Academic journal article Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE

Multiculturalism and Minority Rights: West and East

Academic journal article Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE

Multiculturalism and Minority Rights: West and East

Article excerpt


Countries in post-communist Europe have been pressured to adopt Western standards or models of multiculturalism and minority rights. Indeed, respect for minority rights is one of the accession criteria that candidate countries must meet to enter the European Union (EU) and NATO. Candidate countries are evaluated and ranked in terms of how well they are living up to these standards (see EU Accession Monitoring Program OSI 2001).

There are two interlinked processes at work here. First, we see the 'internationalizing' of minority rights issues. How states treat their minorities is now seen as a matter of legitimate international concern, monitoring and intervention. Second, this international framework is deployed to export Western models to newly-democratizing countries in Eastern Europe.

This trend implicitly rests on four premises: (i) that there are certain common standards or models in the Western democracies; (ii) that they are working well in the West; (iii) that they are applicable to Eastern and Central Europe (hereafter ECE), and would work well there if adopted; (iv) that there is a legitimate role for the international community to play in promoting or imposing these standards.

All four of these assumptions are controversial. Western countries differ amongst themselves in their approach to ethnic relations, and attempts to codify a common set of minimum standards or best practices have proven difficult. Moreover, the success of these approaches is often deeply contested within Western countries. Many citizens of Western democracies view their domestic policies towards ethnic relations as ineffective, if not actually harmful. The wisdom of 'exporting' these policies to ECE countries is even more controversial, both in the West and the East. Countries in post-Communist Europe differ significantly from Western countries (and from each other) in terms of history, demography, geopolitical stability, economic development and democratic consolidation. Given these differences, Western approaches may simply not be relevant or helpful, and attempts to impose them against the wishes or traditions of the local population can be counterproductive in terms of ethnic relations. So the decision to make minority rights one of the criteria for 'rejoining Europe' rests on a number of controversial assumptions. This decision was taken by Western leaders in the early 1990s, almost in panic, as a response to fears that ethnic conflict would spiral out of control across the post-Communist world. There was relatively little public debate or scholarly analysis about the wisdom of this decision, and it seems clear in retrospect that it was taken without a full consideration of its implications, or of the difficulties it raised.

In my view, the time has come to have a vigorous and public debate about these four assumptions. Now that the initial panic about ethnic violence has subsided, and with relative peace throughout the region, we can afford to sit back and think more carefully about the potential and pitfalls of 'exporting' and 'internationalizing' minority rights.

In a recent volume (Kymlicka and Opalski 2001), I attempted to explore these four basic assumptions in some depth. In this short article, I can only give a brief sketch of my conclusions.

I. Western Trends Regarding Ethnocultural Diversity

First, then, what do we mean by Western standards or models of multiculturalism and minority rights? Efforts have been made by various international organizations to formally codify a set of minority rights or multicultural practices, including the 1992 Declaration of the United Nations, the 1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages Charter and the 1995 Framework Convention of the Council of Europe, and various Recommendations of the OSCE's High Commissioner on National Minorities (1996, 1998, 1999). In theory, theseembodythestandardsthat ECEcountriesareexpectedtomeet. …

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