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Global governance on minority rights: assessing the UN Forum on Minority Issues

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Left to right: Dr Corinne Lennox, Evelin Verhás (Tom Lantos Institute), Dr Fernand de Varennes (UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues), Dr Anna-Mária Bíró (Tom Lantos Institute). © Lilija Alijeva (SAS MPhil/PhD student)

Dr Corinne Lennox

Yezidis, Ahwazis, Copts, Kurds, Rohingya, Dalits, southern Cameroonians, Afro-Colombians. These are just a few of the minority groups that brought their concerns to the UN Forum on Minority Issues at its 10th session, 30 November–1 December, 2017.

Why did they come? Because the state in which they live does not respect fully their rights, and in some cases, is failing to protect them from violent attacks. They cannot easily raise their concerns at the national level, or have found their government’s response to be lacking, so they turn to the UN as an alternative space. In the words of one of our interviewees, ‘I think the sole outcome is to be heard by [our country] firstly, also to be heard by other NGOs, other international organisations and member states that are present here.’

18 December 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. It was a landmark achievement for the UN, having decided decades before to not ‘remain indifferent to the fate of minorities’. On 10 December 1948 (the same day the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the UN General Assembly asked the Commission on Human Rights to ‘make a thorough study of the problem of minorities, in order that the United Nations may be able to take effective measures for the protection of racial, national, religious or linguistic minorities’ – (UN General Assembly, Resolution 217 C (III). ‘Fate of Minorities’, UN Doc. A/RES/3/217 C (10 December 1948).

The suggestion that minorities are a ‘problem’ for the UN reflects the central difficulty that many non-dominant minority groups face in accessing their human rights: states often see them as a potential threat to sovereignty or ‘agitators’ for a social, economic and political order that is fully inclusive, and as a result, seek to minimise their power.

This tension is one reason why the UN plays such an important role in giving a voice to minorities, and establishing legal standards to protect their rights. This is a key ‘global governance’ function of the UN, that is, to coordinate international cooperation to ensure that minorities are safe from threats, can freely express their cultural and religious identities, are not discriminated against and can participate in decision-making that affects their lives.

Over the past two years, myself and Dr Anna-Mária Bíró, director of the Tom Lantos Institute, have been doing research on how this function plays out in the UN Forum on Minority Issues. This is the one space in the entire UN system dedicated to minority groups engaging in dialogue with governments. Once a year for two days in Geneva, minorities around the world convene to raise issues of concern and states to share examples of good practice, based on a thematic topic and overseen by the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, an independent expert appointed by the UN to monitor minority rights in practice.

Why were we interested to study this space? It gave us the chance to study the agency of minority groups in claiming and re-shaping their rights within a system created by and for states. How do actors use the Forum? What is the perceived utility of the Forum? What is the Forum’s role in protecting minority rights?

The research has used a mixed-methods approach. With the help of many volunteers, we gathered, transcribed and translated 1,209 of the 1,373 statements made to the Forum across its ten sessions (making our dataset about 88 per cent complete). These have been coded from among over 150 actor and issue characteristics to essentially ask what is being said at the Forum and by whom? To supplement this data, we also conducted more than 30 semi-structured interviews with states, NGOs, experts and UN actors and gathered 40 surveys from NGOs.

We had the opportunity recently to present our research at a side-meeting of the 10th session of the Forum. With the participation of all three experts who have or are serving as the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues (currently Dr Fernand de Varennes), we shared some of our key findings. On this basis, we also made several recommendations for reforming the Forum, which were supported by the new Special Rapporteur in his concluding remarks.

We also have plans to launch an online, open-access database where all of the statements made to the Forum since its inception can be searched and used for advocacy, programming and legislative and policy reforms, enabling learning between states and across minority groups. This will be launched at the 11th session of the Forum in late 2018 and will be found at www.minorityforum.info.

Dr Corinne Lennox is senior lecturer in human rights at the School of Advanced Study, University London, and co-director of the School’s Human Rights Consortium (HRC). She is also programme director of the new distance-learning MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights.

This blog was previously published in the Talking Humanities blog of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. 

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