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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.)
close this folderDossier: National minorities
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentWhat are minorities?- some possible criteria
View the documentThe basis of prejudice
View the documentPolitical representation
View the documentInternational legal protection
View the documentThe minority lights trap
View the documentThe African context: asset or liability?
View the documentA policy overview
View the documentTowards a new system of protection
View the documentLinguistic minorities in the European Conununtry
View the documentCreating marginalised dependent minorities Relief programmes for refugees in Europe
View the documentIndigenous peoples
View the documentSome examples of minority situations

A policy overview


by Gerd TEBBE

From time immemorial, the fate of minorities the world over has been marked by neglect and discrimination, if not by open suppression up to the level of genocide. Groups of people have had to suffer all kinds of hardship simply because of their religious beliefs, cultural traditions, native languages, ethnic origins or national affiliations which were different from those of the majority in a country rightfully considered as their common home. Attitudes such as mistrust and resentment, xenophobia and racism have in modern times been fed by the ambivalent concept of the nationstate, which combines the idea of independence with a strong element of demarcation against outsiders. Hitherto, minorities have tended to be the first victims of excessive nationalism, wherever it has arisen. Their oppression has often been the origin of major international conflicts.

Apart from the obvious interrelationship with the maintenance of peace and international security, it has been the growing concern for the promotion of human rights which has made the world increasingly aware of the need to protect minorities efficiently. The general obligation of the members of the international community to accept and protect the specific rights of persons belonging to minorities arises directly from their commitment to international human rights standards, as laid down in the United Nations Bill of Rights. Thus, the rights of minorities are part and parcel of universal and indivisible human rights in general.

The United Nations approach

Since its foundation in 1948, the United Nations has attached increasing importance to minority questions in its activities in the field of human rights. Building upon the UN Charter, which proclaimed international cooperation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion, as one of its main purposes, Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees persons belonging to ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities the right to enjoy their own culture, to practice their own religion and to use their own language. The adoption on 18 December 1992 of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities by the UN General Assembly is the most recent landmark which emphasises the increasingly important role the United Nations intends to play in the field of protection of minorities.

The efforts undertaken by the United Nations have been supported by regional action. Drawing from its unique experience in human rights protection, different Council of Europe bodies adopted instruments on the protection and promotion of minority languages and on the rights of persons belonging to minorities. The related work of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which regards an adequate level of protection for minorities as an unalterable precondition for peace and security, culminated in the establishment of the office of a CSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in 1992.

EC action

The activities of the European Community in favour of minorities form part of the international pattern outlined above. The European Community and its Member States encourage and support the efforts undertaken at regional and international level to protect and promote the rights of people who belong to minorities. Within its ambit the European Community furthermore supports, by complementary measures, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarily, its Member States' national efforts for the benefit of minorities inside the Community's territory.

In the framework of European Political Cooperation (EPC) the European Community and its Member States act jointly, both in multilateral fore and bilaterally vis-a-vis third countries, with the aim of ensuring effective protection both on a national and an international level. As an integral part of the Community's human rights policy, this approach is mirrored in the Declaration on Human Rights, adopted by the European Council in June 1991, which underlines '... the importance of respect for the cultural identity and the rights which the members of minorities enjoy and which they have to exercise in common with other members of their group'.

The European Community, which participates in its own right in the UN, the CSCE and the Council of Europe, actively contributes, alongside its Member States, to the work of the UN bodies dealing with minority issues, including the Human Rights Commission and its Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. They played an active role in the CSCE expert meetings on minorities held in Geneva in 1991 and in Warsaw in 1993, and had considerable influence on the decision to create a special CSCE High Commissioner as well as on the shaping of his mandate. Within the Council of Europe, the Community and its Member States permanently cooperate in improving existing standards and developing new levels of protection.

On the occasion of the recognition of the newly independent states in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Community and its Member States have declared sufficient guarantees of minorities rights to be a prerequisite of their recognition. In their bilateral relations, the Community and its Member States discuss, whenever necessary, questions on the situation of specific minorities in the context of political dialogue, which they maintain, on an institutionalized basis, with a wide range of countries and groups of countries all over the world. The European Community financially supports a wide range of projects in third countries which help to improve the situation of specific minorities.

Association, trade and cooperation agreements

The importance the Community attaches to human rights considerations in general and more specifically to minorities protection in its relations with third countries is underlined by the insertion of references to that effect in association agreements as well as in trade and cooperation agreements with those countries. To avoid any impression of discrimination among the Community's partners, the EC Commission has recently defined general guidelines determining the form of these references, which explicitly establish a mutual commitment to respect human rights, which includes the rights of people belonging to national minorities, as part of generally accepted human rights standards. Such references can be found in all agreements recently signed with Central and Eastern European countries; they will serve as a model for future agreements with other CSCE member states. In line with the above-mentioned 1991 Declaration on Human Rights, which states that respect for minority rights 'will favour... political, social and economic development', the resolution of the EC Council of Ministers of November 1991 on human rights, democracy and development calls for the inclusion of such clauses also in agreements with developing countries.

The protection of the rights of people belonging to minorities inside the European Community falls within the sphere of the national competence of its Member States, which are all parties to the relevant international instruments on human rights protection-the UN Bill of Rights, the CSCE human dimension documents and, especially, the European Convention on Human Rights, with its far-reaching individual complaint procedure. Within its ambit, the Community has, however, developed a range of actions directed towards the needs of specific groups found throughout the Community and designed to combat the recent rise of racism and xenophobia inside it, which constitutes a serious danger for the well-being of certain minorities. Such specific actions include a programme to improve the situation of migrant workers, (grant-aided) with nearly ECU 6 million in 1992, a scheme to facilitate the education of gypsy children amounting to ECU I m in 1993, as well as financial support for the activities of nongovernmental organisations in favour of minorities. The European Community has also given budgetary allocations amounting to ECU 3.5m in 1993 for projects on the preservation and protection of minority languages.

The range of different instruments developed by the European Community and its Member States in the past to help minorities inside and outside the Community preserve their traditions and maintain their specific character is subject to regular evaluation. This should allow for necessary adaptations at the earliest possible stage in order to ensure as efficient a response as possible to any new challenges and circumstances that may arise. c G.T.