Why Reflections and Surmises?

It was over twenty years ago that I first started working on minority rights and was introduced to the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Apparently this was an instrument that had caught the attention of some of those involved in discussions over the Good Friday Agreement 1998 and the much debated and long awaited (wait for it…..) Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland! We are still waiting for the latter, although the question of the value a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland has at least been brought strongly back into focus through the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights.

Despite twenty years of researching and writing on European minority rights, there are some questions that remain for me unanswered. Are minority rights actually a good thing? And what do people mean when they talk about minority rights? Is it the individual rights we all have by virtue of being human, just those that are particularly important or at risk for those belonging to minority groups who are therefore singled out for special mention? Or are these particularised rights which take on very particular implications when applied to those belonging to minority groups, or even group rights (despite the explicit ruling out of the recognition of collective rights by the drafters of the Framework Convention in the Explantory Report)?

We do of course have the text of the Framework Convention itself to guide us (as well as the work of the Advisory Committee), but how useful is this really, bearing in mind it was an instrument drafted almost thirty years ago and given the response of many States? Whilst many European States at the time could appreciate the need for a coordinated European response, they preferred that any norms applicable to their own minorities would kept fairly vague and wanted to avoid giving the idea of conferring any significant new or additional rights for either minorities or their members. And don’t get me started on the question of beneficiaries and the potential scope of application ……

In recent years I have shifted the focus of my research (and publications) to the internalisation of minority rights standards, and to looking beyond the context of Northern Ireland. This has included a recent publication in Review of Central and East European Law (Vol 46, Issue 1, 2021) on the role of minority (and community) rights legislation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia.* My research concluded that there was a surprising divergence in approaches to internalisation in these three jurisdictions, with minority and identity-related rights continuing to be the focus of much contestation, and internalisation needing to be seen as an ongoing process with no fixed or end-point.

Some of my questions though remain unanswered. My sense (or surmise) is that minority rights (and I include here the rights of both individuals and groups) are and can be used as a force for good, and to promote ‘civility’, and that they are and can be used primarily to reinforce and entrench differences and to serve the interests of the few rather than many. Over the course of the next couple of years, and through this blog I hope to explore some of the questions on ‘real-world’ impact and to reassess the ‘liberal’ legacy of the League of Nations minority rights regime and the (re-)emergence of minority rights as a European standard through the Framework Convention, albeit rights that remain selectively applied and implemented. Double standards and different understandings of ‘minority rights’ and their consequence(s) remain a key obstacle to their success, or does it? Hopefully future musings/reflections and surmises will attempt to explore further!!

* Craig, Elizabeth (2021) The framework convention for the protection of national minorities and internalisation: lessons from the Western Balkans. Review of Central and East European Law, 46 (1). pp. 1-40. ISSN 0925-9880 http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/89872/

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