According to a definition offered in 1977 by Francesco Capotorti, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, a minority is “a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a state, in non-dominant position, whose members -being nationals of the state- possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions or language”. Minority inclusion can be tackled from various perspectives: human rights, empowerment and development effectiveness. Within the human rights approach, all individuals, regardless of their ethnicity, should be treated equally in the economy, in politics, under the law and in society.
Most implementations of minority protection have not been comprehensive
The Open Society Institute’s report about the monitoring of the EU’s Accession Process: Minority Protection shows that the implementation of minority protection and integration programmes has not been comprehensive. In most cases, the bodies charged with responsibility for coordinating implementation are marginalized themselves, working within the constraints imposed by a lack of funding, staff and political support. The transformations of EU member states into multicultural and multi-faith societies raise new challenges to the existing legal regime for minority protection. Integration must be a two-way process, requiring not only the adaptation of new groups to European cultural and social environments, but also a guarantee of equal treatment and protection against discrimination as well as of respect for their distinct identities. Increasing sophistication in integration policy would benefit other marginalized groups, such as Sinti and Roma, whose culture, language and history have been undervalued and left on the side for centuries.
The European integration has made a tremendous change for the ethnic minorities in terms of political representation because candidate member states had to comply with the rules of minority protection in their endeavor to achieve EU membership. This has resulted in a development of institutional framework in the Eastern Europe area and in other candidate countries. Minority groups are mostly confronted with problems in accessing housing and public services, healthcare and education, training and employment. Their problems result from direct and indirect discrimination, language barriers, lack of citizenship or other status and lack of recognition of the right to culture.
Most of the EU member states are also parties to the Council of Europe’s 1968 Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities which requires signatory states to ensure minority participation in all parts of public life.
Minority inclusion and minority rights, in terms of minority protection as part of general human rights rationale, should be enhanced, e.g. through the EU Accession Process. This process is of great importance for the relationship between the region and the EU.
Good governance is the key
One of the key considerations for minority inclusion is good governance. Typically, a local government is the vehicle of delivery of services (healthcare, education) and goods (utilities) to the population. On the other hand, a local government’s agencies are those units through which minority groups’ access to the services is most direct. Improving the development of municipal level programmes by mainstreaming minority issues into daily work will improve the quality of delivery and sustainability of local governments.
Minorities’ participation in political life is of high importance because it ensures that their specific concerns are considered in the decision making. And on the other hand it helps minorities to have their say on the development of society, while participation in social and economic life helps them to answer their needs through active contribution.
The mechanisms through which minority participation and representation is ensured in the European Union depends on each country and varies from federalism through territorial autonomy, proportional electoral systems to guaranteed minority seats in parliament. Countries that have come to an agreement to the enforcement of minority rights and their inclusion in the public and political life have shown increasing signs of democratization by means of more effective participation and representation. An essential aspect for the compliance with minority groups’ participation to politics and social inclusion is represented by a stable and democratic government which is recognized as legitimate by both the majority and minorities.
Respect as a European value!
Also, in the process of drafting legislation, governments should share their ideas before drafting a particular law. Political participation is linked with strong incentives for the minority’s representatives. Lately, EU membership has represented a strong impulse for extended collaboration among groups. In addition to being a general human right, effective participation is also a right of minorities as stipulated in the relevant international legal instruments. Respect for the rights of persons belonging to minorities is one of the values of the EU. This value is explicitly mentioned in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union.
EU legislation and programmes contribute to addressing certain difficulties, including discrimination, which are likely to affect persons belonging to minorities. Central policy areas for the inclusion of ethnic minorities – such as education, employment, or social inclusion – are in the competence of the member states. The EU coordinates, however, national policies by means of common objectives, policy guidelines, and indicators.
The connection between strong and transparent participation and minority rights is related to the fact that if minorities are well represented at the national level, then their discrimination can be more easily eradicated.
A cohesive and transparent participation in politics would be a milestone for the democracy and human rights standards of a society. Effective participation of minorities in the decision-making processes, with an emphasis on decisions that affect them, is the most relevant characteristic of a society in which individual human rights belonging to minorities are respected. Not to mention the fact if measures meant to provide the participation of minorities to the political life help to alleviate any possible tension among groups and hence prevent any conflict that could occur because of misrepresentation or underrepresentation of minorities. A state’s compliance with the rules for the integration and representation of minorities is the first sign of good governance. The states of South-East and Eastern Europe have implemented in different ways and had different visions upon the integration and participation of minorities.
The compliance of state with minority rights is extremely important for a fully democratic and peaceful society in which not only the dominant majority have their rights respected, but all the groups belonging to that society. The inclusion of minorities and the proliferation of means through which they can participate to political or social action are strengthening the civic consciousness of society, while giving the chance to individuals to feel they belong to a country, rather than to a specific ethnic group.