Why do minority rights matter?

Minority Rights Day

Thirty-one years ago on December 18, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. The UN declaration represents a set of political and moral commitments of states towards their minorities and pushes states to live up to them. The adoption of the UN Declaration was a paradigm shift in the global thinking towards minorities, moving from negatively formulated non-discrimination to the more positive language of protection and promotion of minorities per se. Builds on Article 27 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, the declaration calls on states to “protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identities of minorities” and “adopt appropriate legislative and other measures to achieve those ends.”

There is hardly any country in the world which can claim to be fully homogenous and completely free from groups which do not share the language, culture and religion of the majority. According to the U.N. estimates 10 to 20 percent of the world’s population belongs to these minority groups. The experience of minorities across the world shows that they are among the most disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable groups in the most societies. They also suffer from denial, deprivation and discrimination. Their exclusion from power often leads to the denial of dignity, identities and cultures. The assimilationist policies of states pose real danger to their identities. They even face genocidal attacks in many parts of the world. Today, minorities face new challenges, including legislation, policies and practices that may unjustly impede or even violate their rights. They are being denied meaningful and effective participation in the economic, social and political lives of their countries. 

The protection of the rights of minorities has always been the most complex, sensitive and challenging tasks the states and people have faced with across the societies. The adoption of the UN declaration was one of the important steps the UN took to protect their lives, dignity and identify as general human rights instruments proved to be inadequate to deal with the problems the minorities face worldwide. The rights of minorities contained in the UN declaration are based on the premise that “the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities contribute to the political and social stability of States in which they live”. The protection of minorities is considered as an integral part of the development of society as a whole and within a democratic framework based on the rule of law. The significance of the protection of minority rights lies in the fact that it contributes to the strengthening of friendship and cooperation among peoples and States”.

Minority rights are primarily aimed at preserving the plurality of the society by shielding a minority from assimilative tendencies of a majority population. The protection of minority identity is important because it is about protecting essential features of “what it means to be human.” Minorities need special protection because despite universal recognition to the principle of equality and non-discrimination, their civil and political freedoms are more likely to be interfered with than those of the majority as in most multi-ethnic societies the majority tends to enjoy inherently dominant position in comparison to that of the minorities. The non-dominant and inferior status of minorities renders them susceptible to discrimination at different stages by both state and private actors. The distorted representation of minorities’ history, culture and traditions and negative stereotyping of minorities produces low self-esteem among them.

Minority rights, however, is most misunderstood and misinterpreted concept. Instead of celebrating the idea of minority rights, there is tendency to view it in negative terms. The distinctiveness of minorities is projected as ‘others’ and a threat to national culture, political unity, and even to national security.  Rights granted to minorities are projected as a privilege unavailable to the majority. The distinctiveness of minorities is projected as ‘others’ and a threat to societal values. The cultural practices of minorities are projected as a threat to majority ways of life.  Minority rights are charged with reinforcing difference and encouraging secession undermining national security.

We must understand that minority rights are not designed to confer special privileges on one section of society over others. It is rather only meant to address the specific needs of the persons belonging to minority groups who are disadvantaged in one way or another due to their minority status, non-dominant position and or their specific cultural practices. Some special measures are required to achieve the goal of substantive equality and to preserve their distinct identity and culture. The special safeguards meant for minorities are just to save them from oppression, persecution and forceful assimilation. Addressing the problems of minorities is not only a moral virtue rather a practical and political necessity of our time. Mishandling or false methods of dealing with minorities is fraught with danger. The then US President Wilson warned us way back in 1919 about this. He said that “Nothing is more likely to disturb the peace of the world than the treatment which might in certain circumstances be meted out to minorities.”

The negativity and unfamiliarity about the concept of minority rights feeds distrust and suspicion, which in turn feed tension and animosity. There is need to detoxify and sensitise the citizens about minority rights. Justice HR Khanna in St Xavier’s case very eloquently clarified that the idea of giving some special rights to the minorities is not to have a kind of a privileged or pampered section of the population, but to give to the minorities a sense of security and a feeling of confidence. He argued that the differential treatment of the minorities by giving them special rights is intended to bring about an equilibrium, so that the ideal of equality may not be reduced to a mere abstract idea, but it should become a living reality and result in true, genuine equality, an equality not merely in theory but also in fact.

Notwithstanding the tall claims and promises of the UN declaration and democratic constitutions, the world’s record on protecting the rights of minorities is still far from being satisfactory. There is an urgent need to ensure a more effective implementation of the rights of minorities and to dispel all misgivings surrounding minority rights. The false narrative of ‘special privilege’ or ‘minority appeasement’ is nothing but poisonous falsehoods and they must be countered with and sensitise the people about the need and importance of minority rights. 

Aftab Alam is Professor and Chairperson, Department of Strategic and Security Studies, AMU, Aligarh

Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

The Gradual Backsliding of Minority Status

by Mohammad Adil and Saima Zafar  Noted Indian-origin American psychoanalyst, Dr Salman Akhtar in his research paper titled “Mental Pain of Minorites”, defines ‘minority’ somewhat different from traditional definitions. The…

Wakeup Call

People early on learn the Golden Rule, essentially to treat others (regardless of differences) as you wish to be treated. This idea is found in many religions as well. For…

Taking Minority Rights Seriously

Yet another minority rights day passed on December 18 and minorities still continue to suffer from discrimination and exclusion. They are even subjected to genocidal attacks in this modern age.…

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News