Minority rights for individuals or groups

Hole in the wall of an Ahmadiyya refugee camp at the Indonesian island Lombok. The children born in this camp are highly shut off from mainstream society, because their families are persecuted by bigots who consider them to be "heretics".

Hole in the wall of an Ahmadiyya refugee camp at the Indonesian island Lombok. The children born in this camp are highly shut off from mainstream society, because their families are persecuted by bigots who consider them to be “heretics”.

While a minority can be a “minority of one”, consisting of only one person, the word “minority” normally refer to minority groups. The concept of “Minority rights” normally refers exclusively to established and recognized minority groups.

Human Rights are normally individual rights. What does ”minority rights” mean, when it come to individual versus collective? Group rights can be viewed in roughly four ways:

1. The regular individual rights, with added confirmation that these rights are not invalidated because the individual belongs to a certain group.
2. The regular individual rights, with added protection against discrimination et cetera.
3. Collective rights for individual members of a group, such as individuals belonging to the group having special access to a traditional area or trade.
4. The group itself (for practical purposes meaning certain individuals who speak for the group, often without being democratically elected) having special rights over (other) individual members of the group.

The fourth kind of rights is highly problematic in may ways, and it threatens to conflict with several articles of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights. Such as articles 1, 2 and 7.

Article 1.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Article 2.
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty”

Article 7.
“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.”

It is very obvious that the declaration refers to all humans as individuals, rather than as groups and categories. The first article talks about traits possessed by individuals. The second article clarifies that the rights and freedoms of the individual must not be subjected to “distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion […] or other status”. The seventh paragraph speaks against discrimination and incitement to discrimination. This article applies equally, regardless of whether those who discriminate and incite discrimination are strangers or relatives, and regardless whether they identify as belonging to a different/opposing category of people or to the same category of people as the victim.

However, viewing the individuals in a minority as individuals only can also be problematic, since they may have a hard time making their voice heard in mainstream society. A person of a minority group may want to act in a way that conforms to the minority group or in a way that conforms to mainstream society. The mainstream society may be very much more inclined to defend this individual’s right to make his own choices when he conforms to the mainstream than it is to defend his right to make the choice to conform to the minority group or to chose his own third path.

These two problems must both be handled: We should not let one of them be an excuse to ignore the other. Moving on to the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, this declaration is built on maintaining a balance. The first two articles focus squarely on protecting members of minority groups from mainstream society. If analyzed out of context, they could be read as any of the four kinds of minority protection presented above. The last sub-article mentions the right to freely communicate with other minority groups, but not the right to freely communicate with mainstream society. The third article, however, is very clear about the rights of the individual.

Article 3.
“1. Persons belonging to minorities may exercise their rights, including those set forth in the present Declaration, individually as well as in community with other members of their group, without any discrimination.
2. No disadvantage shall result for any person belonging to a minority as the consequence of the exercise or non-exercise of the rights set forth in the present Declaration.”

The first sub-article reminds us that the individual rights set forth in the UDHR and other declarations are still in effect. This is later revisited in article 4:1 and 8:2, further underscoring every individual’s equality before the law.

The first sub-article reminds us that the individual has the right to conform to their group as well as the right to NOT conform to the group. The word “exercise” is important here: it makes the choice a matter of individual actions of the individual person, rather than any “either-or” matter of “choosing sides”. To be locked out of your group would be a severe disadvantage, and thus prohibited by the declaration. To be locked into your group and away from mainstream society would be the same kind of severe disadvantage, and thus equally prohibited.

It is clear that the declaration includes the first three kinds of minority protection, but not the fourth. The group does not have any ownership over the individual, and the line is drawn before any infringement of the rights of the individual. Article 4:2 also draw another line, a line against activities that are illegal in mainstream society. This underscores that the law must be equal for all. It does not, however, give the state any loophole to disregard minority rights by criminalizing the minorities: To implement this declaration includes that you do not make or keep any laws that needlessly criminalize customs, traditions et cetera of minorities. To criminalize behavior that harm individuals is however in harmony with this declaration. When old customs conflict with human rights, the customs need to be updated so that they become compatible with the rights of the humans.

To resolve and overcome the tension between the individual level and the group level, society need to be as inclusive and neutral as possible. When the law and society at large let your gender, colour, religion, sexuality et cetera be your own business as long as you don’t harm anybody else, it becomes much easier to move back and forth between acting as a member of a group, minority or subculture and acting as a free individual in mainstream society.

Therefore, tensions within a minority group should not be ignored, but they should not be squarely blamed on the particular minority group either. Not only does tension exist within all groups. But more importantly, one of the main issues is how much freedom the mainstream society gives to individuals in minority groups.

Does it help and encourage the individuals to maintain a balance between individuality, participation in mainstream society and participation in the minority group? Or does it force the individuals to make a choice between either locking themselves into their minority groups, surrendering themselves to the group identity, or locking themselves out of their family and heritage by surrendering themselves to the mainstream society?


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