What is the role of minorities in the modern state? with Fernand de Varennes

October 18, 2022

Fernand de Varennes, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Minority Issues, explains the current situation of minority groups in states around the world.

de Varennes appears on the left holding a microphone and gesturing with his hand. In the background is a faded photo of people in a circle holding out their hands, showing many different races and ethnicities.

The existence of minorities has been an unavoidable reality of the creation of nation states that almost always have a dominant national group inscribed in their names. From this perspective, Germany is a country for Germans and Australia is a country for Australians. But there are invariably others who don't fit the heritage or the stereotype of German or Italian, or Australian, or whatever the country might be. So how do we deal with the reality that minorities are a normal feature of basically all countries of the world? 

In this episode of International Horizons, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Minority Issues Fernand de Varennes discusses the job of special rapporteurs on the field, the conceptual evolution of the word minority, how the existence of minority groups in a state can provoke both political turmoil and peaceful coexistence. De Varennes also explains the role of international organizations in the protection of minorities and the new surge in populist nationalism in which minorities are targeted as the enemies of the society. Finally, he presents cases of countries that have embraced diversity and became stable and just societies. In conversation with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below.


John Torpey  00:06

The existence of minorities has been an unavoidable reality of the creation of nation states that almost always have a dominant national group inscribed in their names. From this perspective, Germany is a country for Germans and Australia is a country for Australians. But there are invariably others who don't fit the heritage or the stereotype of German or Italian, or Australian, or whatever the country might be. So how do we deal with the reality that minorities are a normal feature of basically all countries of the world? 

John Torpey  00:39

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. We're fortunate to have with us today Fernand de Varennes, who is the UN Special Rapporteur for Minority Issues. He's also currently serving as a visiting professor at the Université Catholique du Lyon in France and the Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania. Thank you so much for being with us today Fernand de Varennes.

Fernand de Varennes  01:26

Thank you very much, John. I'm delighted to be here with you.

John Torpey  01:29

Great to have you. So as I mentioned in my introduction, minorities, I mean, obviously, is in some sense, a technical term, but minorities are an unavoidable element of the international landscape of states and countries. So what is the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for minority issues? What does it do?

Fernand de Varennes  01:49

Thank you very much. The mandate is actually a mandate created by the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is an elected position. And the position is as an independent expert, to deal with, on the one hand, issues or allegations of violations of the human rights of minorities, which may occur anywhere in the world. So we have a bit of a, if you will, diplomatic, almost investigative role, in relation to the violation of the human rights of minorities that has been assigned to us by the UN Human Rights Council. That's one half. 

Fernand de Varennes  02:26

As an independent expert, we also are asked to clarify certain areas of the application of the human rights of minorities. When we talk about international human rights, it can be quite general. So one has to realize that quite often, what specific rights means and practices, in relation to minorities or any other group, is not always very clear or precise. Hence, that's one of our roles: to clarify certain areas, for example, the use of a minority language in education. To what extent does that right exists? What does it impose on states? And thirdly, we have an awareness raising role to play with governments as to what are the obligations in terms of the rights of minorities, and also with minorities themselves, who may not understand what are their human rights in international law. So a number of hats that we wear.

John Torpey  02:42

Right. So how is a minority defined? I mean, one could slice up the population of the world in myriad ways. But surely there are limits to the notion of what constitutes a minority. So what groups are we actually talking about?

Fernand de Varennes  03:37

Thank you, that's actually a very important question, because it's not always well understood. Under UN instruments, documents such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Minorities, when we refer to minorities, we are referring to what is called national or ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups. And therefore, it's not any kind of category that can be considered as a minority in international law. Blue-eyed people may be numerically a minority in most countries, but they are not considered to be a minority in the sense of national or ethnic, religious and linguistic. So I think that's the best way to understand it. Minority inside a country: less than half of the population in relation to their, let’s say, religion, or language. That's probably the simplest way to imagine these different categories.

John Torpey  04:25

Right. So there are groups, roughly like the kinds of groups that are identified, let's say, in the Genocide Convention.

Fernand de Varennes  04:32

Absolutely. And in fact, even though the Genocide Convention does not use the word minority specifically, it's quite clear that it refers to ethnic or religious group, for example, and therefore, one can easily see what was intended, where in fact, minority groups who tend to be the most vulnerable, if you will, are the targets of genocide, as history has shown us. Genocides in the 20th century, beginning of 21st, that ocurred or were attempted all involved minorities.

John Torpey  05:04

And there was a pretty big fight in the time of the creation of the Genocide Convention over which groups would be included. And of course, political minorities was one of the major kinds of political debates at the time. So I mean, how would you say, is the minority definition from your perspective satisfactory, or the groups that are being left out that should be included and when did this convention take place and was sort of a byproduct of the discussion of genocide?

Fernand de Varennes  05:40

I think it was recognized after the Second World War during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that there were segments of society, minorities that were extremely vulnerable. So the Genocide Convention, and by the way, the Genocide Convention was adopted, even before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which many people don't realize. Even though the word minority was sometimes omitted, because some governments are not comfortable with the concept of minorities, they prefer to say we're all equal. Everyone is their citizen, therefore, let's not talk about minorities. But eventually, the after the end of the Second World War, what occurred was that there was in the United Nations further work, starting a little bit with the Genocide Convention, but ultimately leading to treaties, which actually did refer directly to the concept of minorities, very quickly. Article 27, of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights refers to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities as having certain human rights.  

Fernand de Varennes  05:51

So in a way, there was always a great deal of awareness, particularly after the Second World War, that in reality, minorities, including, for example, Jews, in relation to the Holocaust, the Shoah, were a minority, were vulnerable. And thus the United Nations system had to be founded on a rule, which could protect and to some degree accommodate various minority groups. I can talk about religion, for example, later on, and why freedom of religion is an important human right for minorities, or religious minorities. But just very quickly, though, before the Second World War, there were minority treaties. The need to protect minorities in order to achieve peace and stability was well-recognized during the time of the League of Nations, after the First World War, and before the Second World War. So the concept has always been there. It's been formulated in different ways. There have been some misunderstandings as to what is involved, and some reluctance, in fact, with some governments to acknowledge this, but this is one of the greatest challenges that we still have to avoid conflict, to avoid genocide, to avoid situations or even crimes against humanity, which we are still seeing being perpetrated, mainly so often targeting minorities.

John Torpey  08:06

Right, so the  the mandate for this UN Special Rapporteur, and the whole idea of the protection of minorities, as you say, had a pre-history in the League of Nations that came out of the collapse of the European land empires after World War I and the emergence of all these groups that had complicated relationships to the states that emerged. And of course you've mentioned the Holocaust. From one perspective, these minority protections didn't work out very well. So I wonder how you would say, the UN approach to minorities has perhaps improved on what happened in the interwar period.

Fernand de Varennes  08:48

I think there was an improvement in the early 1990s, late 1980s. You might remember at the time of the fall of former Soviet Union, also the Yugoslavia breaking up, there was a great number of violent conflicts in different parts of, especially Eastern Europe, Central Asia, but also other parts of the world, as a matter of fact, where are you had minorities, in fact, with significant grievances, a large number of separatist movements mainly involving minorities, in fact, in these areas in these regions, and at the time, this is when the United Nations developed the Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities. 

Fernand de Varennes  09:41

So there was a context where the United Nations developed a further tool, if you will, further instrument, on the one hand, to protect the human rights of minorities better, but on the other hand, actually is a tool for conflict prevention in that particular historical juncture. By the way, it's no accident that at the same period, you had the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the creation of the position of High Commissioner on National Minorities as a conflict prevention tool. That's specifically what that position is. It's also exactly the same period, when at the Council of Europe, they develop treaties, legal documents, such as the Framework Convention for the protection of National Minorities. 

Fernand de Varennes  10:31

So the United Nations and other regional organizations developed quite a number of tools, mechanisms, even treaties, to better protect minorities and their rights in order to achieve peace in a particularly unstable period of history. And so in that sense, we did more, if you will, at the United Nations. But as you may know, a declaration is not a binding document. It's not a treaty. It's not a legal instrument, and therefore, it's quite weak. And unfortunately, I think what had been initiated in the 1990s, didn't go far enough, was not very strong. And today,  I think we're seeing the consequences of that. I would suggest to you, and I think the data demonstrates it, we are having an extremely challenging period, including an increase of conflicts, most of them are internal. Most of them involve, in fact, minorities again, even though it's not always acknowledged. And we now have new challenges, such as the rise of hate speech, in social media, and even incitement to violence. Even incitement to genocide is on the increase. And where we don't seem to have the tools to be able to tackle this effectively.

John Torpey  11:43

Right. I mean, it seems that what happened in the post-World War II period was that interstate conflict was seriously tamped down, was regarded as totally unacceptable until very recently to invade somebody else's territory and try to take part of that territory, take over somebody else's sovereignty. And the result, or not the result perhaps but at the same time there was this shift to interstate violence, as you have just alluded to. And so I think that's been -- I mean, insofar as Steven Pinker may be correct, arguing that there's been this decline of violence -- it has partially to do with the fact that there's been a shift away from interstate wars with lots of munitions, and a shift towards intrastate or civil wars, basically, that have involved relatively less well armed combatants so to speak. So I suppose that might be seen as a failing of the minority protection regime, but at the same time, that's better on the whole, as we're seeing in Ukraine, for these conflicts to be smaller and  more contained. But do you see that relationship between the sort of minority protections that the UN provides and violence? I mean, again, I don't want to blame these interstate conflicts on the minority protection regime, but there must be some relationship between those two phenomena.

Fernand de Varennes  13:25

Well, thank you. I would suggest that there are certain connections to be made. Let's be clear, even though the total number of victims of people killed in conflict may seem historically not as high as it was during the Second World War, keep in mind that we currently have the largest number of internally displaced people in human history currently in the world. Keep in mind that we have millions of individuals, who are living in extremely difficult conditions in conflict areas, such as Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Keep in mind that in fact we do have the highest number of stateless people in human history, and that is actually apparently increasing by millions, because of situations where minorities are denied citizenship or/and are susceptible to denial of citizenship. Currently in India, in Assam, we may be seeing around 2 million people not being recognized citizenship. 

Fernand de Varennes  13:53

We therefore have in the world, I think, an extremely dark period of instability, where you have very, very large numbers of refugees, displaced people, stateless people. And in most of these, in fact, you have these displaced people or individuals that are connected to conflicts, domestic conflicts. Many of them -- not all of them, but most of them, I would say -- seem to have come from countries that are wracked by violence, where minorities are either the targets or have backed separatist movements. Don't forget, for example, that in Yemen, the conflict, to a large degree, has a religious division in the background for that conflict, between Shia minority and Sunni majorities. And so I think it would be remiss to assume that what we are experiencing in the world is better than it was in the middle of the 20th century. I would suggest that in fact it is heading in a very troubled environment period, because of very large number of stateless people, very large number of displaced people, very large number of individuals actually hungry, not having access to education, being essentially, rightless: having no rights and actually not having access to the most basic of areas such as care and food. 

Fernand de Varennes  16:06

And so much of that is connected to instability linked to the inability, I think, of the international community to address what are many of the root causes. A feeling from minorities, that they are excluded, that they have to sometimes revert to violence in order to have their rights protected, and their life protected even. Think of the Rohingya also in Myanmar, which I should have mentioned also earlier. And so, we may not have the same scale of death on the field, but if you look at other markers, other data areas such as the name and number of stateless displaced victims, in fact, of various atrocities, we are in need to address these areas where minorities specifically seem to be the main target. In a context -- a very quick comment -- in the context of rising, I guess we could call it majoritarian nationalism, a lot of it is actually also, I would say, not a minority problem; it's a majority problem in many of the cases that I've described. Think of the Rohingya, think of the report on the Xinjiang, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang in China, think of the situation's of the Shia in Yemen, and also of the Tigrayans in Ethiopia.

John Torpey  17:32

Right. So some of this, one might suggest, is a product of the deterioration in the sort of democratic cast of the world in recent decades. I mean, there's a lot of writing that's been done about the decline, the relative decline of democracies and the rise of more authoritarian kinds of government. And, I mean, it seems obvious to me that there's a relationship between those kinds of government and the treatment of minorities. But I'd be curious, how you would sort of assess that. I mean, I'm naively going to take for granted that you're better off as a minority in a democracy than you are in an authoritarian society. But that's, in some sense, true of all the people in those societies. So how would you address that relationship?

Fernand de Varennes  18:25

Thank you. Yes, I think when you have a democracy, there is space for differences: differences of opinion, but also differences of backgrounds. And in an ideal democracy, of a democracy that accepts, acknowledges and embraces difference rather than looks at it as a threat, if you will. Unfortunately, it's not always the case. You have some democracies, where you can have a a government that is more nationalistic, and exclusionary. And without going into any examples. I think this is the danger in which it may occur when you have governments saying “the country to the people”, but the people actually only have one language, one religion, or one culture. And I think this is the unfortunate thing, or the threat that we're seeing in a number of democracies, where the government in place begins to get, to absorb a certain tone, a tone that reflects really mainly and almost only the majority, a majority religious group, majority linguistic or cultural entity. And that is the problem.  

Fernand de Varennes  19:38

I think now, it's whether it's a democracy or even an authoritarian regime, we are seeing more and more governments and regimes becoming more and more nationalistic. And by definition very often, they become more and more exclusionary of minorities, which are too different or which might be instrumentalized by majoritarian politicians as a threat. And I think we all know that this is a common theme that we find in many regimes. So unfortunately, if you like to look at history and its lessons, there have been, certainly since the 19th century, various periods of increased nationalism, where minorities actually at the receiving end are suppressed or repressed. And this is unfortunately, I think, around the world, one of those periods of a nationalism, which is actually less tolerant of minorities, not everywhere, but in quite a significant number of countries.

John Torpey  20:41

Right, I mean, in 1848, that was regarded in many ways as a progressive development, right? The prison house of peoples was being broken out of, during the springtime of peoples, the "Völkerfrühling" in German. But now, we tend to be more skeptical about this for the kinds of reasons that you've just suggested. And I guess I might ask you, since you've posited that this is happening, I mean, why do you think it's happening? Why do you think there is this upsurge in nationalism not just in the United States and Europe, but really around the world? 

Fernand de Varennes  21:20

Very good question. And if I knew the answer, I think I would be able to get quite a reward for that. But let me answer it this way, we are living in a very troubled time. There are many upheavals, including the environment, including the finances, the economy, employment. And in this context of very significant upheavals, you have many segments of society, who feel insecure and threatened. And history shows us that in those conditions, it is easy for populist politicians to instrumentalize, to identify someone to blame: a scapegoat, as a matter of fact. And they will quite often scapegoat minorities, instrumentalize these fears, focus then, if you will, on certain minority groups, and claim that these minorities are disloyal, or criminal; they are a threat, or they actually have a some kind of conspiracy to dominate the real nation, the majority population. And this populist nationalism is an easy answer to complex changes in upheavals.  

Fernand de Varennes  22:37

And because, in my opinion, the current environment around us in the world, political, environmental, economic, is so disturbing, and uncertain that individuals are actually following those that have the easiest, clearest answers. And quite often those answers are this minority is to blame; "these are the criminals, these are the ones who want to invade us or to crush us." We've seen that before the Second World War, to be very honest. Today, the situation is quite different. But we are seeing similar sounds as to what occurred in the Second World War. We're seeing it and I think a number of special rapporteurs have pointed out the United Nations that we're seeing that with growing intolerance against Muslims, Islamophobia. Anti-semitism is also on the increase. We're seeing it with the targeting of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The labeling of Latinos, for example, in the United States as criminals, and so on. Unfortunately, some politicians think this works, and they are using it right now. 

John Torpey  23:55

So, this reminds me, since in part because you're a Canadian by origin, I'm sort of thinking about multiculturalism as an idea, which really basically was originated in Canada, as a way of persuading, the Québécois that they could stay within the Canadian Federation without being oppressed. And that made a big difference, I think for a while. And indeed, multiculturalism became this sort of approach de jure, if you like, for a number of years about how to address these kinds of problems of minority separation and inclusion. I'm reminded there was a book that came out, I don't know maybe it's 20 years ago now, called We Are All Multiculturalists Now. I'm not sure how many people would say that now. But there were in many ways, certainly the originator, Will Kymlicka, of the idea (or at least I regard him as the originator) saw this not as a route to Balkanization, as it was sometimes perceived, for example, in the United States, but as a route to greater integration. And I guess I am curious to hear you talk about where you think that idea is now. I mean, in the face of growing nationalism, is anybody talking about that anymore? I don't really hear it, but I'm curious what you would say.

Fernand de Varennes  25:30

Yes, I think what could be useful is to remember that Canada does not stand alone in this area. There, in fact, once you start looking in different parts of the world, you realize that there are a number of states, a number of countries that have adopted similar approaches, not identical. One of the examples I'd like to mention is Switzerland; Switzerland has four official languages. It is a highly decentralized country is different in a large number of cantons. And the cantons essentially reflect the cultural linguistic background or population of different parts of the country. Switzerland, with this kind of, if you will, multicultural state has been one of the most stable countries. In Europe, I think, we tend to forget that that's the reason, or one of the reasons, it has been so stable, is the fact that the structures of the state reflect the reality of the ground, the multicultural reality of the ground, with four official languages. 

Fernand de Varennes  26:32

We tend to forget that countries like Singapore. In Singapore, for example, the public holidays reflect all of the major religions in Singapore. So you have you have Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian holidays that are public days of rest, also, to reflect this religious diversity. We could go on: there are countries like Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, which I think not many people will know is actually a very multicultural state in the way it functions. There are areas like Italy, we tend to believe that Italy is only made up of Italian-speaking people, but in fact, there are a number of linguistic minorities, and they have various autonomy regimes also in places like the South Tyrol, where you have a German speaking minority, which works extremely well. A little bit like Canada, there was the beginning of a separatist, a violent separatist movement, in the 1950s, there were soldiers and police officers that were assassinated by separatist, German-speaking minority separatists. They obtained autonomy, and it is today one of the most stable and actually wealthiest parts of Italy. 

Fernand de Varennes  27:47

So one can go there, and I think you can see that there is, in reality, quite a few multicultural countries in the world. And quite often, when these various forms of accommodation of the diversity of the country reflect the reality on the ground, what we have is, in fact, a quite stable state. Not everyone agrees with this approach. Some have believed that one country, one nation must be made of one people with only one language, sometimes even only one religion. I think history shows that the attempt to force everyone to fit into the same mold is more cause of instability than [when] there is a more multicultural approach that reflects reality. That's the way I would respond to that.

John Torpey  28:36

So I mean, the Switzerland example is a very interesting one. But one of the characteristics of Switzerland, of course, is the fact that it's neutral. And to some degree, that strikes me as expanding the space, so to speak, for the acceptance of decentralization and cultural, whatever diversity. And I wonder how easily that is done in a context in which one has more of a military role in the world. I don't know if that makes any sense. But Switzerland is such a fantastic place in so many ways, but the men there do have to carry out military service, but the country is basically purely defensive. They're a neutral power from way back and shape the opportunity structure here.

Fernand de Varennes  29:35

Yeah, John, thanks for that. Indeed, of course, the each country is different. All the examples that I pointed out have very different approaches in history and whatnot. On the other hand, I think there are also plenty of other examples where you have states that are not neutral, if you will, not militarily neutral, where you have various multicultural approaches. I could have mentioned Finland, where you have two official languages, but also an indigenous population with certain rights and the way this the state is created, the structures of the state reflect its multicultural background in fact; with Finnish majority, Swedish speaking majority, autonomy arrangements also for certain parts of Finland, and the Sami indigenous populations, which also within this multicultural context, have special arrangements, special measures in place. Finland has not always been neutral, it has a as you will know, it has actually had a very successful military force that was able to resist, during the Second World War, or immediately after that, or I'm sorry, after the First World War, they were able to resist the attempts that the Soviet or Russian Empire at the time to keep them within their sphere of influence. So there are plenty of others. Yes, Switzerland is quite unique, so is Singapore in different ways thank all of the others. But I think a fundamental lesson there is that when you actually have structures of the state that reflects the reality of the population on the ground and its diversity, and it's democratic in representing, in fact, this diversity, you're much more able to have, in my opinion --I think the evidence is there-- a stable and just society.

John Torpey  31:27

Fascinating. Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today. This has been a fascinating conversation and obviously many, many varieties of minority contexts and relationships and approaches and it sounds like you have your hands full with the job of UN Special Rapporteur for minority issues. So I want to thank Fernand de Varennes for sharing his insights on the situation of minorities around the world today. Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.

Fernand de Varennes  32:24

Thank you, John. Merci, au revoir, hasta luego.