Protecting Minority Rights: Challenges and the UN Response

The 52nd Session of the Human Rights Council

27 February – 4 April 2023

Items 3 – Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues

23 March 2023

By Frizia Rounak / GICJ

Executive Summary

On the 23rd of March 2023, at the 52nd Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), an Interactive Dialogue took place with the Special Rapporteur, Fernand de Varennes, on minority issues. In his report and presentation to the Council, Varennes emphasised the thematic parts of the report focusing on the growing violations of rights targeted towards minority groups across the world and lack of initiatives at the United Nations to address these dire issues. 

During the interactive dialogue, various countries and their representatives shared their views and concerns on the subject. For example, Iran expressed its profound concern regarding the incidents of the Quran being burned in many countries, the European Union reiterated its commitment to represent and amplify the voices of minorities across the globe, and Bangladesh raised concerns regarding the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar.

Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) applauds the Special Rapporteur for creating regional forums that give minorities a voice, but expresses concern about the discrimination, xenophobia, and hate they still face worldwide. Millions of minority children are separated from their families, denied citizenship, education, and religious freedom. GICJ urges states to uphold minority rights, implement changes, and provide forums and platforms dedicated to strengthening minority rights. GICJ also emphasises that diversity must not only be acknowledged but celebrated, and that minority protection should be a priority for all states.


The state of minority rights has faced challenges over the years, with high rates of discrimination, prejudice, xenophobia, and other issues rising globally. While some countries uphold the rights of minorities and ensure that they can live and participate freely in society without discrimination, others actively suppress and oppress minority groups. Many countries have discriminatory policies or laws that target minority communities or limit their ability to participate fully in society. This can include restrictions on language, cultural practices, or political participation. With the rise of social media and digital communications, there has also been an increase in online hate speech and misinformation targeting specific minority groups.

To address these challenges, the United Nations (UN) has established a number of mechanisms to promote and protect the rights of minorities. One such mechanism is the Forum on Minority Issues, established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2007. The forum aims to provide a platform for dialogue and exchange of information on issues facing minority communities around the world. It also seeks to identify best practices and make recommendations for the promotion and protection of minority rights.

The mandate on Minorities Issues was created on the 21st of April 2005, through resolution 2005/79 by the Commission on Human Rights. It was later renewed by the Human Rights Council through various resolutions, namely 7/6 on March 27, 2008, 16/6 on March 24, 2011, 25/5 on March 28, 2014, and 34/6 on March 23, 2017. The latest renewal, resolution 34/6, maintains the same terms as provided by resolution 25/5. 

The mandate aims to promote and protect the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, as enshrined in various international human rights instruments. The Special Rapporteur is tasked with monitoring the situation of minorities worldwide, including by examining laws, policies, and practices that may impact their enjoyment of these rights. It also seeks to identify and raise awareness of situations where minorities are facing discrimination or persecution, and to make recommendations for the promotion and protection of their rights. The Special Rapporteur engages with states, civil society organisations, minority representatives, and other stakeholders to address these issues and promote dialogue and understanding.

Opening remarks by the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues

 During the presentation of his annual report, the Special Rapporteur for Minority Issues, Fernand de  Varennes, covered the general activities under the mandate, which was more focused on the thematic part. One of the significant developments during the mandate was the creation of regional forums in cooperation with other actors and numerous regional minorities and human rights organisations. Thirteen regional forums have been organised in the last four years for Africa, Middle East, the Americas, the Asia Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia, with over 1600 participants. This innovation has ensured greater accessibility for minorities and greater opportunities to take into account their context, challenges, and expertise on a regional level, and it has had significant state support and participation.

 Another significant development mentioned by Varennes was the provision of a much-needed working definition of  the concept of a minority and the significant scope of the four categories of minorities recognized in UN instruments. The clarified concepts and categories help identify minorities and provide assistance to the right people. The statement also highlighted the holding of a high-level General Assembly event to mark the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Peoples or Persons Belonging to Minorities during the 77th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, which was the first time that minority issues have figured so prominently in the agenda of the General Assembly since the adoption of the Declaration.

Despite these improvements, Varennes emphasised that the marking of the anniversary of the adoption of the UN declaration has not led to improvements in minorities' presence and representation at the UN, their position, or their treatments. Millions of minority children are separated from their families because of government policies, millions are denied citizenship because they are different, and they are denied education in their own languages, or unable to freely practise their religion or belief. The report highlighted that most of the world’s stateless peoples and most targets of hate speech are minorities and that they are at the receiving end of most human rights violations and atrocities worldwide.

The thematic section of the report moving forward provided a critical review and assessment of the declaration since its adoption, encapsulating the conclusion of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres himself. Mr Varennes states that the conclusion of the thematic part of the report is not so sanguine, as there has been little progress in the protection of minority rights. The record more recently for minorities is not one of progress, as they are most likely excluded or discriminated against in areas such as citizenship, being stateless, denied the right to education in their own language, or to vote and participate in public life.

Minorities are largely left behind, as they have no formal protection through established international treaties, no permanent forum to discuss relevant human rights issues, no voluntary fund to encourage their greater participation, no international decade or year to focus States’ discussions on alleviating their situation. However, there were recommendations during the regional and UN forums on minority issues that were widely supported, including proposals for a legally binding instrument, the consolidation of regional forums at the UN, and the creation of a permanent forum and voluntary fund for minorities to be visible and audible at the UN. The report emphasised that minorities matter and that their protection should be a priority in terms of protection and action.

Interactive Dialogue

The Interactive Dialogue on minority issues saw participation from various States whose representatives shared their views and concerns on the subject.

The representative of the European Union (EU) reaffirmed their commitment to achieving the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and thanked the Special Rapporteur for his report. Further, the EU strongly condemned Russia's aggression against Ukraine and its use of minority issues as a pretext for the conflict and pledged to address the violation of rights of minorities across the world, especially where they are underrepresented. To conclude, the EU posed a question to the Special Rapporteur asking what actions could be taken at national and international levels to ensure that the protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities is not used as a pretext for conflict.

The delegate of the Republic of South Africa thanked the Special Rapporteur for his report and went on to present the initiatives it has taken to protect the rights of its diverse population. Being one of the most diverse countries in the world, with 11 official languages, the delegation stated that South Africa has established the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights of its diverse communities.

The delegation of Slovenia acknowledged the need to promote and advance the rights of minorities worldwide and expressed interest in the recommendation for the establishment of a permanent forum on minorities proposed by the Special Rapporteur in his latest report as well as in the high-level commemorative event in New York and the Forum on Minority Issues.

The delegation of India rejected the reference to India in the Special Rapporteur’s report as “unwarranted and incorrect”, and asserted that India’s Constitution provides for equality before the law, prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth, and recognizes the right of minorities to conserve their language and culture. He also stated that the penal laws in India provide for punishment against discrimination or victimisation of minorities, and institutions such as the National Commission for Minorities ensure the welfare of minority communities.

The representative of Australia shared the concern expressed by the Special Rapporteur and the UN Secretary-General about the insufficient advancement of the protection of minorities and acknowledged the growing hostility towards minorities globally. The delegation also noted the Special Rapporteur's recommendations for immediate and long-term responses to improve the promotion and protection of human rights for minority peoples and asked for recommendations on the most effective and immediate measures that can be swiftly implemented by the international community to support the protection of minorities.

The delegation of Bangladesh stated their commitment to ensuring equal rights and status for all ethnic and religious minorities and upholding their constitutional pledge to protect and develop their unique culture and traditions. The delegation also assured Bangladesh's determination to ensure education for all children belonging to ethnic minorities in their own languages and allows all religious minorities to practise their rituals equally. Bangladesh expressed concern over the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar and condemned the human rights violations they have suffered for decades due to their ethnic and religious identity.

The representative of Russia expressed agreement with the Special Rapporteur's conclusion that the UN mechanisms are failing to effectively protect the rights of minorities and highlighted the double standards shown by the UN human rights structures, in protecting the rights of national minorities in different countries. They noted violations of the rights of minorities in the Baltic countries, the EU, and Ukraine have been ignored for many years. The representative of Russia confirmed that the dates for the Special Rapporteur's visit to their country had already been agreed upon for the first half of April 2022 and expressed their readiness for the visit and hope for the continuation of the dialogue.

The delegation of Cameroon highlighted the government's efforts to find lasting solutions to the crisis in the two Anglophone regions of the North West and South West. They mentioned measures taken such as the Grand National Dialogue, the creation of a special status for the regions, the establishment of a House of Chiefs, and the appointment of Independent Public Conciliators. The delegate also mentioned the activities of the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, including a communication campaign against hate speech and xenophobia and field visits to monitor and evaluate the implementation of promoting the two official languages by employers' organisations and private companies.

The delegation of Brazil welcomed the Special Rapporteur's views on strengthening the protection of the rights of minorities at the United Nations. They emphasised the importance of mainstreaming minority issues across the UN system and considered it paramount for realising the principles contained in the main human rights instruments. The representative of Brazil also expressed their determination to combat different types of intolerance and strengthen institutions to respect the rights of ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities. They concluded with a question for the Special Rapporteur asking about effective ways to ensure the participation and representation of minorities at the UN human rights system, given the numerous challenges they face.

Geneva International Centre for Justice position

Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) commends the Special Rapporteur for the significant developments made during his mandate, such as the creation of regional forums, which have provided greater accessibility and opportunities for minorities to have their voices heard.

However, we express our deep concern regarding the challenges that minority communities continue to face globally. Discrimination, prejudice, xenophobia, and other forms of hate towards minorities has been on the rise in many countries. While we see development in other spheres such as anti-discrimination initiatives, the situation for minorities has constantly been overlooked and ignored. As Mr. Varennes noted, millions of minority children are still separated from their families due to discriminatory government policies. Millions are denied citizenship because of their ethnicity or religion. They are also denied the right to education in their own languages, unable to freely practise their religion or belief.

Accordingly, GICJ urges states to acknowledge and uphold the rights of minorities in their territory, and to refrain from implementing policies that restrict or suppress their rights. We support the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur and urge the United Nations and member states to actively implement changes and provide forums, platforms, and treaties specifically targeting and dedicated to the strengthening of minority rights across the globe.

GICJ emphasises that minorities matter, and their protection should be a priority for all states. It is only through collective efforts and concrete actions that we can create a world where minority communities can live and participate freely in society without discrimination or fear. Diversity must not only be acknowledged, but also celebrated. 

minority issues, minority rights, special rapporteur, xenophobia, diversity, discrimination

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