49th Session of the Human Rights Council
28 February-1st April 2022
Agenda Item 3 and 5 – Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues
followed by the Forum on Minority Issues
22 and 24 of March 2022
By Francesca Maccabruni and Gian Heimann / GICJ
At the 40th meeting of the 49th regular session of the Human Rights Council, Mr Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, warned that the position of minorities in the world was deteriorating due to increasing levels of hate speech, hate crimes, denial of identity and the right to education in the mother tongue of minorities in several countries. The Special Rapporteur highlighted that globally, most conflicts are fought out intrastate, often caused by the exclusion and discrimination of minorities.
The Special Rapporteur expressed his regret that none of the recommendations made regarding minority rights made by previous mandate holders had been taken into account. Mr Fernand de Varennes reproached the international community and United Nations’ institutions for not focusing sufficiently on identifying and addressing the main factors causing conflict and violence. The Special Rapporteur recommended that, in order to prevent conflicts, minorities should have equal access to economic and social opportunities and be able to use their mother tongue in the education system. A framework of minority rights could and should be used as an early warning system of current conflicts.
Mr de Varennes gave an account of his visit to the United States of America (USA), noting that from a legal perspective, minorities in the USA were vulnerable because of certain gaps in federal and state laws and protections. These laws are not always consistent with international human rights obligations, nor are they adapted to the modern challenges posed by hate speech, misinformation, and racism. For these reasons, the report urged the adoption of comprehensive human rights legislation that includes the USA’s obligations under international law.
In the ensuing Interactive Dialogue, representatives had the opportunity to give a statement on the Special Rapporteur’s report and on minority issues. Many delegates, including those representing the USA, UK, EU, Nordic Baltic States and South Africa, used this to express their agreement with Mr de Varennes’s approach to include a minority rights perspective in conflict analysis and prevention initiatives to secure peace and social harmony. Others used the opportunity to highlight their nations tradition of diversity and of the constitutional protection of minorities, including Nepal, Egypt, Armenia, and Iraq. The representative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) warned of rising hate speech, dehumanising language and violence against Muslims worldwide. The representatives of Belarus and Russia denounced the United Nations for ignoring the alleged discrimination of Russian minorities in the Donbass region and in EU countries such as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Many representatives condemned these statements and the false pretext of Russia’s military aggression on the grounds of protecting minorities.
On 24 March 2022, the 45th meeting of the 49th regular session of the Human Rights Council was held and included the Forum on Minority Issues. The Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues clarified that on 3 March, with regard to the conflict in Ukraine, the General Assembly called on all parties to protect civilians and persons in vulnerable situations and to ensure the human rights of women, the elderly, children, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and migrants. All vulnerable groups were named in the resolution with the exception of minorities that are not included in the protection plans and do not appear on the list of vulnerable people. Mr de Varennes stressed that “the exclusion of minorities in times of war is unacceptable and deeply disturbing”. States should focus on the inclusion of minorities and dialogue with them, as well as developing tools and mechanisms that can identify the warning signs of possible conflicts involving minorities.
In June 2017, the Human Rights Council appointed Mr Fernand de Varennes as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues. He assumed his duties on 1 August 2017. The mandate was extended in 2020 for a period of three years by the Human Rights Council resolution 43/8. It should be noted that his work focuses on the human rights of minorities and migrants, preventing ethnic conflicts, promoting inclusion, but also combating discrimination, hate speech and incitement of hatred and violence.
In his first report to the Human Rights Council in 2018 (A/HRC/37/66), the Special Rapporteur underlined that ambiguities and uncertainties exist regarding the social status of minorities and in some cases, could have a negative impact on the implementation of the Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, he underlined that during his term of office he will work to re-establish the proper scope of the term “minority”, following the content of the Declaration on the Rights of Minorities. He also stressed that he would strive to improve the effectiveness of the Minority Issues Forum and that during his country visits, he would meet and consult with members of minority groups to better understand their needs.
Mr Fernand de Varennes presented several reports during the 49th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. The first (A/HRC/49/46), deals with “Conflict Prevention through the Protection of the Human Rights of Minorities”, to which an addendum (A/HRC/49/46/Add.1) was added regarding the Special Rapporteur's visit to the United States in November 2021. The third and final report (A/HCR/49/81) was submitted to the Forum on Minority Issues and deals with human rights bodies and mechanisms. The reports presented by Mr de Varennes were prepared in accordance with Human Rights Council resolutions 6/15 and 19/23.
Reports of the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues
The report presented by the Special Rapporteur during the conference on 22 March 2022 called “Conflict Prevention through the Protection of the Human Rights of Minorities” (A/HRC/49/46), contained recommendations of the fourteenth session of the Forum on Minority Issues, held on 2 and 3 December 2021 in Geneva. The recommendations intended to provide guidance for further implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, based on international law. In this report, Mr de Varennes, described the activities undertaken since his previous report (A/HRC/46/57), where he mentioned episodes in which state authorities failed to protect minorities from discrimination and stressed that states, civil societies and social media platforms have the responsibility to recognise that hate speech afflicts minorities predominantly. Efforts must be made to ensure that their human rights are respected and implemented.
In the report from 22 March 2022, Mr Fernand de Varennes discussed the importance of conflict prevention through the protection of the human rights of minorities. In recent years, violent conflicts have increased worldwide due to exclusion, discrimination, and inequalities linked to violations of the human rights of minorities. The Special Rapporteur emphasised that the international community must fill significant gaps in conflict prevention mechanisms, which fail to identify the main causes of most contemporary conflicts, namely the exclusion of minorities. It is necessary to integrate the human and minority rights framework in order to provide a more effective early warning tool and thus help prevent violent conflicts.
In his supplementary report (A/HRC/49/46/Add.1), the Special Rapporteur expressed his considerations on the official visit he conducted to the United States of America from 8 to 22 November 2021, at the invitation of the USA's government. The purpose of this mission was to identify modalities to improve the implementation of international obligations in relation to minority rights in the United States, such as equity and non-discrimination, the right to political participation of minorities, minority language rights, access to justice, and measures to address hate speech and hate crimes. His report contained information on a number of positive steps regarding the efforts that have been made in the areas of human rights and the treatment of minorities following the 2020 federal elections. However, Mr de Varennes noted that in the USA, laws are often not uniform across all states and are not always coherent with international human rights obligations. Minorities are particularly vulnerable to the gaps of some federal and state human rights laws and protections. Most federal human rights protections date back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Sixty years later, the modern challenges posed by the increase of conflicts involving minorities, inequality and hate speech require new efforts. Specifically, in his report, the Special Rapporteur recommended a strategic campaign for the adoption of comprehensive national human rights legislation that incorporates international human rights obligations on the recognition of the right to equality without discrimination.
Finally, in the report presented during the Forum on Minority Issues (A/HCR/49/81), Mr de Varennes, stressed the importance of identifying and addressing the root causes of conflicts involving minorities and monitoring risk factors that can help international and regional human rights law to be used as a powerful tool to prevent violent conflicts.
In particular, he makes several recommendations, in which he urges States to make use of international human rights instruments that protect and promote the human rights of minorities, to ensure the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, ad to provide reparations and assistance to victims.
United Nations agencies and regional and international organisations should ensure a systematic dialogue on issues pertaining to minorities and should establish a mechanism that systematically monitors hate speech and hate crimes.
The ensuing Interactive Dialogue was opened by the delegate of the USA who expressed gratitude towards the report of the Special Rapporteur. She emphasised that calls for action in the USA on various points observed by the Special Rapporteur are received by her country as a welcome reminder and a promise that the USA will not shy away from considering and implementing them. She mentioned that the Biden administration has already started to implement some of the recommendations in the report and invited the Special Rapporteur on behalf of her country, to visit the USA during the next year of his mandate.
The distinguished representative of Finland, who spoke on behalf of the Nordic Baltic States, agreed with the Special Rapporteur that the protection of human rights of persons belonging to minorities is paramount in conflict prevention. She stated that the root of discrimination, including multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination must be addressed and that minorities, including women representing them, must be involved in decision making processes and conflict prevention. She also expressed deep concern over hate speech online, which can lead to hate crimes, physical violence and even conflicts against members of minorities. Therefore, she asked the Special Rapporteur how governments and businesses can take actions to allow all members of minorities, including women, to use their voices online without threat of violence or hate speech.
The representative of the European Union (EU) underlined that the EU fully aligns with the premise that the full enjoyment of human rights of persons belonging to minorities contributes to political and social security and is key for the effective prevention of conflicts. States must therefore contribute to addressing all forms of of discrimination and eradicating an incitement to hatred against persons belonging to minorities, as well as their full inclusive and meaningful participation in peace making and peace building efforts. She also stated that the Special Rapporteur's report comes at a critical time and that the EU strongly condemned Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified military aggression against Ukraine, while Russia continues to use minority issues as a false pretext to justify its illegal war. Indiscriminate shelling of civilian structures has already led to many civilian losses, including persons belonging to minorities.
Many delegates including those representing Nepal, Egypt, Armenia, South Africa and Iraq, used the opportunity to highlight their nations tradition of diversity and their constitutional protection of minorities. The representative of China expressed concern about violence inflicted against minorities and called on the international community to make a joint effort to combat discrimination and violence against minority groups. He also condemned the serious violations of minority rights reported by the Special Rapporteur in the USA. In history, he continued, the USA systematically discriminated indigenous people and deprived them of their freedom and their rights and committed acts of violence against them that amount to genocide. The USA must bear its historical responsibility and stop the ongoing systematic discrimination, especially against people of African and Asian decent as well as Muslims and Indians, he concluded.
The representative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) welcomed the report by the Special Rapporteur and promised to take onboard all his recommendations. He underlined the negative implications for coherence and stability of societies caused by the exclusion of minorities from participation in public life. The OIC is concerned by the rise in hate speech and dehumanising language used against minorities. He affirmed that OIC fully supports the need to address the root causes of conflicts such as ethnic and religious discrimination, political exclusion and socio-economical marginalisation. He stated that the international community should take concrete measures to promote tolerance and peaceful coexistence across the world. In this regard, the adoption of the UN Resolution against Islamophobia is to be welcomed, he stated.
The delegate of Pakistan also addressed the issue of global Islamophobia. He was especially concerned that the situation “in one country of our region” is flashing warning signs of Muslim discrimination and called upon the Special Rapporteur to press the country to uphold fundamental rights of Muslims, dismantle the structures of discrimination and hold the well-known perpetrators accountable. The delegate of India strongly rejected all references to India in the Special Rapporteur’s report. She claimed that there is no situation of conflict in India that merits attention in the context of his mandate. The allegations in the report are “irresponsible and factually incorrect”. According to the delegate, it reflects a lack of understanding of the secular Indian polity, pluralism and democratic processes. On the contrary, she argued that India guarantees justifiable fundamental rights to all citizens without discrimination and remains committed to guarantee the rights of minorities.
The representative of Belarus wished to draw attention to the alleged violations of rights of national minorities in EU countries including Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. According to his statement, the authorities of those countries allegedly have had a consistent policy for many years to destroy the culture, language and history of national minorities. He claimed that tens of thousands of people suffer from discrimination and are subject to laws that take away citizenship and civil and political rights from them. In all three countries, he claimed, there is ethnic execution of journalists and public figures. Given this worsening human rights situation, he called on the Special Rapporteur to take steps within his mandate and make visits to the named countries.
The representative of Russia also expressed her gratitude towards the Special Rapporteur’s report and acknowledged the important role the UN could play in protecting minorities. However, she argued, for the last eight years, the international community and human rights mechanisms have been blind towards the discrimination of Russian language minorities in the Donbass region, which she referred to as “the Donbass terrorists”. She stated that Kiev is waging a war against its own people, continuously shelling settlements and schools and other civilian infrastructures, which is leading to the loss of lives of thousands of people. She denounced the lack of condemnation or public assessment by the international community while Ukraine is targeting humanitarian corridors and using civilians as human shields. The representative also expressed regret over the Special Rapporteur not visiting Russia, which has been scheduled for April 2022. She invited him to visit Russia later this year so that he can assure himself that in reality, Russia facilitates peace and harmony.
In this regard, the representative of Cuba demanded mechanisms to exclude countries from the Interactive Dialogue in order to prevent them from disrupting the discussion. The representative of Ukraine also condemned the false pretext of Russia’s invasion and stated that the aggression has already led to massive civilian casualties, with many individuals representing national, religious or ethnic minorities. The once vibrant multicultural Ukrainian society is now being devastated by the attacks and many citizens have been forced out of their historical habitat. This is especially prevalent in Roman, Greek, Romanian and Jewish communities in the Donbass region. She continued by referring to Russia’s intensified repression against the Ukrainian population in its own country. Some Ukrainians have been arrested and sentenced for possessing national symbols of Ukraine or books in the Ukrainian language. Ukraine welcomed the attention of the Special Rapporteur to the situation caused by Russian aggression and urged him to pay particular attention to the suppressed Ukrainians in Russia.
The delegate of the USA also denounced Russia’s “grotesque, fabricated pretext” for invading Ukraine on the grounds that it is protecting minorities. The world community will judge these transparent lies and hold President Putin accountable for his actions, she promised. At the very end of the discussion, after the statements of NGOs and the concluding remarks by the Special Rapporteur, the delegate of the UK took the opportunity to reply to Russia’s previous oral statements in the 49th Human Rights Council Session. In order to defend Russia’s persistent pattern of attempting to establish false narratives to justify its flagrant violations of international law, he argued, the lies have to be countered with the truth. All delegates should be familiar with Russia’s tactic to distribute disinformation as part of their propaganda. Within Russia, thousands of peaceful protesters are being arrested. Politicians are being poisoned or sentenced for lengthy periods of detention on politically motivated charges, he invoked. He called the use of the false pretext of de-Nazification of Ukraine obscene and an appalling distortion of reality that denigrates the memory of the Holocaust. As a response, he summoned the United Nations to continue to recognise these lies for what they are each time that they are being made.
Speakers representing the NGOs agreed with the Special Rapporteur’s report and the important role of the protection of minority rights in conflict prevention initiatives. Some used the opportunity to raise concern over rising tensions and discrimination against people belonging to minority groups around the world, most notably in cases involving the suppression of Muslim minorities in India and Rohigi minorities in Myanmar.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) thanks the Special Rapporteur for his report and recommendations. We remain deeply concerned with the increasing levels of discrimination and suppression of minority groups worldwide. We encourage the international community to take effective measures to ensure the protection and promotion of the human rights of minority groups, and we emphasise the need for those who have violated these rights to be held accountable for their actions. GICJ supports the proposition by the Special Rapporteur to include a minority rights perspective in conflict analysis and conflict prevention initiatives. We are certain that the protection of human rights of minorities is the best way to secure peace and social harmony within and across nations. GICJ condemns all violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law. We further fervently denounce the use of false pretexts on the grounds of the protection of minorities to commit such actions. GICJ therefore calls on Russia to stop its military aggression in Ukraine and engage in peaceful negotiations. We further urge the international community to take all possible measures to halt the war, protect the people in Ukraine and prevent further human suffering.
Minority, Minorities, Ethnic Minorities, Religious Minorities, Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Conflict Prevention Initiatives, Human Rights, GICJ Geneva International Centre for Justice, Geneva4Justice, Justice