitution of the European Union. And the European Commission for Democracy Through Law has ruled that national minorities do not have rights of internal self-determination. For all intents and purposes, ideas of autonomy have disappeared from the debate about European standards on minority rights.

There are a number of reasons for this turn away from autonomy. There was enormous resistance to recognizing a right to autonomy both within the established Western democracies and even more within the post-communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Some of this resistance was based on prejudice against minorities, but some of it was based on legitimate fears about the potentially destabilizing effects of autonomy regimes, particularly where boundaries were still contested, and where liberal-democratic institutions were not well entrenched.

The result, however, is that European norms no longer provide any clear guidance for addressing cases where national minorities seek autonomy. Instead, these European norms are essentially an updated version of the UN’s approach to minorities, based on the Article 27 “right to enjoy one’s culture”. Like the UN, European norms implicitly assume that national minorities, unlike indigenous peoples, are primarily interested in non-discrimination and institutional integration rather than in autonomy and self-government. This is indeed true of many minorities, particularly new minorities arising from immigration, as well as some smaller and dispersed older minorities. But it is manifestly not true of many larger, territorially-concentrated national minorities, who often do seek autonomy, if not secession. And it is of course precisely these minorities that have been at the heart of the most important violent conflicts and secessionist struggles in post-communist Europe, and indeed around the world. As it stands, neither the UN’s minority rights norms nor the European minority rights standards provide much guidance for addressing these cases, even though these were the cases that stimulated the interest in formulating international standards in the first place.

In that sense, the minority rights project must be seen as a qualified success, and as an unfinished task. Yet the prospects for further developments in this field are mixed, at best. The depth of commitment to minority rights varies markedly around the world. At the regional level, while both the Council of Europe and the Organization of American States have seriously debated minority and indigenous rights, the topic has been largely neglected by other regional organizations, such as the African Union, the Arab League or ASEAN. Indeed, it remains a taboo topic in many post-colonial countries in Asia, Africa and Middle East, where state-minority issues remain heavily “securitized”, treated as issues of state security rather than as issues of human rights or even of free and open democratic debate. Where minorities are seen as potentially disloyal fifth columns who might collaborate with neighbouring enemy states – as is true in much of the post-colonial world – the prospects for minority rights are dim.

Support for minority rights varies not only by region, but also by different types of group. While there has been an impressive level of international support for the claims of indigenous peoples, there has been much less support for the claims of national minorities, and even less for the rights of immigrants and refugees, who have arguably faced a situation of declining international protection in the same period that indigenous peoples have gained greater rights and recognition. While indigenous peoples are widely seen as weak and innocent victims who pose no threat to the larger state, other types of minorities are often seen as either posing a dangerous threat to break up the country (national minorities) or as undesirable and undeserving outsiders who do not belong (migrants).

The result is a very uneven patchwork quilt of international norms of minority rights, whose long-term significance is difficult to evaluate. On the one hand, the development of these international standards represents a clear and important assertion of the legitimate role of the international community in regulating and monitoring state-minority relations. The long-standing view that the treatment of minorities is purely a domestic concern has been decisively repudiated, and this has given the concerns of minorities a new international legitimacy and visibility. On the other hand, the existing standards are often too weak in both their content and monitoring to achieve their intended goals of reducing ethnic violence and secessionist mobilization. As a result, much of the initial optimism and excitement regarding the minority rights project has faded since the early 1990s, and the prospects for future evolution are uncertain.

[1] For the impact of international norms of indigenous rights in Latin America, see Brysk 2000; Yashar 2006.

References / Further Reading: 

Anaya, S. James, 2004. Indigenous Peoples in International Law. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brysk, Alison. 2000. From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and International Relations in Latin America. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Claude, Inis. 1955. National Minorities: An International Problem. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Eide, Asbjorn and Erika-Irene Daes. 2000. “Working Paper on the Relationship and Distinction between the rights of persons belonging to minorities and those of indigenous peoples”, prepared for the UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (UN Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2000/10).

Fink, Carole. 2004. Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Finkielkraut, Alain. 1988. The Undoing of Thought, translated by Dennis O’Keefe. London: Claridge Press.

Krasner, Stephen. 1999. Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kymlicka, Will. 2007. Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Macartney, C.A. 1934. National States and National Minorities. London: Oxford University Press.

Malloy, Tove. 2005. National Minority Rights in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thornberry, Patrick. 2002. Indigenous Peoples and International Law. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Weller, Marc (ed). 2005. The Rights of Minorities in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yashar, Deborah. 2005. Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the PostLiberal Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Further Reading

Henrard, Kristin. 2000. Devising an Adequate System of Minority Protection: Individual Human Rights, Minority Rights and the Right to Self-Determination. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Kymlicka, Will. 1995. Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pentassuglia, Gaetano. 2002. Minorities in International Law. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.

Wheatley, Steven. 2006. Democracy, Minorities and International Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

All of the main international intergovernmental organizations now have specific websites explaining their standards, policies and programs in relation to minorities and indigenous peoples. See for example, the International Labour Organization (www.ilo.org/public/english/indigenous/), the World Bank (www.worldbank.org/indigenouspeoples), the Council of Europe (www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/minorities/default_en.asp), the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/), or the Minorities Section of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Minorities/Pages/MinoritiesIndex.aspx).