The Rights of Minorities in a Constitutional State

By Vorster, J. M. | The Ecumenical Review, October 2000 | Go to article overview

The Rights of Minorities in a Constitutional State


Vorster, J. M., The Ecumenical Review


An Ethical Assessment

The protection of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities is one of the oldest concerns of international law.(1) But it is also tree that the issue of the rights of minorities in a pluralistic and heterogeneous society has become a highly important issue in the current Christian-ethical debate. De Villiers adequately describes the actuality of this issue:

   Ethnic mobilization and claims for the protection of minority fights are
   two of the most important social forces influencing international and
   national political and constitutional developments. Numerous countries in
   Africa and Eastern Europe that have embarked upon democratization since the
   late 1980s have experienced the destructive force of ethnic mobilization
   and discontent... Following world war two the protection of minority groups
   was initially played down or ignored altogether in the belief or hope that
   adequate protection of individual rights would also address the fears of
   minority groups.(2)

De Villiers continues:

   The ethno-nationalism that has swept the world in recent years has brought
   back to prominence the issue of minority protection, self-determination,
   and the rights of indigenous people. A most important question that must be
   dealt with in the current wave of democratization is whether it: is
   necessary to protect the collective rights of language, religious and/or
   cultural communities in addition to the rights of their individual members
   -- and if so, what options are available.

In the same fashion Devenish soundly argues:

   In international law and politics there is a move away from the
   assimilation of minorities towards the recognition of cultural pluralism as
   a desirable goal.(3)

A minority group can be defined as a group with a corporate identity, which exists in a society where the majority has another corporate identity.(4) More particularly defined, a minority group can be seen as a group inferior in numbers, status and political power because of religion, culture, social status, language, ethnicity and political ideals. The well-known modern notion of "integrated communities" made way for this new appreciation of the plight of these minorities in societies.

Several factors can be named as contributory to this shift in perception. First of all is the fact that only 20 of the 185 member-states of the United Nations can be regarded as homogeneous communities.(5) The rest are heterogeneous communities which have to manage the relation between minorities and the society at large. It appears that the majority of people on this earth are identified with a group whose cultural and religious practices violate certain international norms of human rights.(6) More and more the apparent discrepancy between individual human rights and the rights of minorities is observed. Secondly, ideologies which promoted cultural globalism(7) and political holism -- as also the various instances of religious intolerance and ethnic cleansing - contributed to the new appreciation of the rights of minorities.(8) These negative movements resulted in revolts, racism, civil wars and the seeking of nation-state status by minorities (as was evident in the system of apartheid in South Africa, and the current ideal of "ethnic states" in Eastern Europe).

The best-known example of a minority right is the principle of national self-determination in international law.(9) In view of these facts the following questions posed by Singh are of special interest: "Can ethnic diversity be accommodated within states? Can it be managed by democracies? Can the world's two thousand or so `nations' be contained within its two hundred or so states?"(10) These questions form the problematic of this article, which can be formulated as follows: Should minorities be officially recognized and constitutionally protected in heterogeneous societies? …

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