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close this bookThe Courier N 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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View the documentAlan Phillips

Alan Phillips

Director of the Minority Rights Group Breaking down prejudices

The Minority Rights Group (MRG), whose international secretaries is based in London ( UK), is a small but influential organization which works to secure justice for minorities who are suffering discrimination and prejudice.

In conjunction with this issue's Dossier, in which we examine a range of questions involving minorities, we interviewed Alan Phillips, who is Director of the MRG. Mr Phillips was a student of physics-perhaps not the most conventional academic backgroundior the head of a 'people-centred' NGO-but he argues that his training helps him to avoid generalities and instead to focus on the fundamental components of the problems he has to deal with in his work.

In fact, Mr Phillips' career since he left university has been very much people-centred'. He has worked in the provision of education programmes for refugees and in wider educational initiatives, notably in Africa and South Asia. He is also a former Deputy Director of the British Refugee Council, where he was responsible for policy aspects, employment training and educational programmes. It was in the course of this work, which included helping refugees to resettle. that Mr Phillias first came into close contact with the MRG. As he himself points out. 'So often, the root cause of refugee problems is conflict involving minorities and majority communities.'

In this interview, Alan Phillips describes the philosophy and activity of the Minority Rights Group, talks about recent developments in the international arena and gives us his own analysis of some of the main minority-related issues affecting the world today.

· Mr Phillips, the term 'minority seems to cover a multitude of very different situations. What criteria do you use in deciding which of these situations merit the attention of the Minority Rights Group?

-We emphasise ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and particularly communities who are without power, looking at minorities worldwide. In determining where we believe we should act, we look at situations where we think we can be most effective. That may be where we can work with a local partner, where particular minorities are unknown or not well-known in the international arena or indeed because a minority is the centre of attention nationally and there needs to be a better understanding of the root causes of the tension or the conflict: for example, the Kurds. We generally act in cases where we think we can be effective at a period of change-where new governments may be open to approaches to dealing with minorities.

· What form does your action take?

-We act in three kinds of ways. First of all, research and analysis of particular minority groups and minority issues; secondly, working with local partners to try and develop information and education programmes to help achieve a better understanding of minority issues locally; thirdly, advocacy in the international arena, which might be on a particular minority issue or perhaps more generally on international standards for minorities such as in the discussions leading up to the adoption of the UN Declaration on Minorities.

· Minority 'problems' are often, if not always, the result of prejudice on the part of the majority in a given community or state. What can be done in concrete terms to tackle the root causes of prejudice?

-The first stage is to analyse each situation carefully and to have a dialogue with the majority and the minority together if one can. You mustn't go in with prejudices yourself about what can be done to solve the situation. The way forward should be a process involving the commitment of people across communities. Often there is a need to break down prejudices that have grown through misunderstandings or through misinformation. This can be tackled sometimes through education projects, through information activities by trying to ensure that accurate information appears in the press and by finding various ways of promoting a climate of mutual cooperation so that minorities may be seen as a source of strength and richness to a society rather than an alien community that in some way threatens them, their society or the State.

· Do you think, in the time that you have been involved in this area, that prejudice has increased or decreased?

-I think one has got to look at every country closely to answer that. There is no room for complacency, for example, in Western Europe. One of the depressing things we see at the moment is that quite a lot of people in Western countries are telling the South how things should be done as regards minority/majority relationships. But these people also need to look closely at their own societies. We have seen in Western Europe, just this weekend, some horrific racist killings. I think it is very difficult to generalise on this but there are no grounds for smugness anywhere.

· You are referring here to the burning of the house in Germany which resulted in the deaths of five Turkish people?

-Exactly, though I should say that there were racist murders in virtually every European country last year-in Britain, France, Germany and even Denmark. It requires much more action in the European Community to counter these racist acts and racism generally.

· What effect do you think the ending of the Cold War has had on the position of ethnic and other minorities in the states of the former Communist bloc?

-This is a huge area for discussion so I shall have to give you fairly broad brushstrokes. I would start off by saying that almost every country in the world is multicultural and multilingual. In Europe, there is probably only one country which isn't and that is Iceland. In all those countries, you are facing elements of prejudice and situations which politicians can manipulate for their own power. This is as much the case in Western Europe as it is in Eastern Europe. As for the situation in the former Soviet Union, it is very complex and each state has its own problems, but there are similarities-instability, economic decline, rising unemployment, inexperience of democracy and disillusionment. All of this means that speedy solutions are not to hand. You have in these new, emerging democracies, states that are trying to find their own identity, in the aftermath of the rejection of international communism. In some cases, this has led to a growth in nationalism and pressure to create a single nation-state-let us say monoethnic states or states that are sympathetic towards or designed exclusively for the majority ethnic group. And I think this has led in some cases to immense problems for minorities, not least for Russian minorities who are often unreasonably blamed for the past, undoubtedly genocidal policies of Stalin. There are sometimes attempts to redress and rectify historical injustices by looking at the minority community and holding them responsible for the deeds of others.

· To what extent do the provisions of international law protect minorities from oppressive or discriminatory treatment?

-Well, there is the broader question of how powerful international law is, particularly if it is not incorporated into state law, but in any case, with the exception of Article 27 of the Civil and Political Rights Covenant, international law makes very little reference to minorities. However, I think protection is best provided, not only by the morality of international instruments, but by a determination to seek peaceful coexistence in states. The new UN Declaration on Minorities was passed by the General Assembly in December and we think it is a very important instrument. The prospect of discussing its implementation with governments is a crucial challenge for us in our work. And we believe that, more so than international law, political goodwill, effective participation and resources are the key issues for providing minority rights.

· Can you tell us something about what the UN General Assembly Declaration actually says?

-Yes. Let me refer to three provisions which I think may be the most important -assuming they were to be accepted in practice by states. There is Article I which says that 'States shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.' Now that's really very strong. At Article 4.5 it is set out that: 'States should consider appropriate measures so that persons belonging to minorities may participate fully in the economic progress and development in their country.' Then there is Article 5, which I think is perhaps the most significant. The first paragraph refers to national policies and programmes which 'shall be planned and implemented with due regard to the legitimate interests of persons belonging lo minorities.' Article 5.2, which I think is very important for DG VIII of the European Commission-and for your readers-goes on to say that programmes of cooperation and assistance among states should be planned and implemented with due regard to the legitimate interests of persons belonging to minorities.

· How confident are you that these provisions will be adopted and implemented in practice by individual countries?

- How long is a piece of string? Engaging in a dialogue about the UN Declaration, with governments at both central and local level, is one of the major priorities we have set ourselves for our work in the future. It is not a question of using the Declaration as an instrument to point the finger and say 'winy are you not applying it', but rather of entering into a conversation as to what can be done. States have many problems in terms of resources. It is one of the challenges to programmes of cooperation and assistance among states that they should be sensitive to minority issues. If programmes of cooperation involve minority communities the positive effects will create economic and social stability, encouraging further programmes of cooperation and support, and new tovestments.

· Can we assume from what you have said that existing international law, notably with respect to human rights, does no' adequately cover minorities and that there is a need for something more along the lines of the Declaration you have just referred to?

-That's right. Of course, the Declaration is an international instrument but it doesn't have the same force as a covenant. But then many states do not sign covenants and even if they do, they often don't implement them.

· Yes, but do you think the next stage might be the preparation of a covenant; a multilateral convention on this subject?

-I am not sure that that is helpful at the moment. I think it is much better to have the dialogue with states first and for them to feel comfortable about implementation before one tries to enshrine it in international law. The Declaration's weakness can be its strength.

· Do you think that the principles of territorial integrity andself-determination are compatible?

-Well, it all depends on your definitions and especially on what you mean by 'serf-determination'. The MRG would argue that the granting of group rights to minorities provides a form of internal self-determination for that group and helps to ensure that the minority community will want to coexist peacefully within the frontiers of a state. We think that the way forward is to look at group rights or, if you prefer, internal selfdetermination.

· In recent years, the international community has moved, but only very tentatively, towards the idea that intervenrion might be justified in extreme cases of human rights violation. Do you think the UN does, or should, have a right to step in to protect minorities that are threatened?

-This is a very difficult question to answer. There can be many motives for intervening, including what may be very honourable human rights reasons. But I think that there has been a lack of consistency in the UN as regards where it has taken action and where it has not. If you look at the former Yugoslavia, I don't think that the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina feels that the UN has acted in a consistent way. On the broader principle, I think the position is very clear. The first three words of the UN Charter are: 'We the peoples...' and that is something that is often forgotten. Chapters 7 and 8 place a responsibility on the Security Council to encourage the pacific settlement of local disputes. There is also Article 39 which gives authority to the Security Council to decide upon measures to maintain and restore international peace and security. I would say that the UN has not only the right but the responsibility to act to protect minorities -very, very much more than it has done so far. But it should be consistent and where possible, it should avoid the extreme of military intervention.

· In general terms, which minority situations currently give you cause for greatest concern?

-There are so many minority communities that it is probably best for me to generalise rather than to focus on one or other specific situation. According to how you define them, and how you subdivide them, it is estimated that there are over 7000 different minority communities in the world and it very difficult in these circumstances to establish any sort of 'hierarchy' of concern. But in broad terms, there are obviously immense difficulties in that category which might be called 'new emerging democracies' where there is instability and economic decline. In such cases, it is often easy to find a scapegoat and regard the minority as being part of that scapegoat. A second general category might be the dictatorship where the leaders are struggling to stay in power.

Again, they may need to find some external element so that they can unite the majority behind otherwise unpopular policies.

There is also a third situation that gives us great concern: achieving justice for minorities during structural adjustment programmes. There are immense problems in dealing with different ethnic minorities in certain ACP countries- particularly in Africa, which is going through a period of major economic decline, and where you have structural adjustment programmes which often are, or have been, insensitive to rural communities and to the particular needs of minorities. I think there is a growing recognition that these programmes have had their weaknesses and it should be acknowledged that more account is being taken of the conditions faced by ordinary people in assessing the way they have worked. This, of course, is absolutely critical for minority communities as well.

· Thinking particularly about Africa, apologists of one-party rule argued that this form of government was essential in forging national unity. One-party systems are now largely discredited but is there not some truth in the assertion that multi-party politics risk degenerating into ethnic division and conflict? How do you think democracy can be reconciled with respect for the rights of minorities?

-Many people would argue that true democracy is government of all the people by all the people for all the people. The idea of democracy as being majoritarian rule and 'winner-takes-all' is very dangerous, particularly in multi-ethnic societies. It is important, in our view, to work with people within the new democracies who are not only trying to promote justice for minorities but also peaceful coexistence between communities. This should lead to political parties that cross ethnic boundaries and are seen to be sensitive to the needs of the whole range of communities-parties based on people who have not come together because of their language or their ethnicity, but because they have a common view about social issues and values.

· Can you think of any practical examples from Africa that offer encouragement in that direction?

-Unfortunately, I think there have been a number of discouraging signs from Africa, in places where it was thought that majoritarian elections would provide the answer but where, in the event, they raised more problems than they solved. If you look at Angola or, indeed, at Kenya, the picture is very depressing. On the other hand, it is interesting to look at what has happened in Zimbabwe. Despite all the difficulties they have had there, and all the potential for externally encouraged violence, they managed to halt the conflict-indeed, the civil war- that was emerging in the mid- 1980s, by a process of power-sharing and a move to consensual government.

· One final question. How do you see the MRG's activities developing in the future?

-Well there is something which I should like to mention which might be of interest to some of your readers. We are eager to work with partners in different parts of the world, and particularly in Africa; people who want to work in the same way as us in promoting the rights of minorities and peaceful coexistence between communities. If any of your readers are interested we should be happy to hear from them.

Interview by Simon HORNER

Mission Statement of the Minority Rights Group

'Minority Rights Group is an international non-governmental organisation working to secure justice for minorities suffering discrimination and prejudice, and the peaceful coexistence of majority and minority communities.

'Founded in the 1960s, Minority Rights Group informs and warns governments, the international community, non-governmental organisations and the wider public about the situation of minorities the world over. This work is based on the publication of wellresearched reports, books, papers; on direct advocacy on behalf of minority rights in international fore; on developing an international network of like-minded organisations and minority communities to cooperate on these issues; and by challenging prejudice and promoting public understanding through information and education activities

'Minority Rights Group believes that the best hope for a peaceful world lies in identifying and monitoring potential conflict between communities, advocating preventive measures to avoid the escalation of conflict and encouraging positive action to build trust between majority and minority communities.

'Minority Rights Group has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council and has a world-wide network of affiliates. Its international headquarters are in London. Legally it is registered both as a charity and a limited company under United Kingdom Law with an International Governing Council.'

(Address: Minority Rights Group, 379 Brixton Road, London SW9 7DE, United Kingdom)