A Protective Framework

By Symonides, Janusz | UNESCO Courier, June 1993 | Go to article overview

A Protective Framework


Symonides, Janusz, UNESCO Courier


The long struggle to provide international protection for minorities

INTERNATIONAL regulations concerning the protection of minorities go back to 1555 when, for the first time, the Peace of Augsburg provided for the protection of religious minorities. Later the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the Polish-Russian Conventions of 1767 and 1775 guaranteed rights of dissidents in Poland, while the Vienna Treaty of 1815 gave religious minorities not only freedom of faith but also certain civil rights. Again, relatively far-reaching obligations concerning the protection and equality of all subjects were imposed on Turkey and the Balkan States in 1878 by the Treaty of Berlin.

The struggle of various national and religious minorities to establish their independence in Central and Eastern Europe was a prominent factor in the First World War. Post-war treaties provided for the protection of racial, religious or linguistic minorities in these newly independent states. The League of Nations was to supervise imposed obligations, and violations were subject to action by the League.

The United Nations Secretariat in 1947 took the view that the League of Nations minority system had ceased to exist, and favoured a new, universal and individualistic conception of human rights. United Nations action and standard-setting instruments were at that time dominated by the individualistic concept of non-discrimination and equality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not mention the "protection of minorities", though during the debate proposals in this respect were presented. They were rejected because of a fear that they might create incentives for separatist tendencies and movements. In consequence, the Universal Declaration contains only general clauses prohibiting discrimination.

The concept of protection of persons belonging to minorities--but not that of minorities themselves--was accepted in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which declares: "In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities should not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language".

Similarly, the UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education (1960) takes into account the right of persons belonging to minorities: ". . . It is essential to recognize the right of members of national minorities to carry on their own educational activities, including the maintenance of schools and, depending on the educational policy of each state, the use or the teaching of their own language".

Among UNESCO Declarations, two are of special importance for the recognition of the collective rights of minorities: the Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice (1978) which provides that "All individuals and groups have the right to be different, to consider themselves as different and to be regarded as such", and the Declaration of the Principles of International Cultural Cooperation stipulating that: "1. Each culture has a dignity and value which must be respected and preserved. 2. Every people has the right and the duty to develop its culture".

The protection of minority rights has been particularly advanced in the European region within the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) process. The Helsinki Final Act adopted in 1975 proclaimed that: "The participating States on whose territory national minorities exist will respect the right of persons belonging to such minorities to equality before the law, will afford the full opportunity for the actual enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms and will, in this manner, protect their legitimate interests in this sphere".

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