Dec 01, 2002

UN expert: 'Minorities' can be a misleading word


Commenting on the UN declaration on minorities, Asbjorn Eide, the Norwegian chairperson of the Working Group on Minorities, speaking at the Seminar on Minorities in Chiangmai on 4 December, said the term 'minorities' could sometimes be misleading in itself.

His written treatise on the subject attempts to drive the message home more clearly: "Outside Europe, ... countries are often composed of a large number of groups, none of which make up a majority."

In addition, he wrote that a distinction had been drawn between the rights of persons and those of who were termed the indigenous peoples. "The rights of minorities are special individual rights," he said in reply to a question put up by S.H.A.N., "while the rights of indigenous people are collective rights."

The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1992, while the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people, adopted by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations and transmitted in 1993 to the Commission on Human Rights, is still under consideration by the Commission. (Some critics think the word 'indigenous' is problematic, due to the ongoing historical debate surrounding the identity of the original inhabitants of each country, as in the case of Burma, Thailand and Laos).

"However, whereas a UN rapporteur has been appointed to look after the affairs of the indigenous peoples, there is so far no UN officer for the minorities," he said in answer to S.H.A.N.'s question whether a UN member nation could be asked to submit reports on the situation of minorities in its country.

Mr Eide also discussed a link between the right of persons belonging to minorities to effective political participation and the rights of peoples to self-determination in his paper. "If participation is denied to a minority and its members, this might in some cases give rise to a legitimate claim to self- determination," he writes. "(At the same time, if) the group claims a right to self-determination and challenges the territorial integrity of the State, it would have to claim to be a people (instead of a minority)."

Harn Yawnghwe of the National Reconciliation Program had said on 8 December last year at the Oslo Burma meeting, "We do not like to use the term 'Minorities'. This is because it gives the impression to outsiders that they are talking about only 1-2% of the population. It is estimated that Burma today has a population of approximately 50 million people. Burmans are supposed to make up 60% of the population. (Aye Win, a participant from the UN Information Center in Rangoon, meanwhile, writes in his overview submitted to the seminar that many believe nearly half of the total population of Burma are Burmans.) Therefore, when we talk about 'minority' problem in Burma, we are in fact talking about a problem that affects the lives of at least 20 million people. I think this is more than the population of Norway.

In terms of geography, the non-Burmans occupy 55% of the land area or 371,000 sq kms - slightly larger than Germany (357,000 sq kms). The non-Burman problem in Burma is definitely not a 'minority' problem."
So now, we use the term ethnic nationalities or the non-Burman ethnic nationalities to denote the non- Burman."

According to the UN declaration, states are required to protect the existence and identity of minorities within their respective territories and encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.

For further information on the subject, please contact Asbjorn Eide asbjorn.eide@nchr.uio.no