How to Protect Minorities: An Individual or Collective Approach?

By Susan Divald

A quick glance at the news shows the significant challenges ethnic, religious, and national minorities face today across the globe – whether they be in peaceful democracies, post-conflict societies, or authoritarian regimes. Many domestic governments and international organisations have taken it upon themselves to provide some form of protection for minority groups – but what the appropriate approach might be is one open to discussion. A closer examination of some case studies will bring out the nuances of the debate.

From the international perspective, there has been a general tension between the collective and individual approach to the rights of minorities. With the fall of the League of Nations and the Second World War the focus on minority rights as a collective right – to be accorded to a group as a whole – was somewhat discredited, and in its place came a new focus on universalism and individual human rights, as shown by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Subsequently, with the end of the Cold War and the resulting increase in nationalist mobilisation in post-communist countries, there was a new shift in the European Union towards a collective rights approach to legislation and policy. For example, the Copenhagen Criteria for accession set out for the Central and Eastern European countries the political requirements of democracy, rule of law, human rights, and the distinctive requirement of “respect for and protection of minorities.” Despite this, a few years later, a greater individualist approach was officially embraced by the EU with the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty’s Article 13 on anti-discrimination and the two subsequent directives in 2000: the Racial Equality and Employment Directives. Such an approach persists today so that the 2008 Lisbon Treaty refers to the protection of persons belonging to minorities as a fundamental value of the European Union.

At the domestic level, governments have taken on a wide range of different policies to deal with their minorities. For example, France does not officially recognise any minorities, instead affirms its republican principles of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and refuses to collect racial or ethnic statistics. The emphasis is rather on individual equality and also territorial-regional equality, where for example, underperforming school districts are given more resources to improve their standing. Nevertheless, it is unclear how effective such policies are for groups – such as the Muslim population – who consistently face discrimination. By contrast, Hungary openly recognises 13 national and ethnic minorities in its constitution, and grants these minority groups various powers in political representation and education policy. However, challenges still arise such as the determination of which minority identities to protect, as well as the difficulty of confirming the belonging of an individual to a specific minority group.

Similarly, the best way to protect minorities following war – such as the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia – has led to different solutions. For example, following the 1995 Dayton Accords, Bosnia Herzegovina institutionalised ethnicity by reserving a certain number of seats for the different ethnic groups at all levels of government, and accorded them extensive veto rights over policy. The challenge this approach poses is the legitimisation of ethnicity as a mobilising marker, as well as the freezing of identity. The policies implemented by the 2001 Ohrid Agreement in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on the other hand, while still institutionalising ethnicity, had more fluid elements such as only reserving ethnic seats at the national level, restricting veto rights, and refraining from a federal-territorial system of government.

Therefore, there are many ways to institutionalise the protection of minorities, and the importance of the debate is vital given our world of increasing migration, rising popularity of right-wing political parties, and salience of minority identities. The best way to translate protection and respect for minorities into tangible solutions remains a burning issue.

About the Author :

Susan Divald recently completed her Masters (MPhil) in European Politics at the University of Oxford. She has an interest in migration, minority rights, and human rights advocacy, and has previously interned at the Global Policy Forum in New York.

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