UN Experts: The inclusion of minorities can help stem extremism and hatred

In Brief: 
  • A greater emphasis on the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities in the processes of governance could help to quell violence and extremism.
  • Two high level UN experts gave a briefing for NGOs on 23 October 2014.
  • It is not enough for governments to say, simply, “our communities just don’t get along.”
  • Efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief are another measure that can actually help to promote tolerance, they said.

NEW YORK —Two United Nations high level experts issued a plea for a greater emphasis on the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities in the process of governance as an antidote to violence and extremism.

“When you don’t include minorities in the government, you don’t realize how much you are dividing the community,” said Rita Izsák, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues.

Heiner Bielefeldt, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said: “It is to the benefit of everyone to see minorities respected.”

Their remarks came on 23 October 2014 at a briefing for non-governmental organizations, organized by the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and held at the offices of the Bahá’í International Community, which co-sponsored the event, along with the International Center for Law and Religious Studies.

Both experts highlighted their belief that the UN and its member states must make greater efforts to ensure that the rights of minorities, both ethnic and religious, are protected at all levels, and not just in a perfunctory manner.

Ms. Izsák said it is not enough for governments just to say “our communities just don’t get along.”

“It is never like that,” said Ms. Izsák. “The biggest issue is the deficit of good governance. Competition for power and resources is normal. The problem is that this is not always a fair competition. Because some groups are excluded at the very beginning from this competition.”

Ms. Izsák said if justice systems, for example, were improved, those who spew ethnic or religious hatred or who manifest corruption on behalf of their ethnic or religious group could be prosecuted. “That could eliminate a lot of hatred,” she said.

Dr. Bielefeldt stressed the importance of using the international human rights framework to bolster protections for minorities — something he said will ultimately also improve life for the majority.

“The minorities are the ones who see the advantage of stressing freedom of religion or belief,” he said. “But it is also to the benefit of majority religions, and that is why one has to form very broad alliances to promote freedom of religion or belief as part of human rights broadly.

“You can’t work on behalf of minorities without addressing the majority,” he said.

Both also spoke about some of the difficulties they face as unpaid experts in the UN system who have very limited resources at their disposal.

Dr. Bielefeldt described how difficult it can be for him as an individual investigator on a country visit to safely talk to those who feel under persecution in the presence of government minders.

He also evaluated the overall impact of his work on promoting change, saying that is the “people on the ground” who make a real difference.

He added that advocacy groups should use the pro-human rights rhetoric of governments as a lever to encourage them to meet the higher standards they promise.

“First, there may be some in the same government who want to go further,” said Dr. Bielefeldt. “So turn rhetorical statements into binding commitments. Turn it into legal language. Turn it into institutions.”

Ms. Izsák spoke about the limited resources all of the special mandate holders have in publicizing their findings, noting that the UN has only one individual assigned to produced press releases for the entire group of 50 some special rapporteurs.

In her case, Ms. Izsák has turned to social media as an alternate means of getting her message out. “I have my own Facebook and Twitter accounts but it is a struggle,” she said. “And organizing meetings like this one are very important.”