The protection of minorities:

A critical challenge for everyone

A.H. Monjurul Kabir

The recent press reports from different parts of Bangladesh on the alleged repression committed against the minority community, the Hindu community in particular, is regrettable and anti-human rights. In the last three decades, human rights abuses against the Hindu minority in Bangladesh have largely gone unreported. Sadly, Bangladeshi nationalism has not been fully successful to accommodate the Hindu minority with propriety. The continuance of the Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order II of 1965 of the then East Pakistan Government albeit, under a new name, for about thirty years in independent Bangladesh testified the deplorable trend. The infamous Vested Property Act was repealed only last year. It is also unfortunate that the present Home Minister, despite admitting 'some incidents', had, in a wholesale manner termed the press reports of repression on minority people exaggerated and unfounded.

In today's world, multi-ethnic states are the norm. The traditional nation-state, where a distinct national group corresponds to a territorial unit, has become an endangered species. Globalization and the increasing movement of people across borders threaten to kill off the nation state once and for all. However, some myths resist reality, and majority or dominant cultures in countries around the world still seek to impose their identity on other groups with whom they share a territory. The South Asia is a stark reminder of this trend.

The state religion of Bangladesh, as incorporated in the Constitution of Bangladesh by the former dictator cum President H.M. Ershad, is Islam. The purpose was to cash in religion for heinous political gains. About 87 per cent of the population of Bangladesh is Muslim. However, the minority Hindus, Buddhists and Christians have the right to practice their religious beliefs. Article 2A of the Constitution of Bangladesh clearly states that, "…other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in the Republic."

The Finish approach

Although no country has a perfect record on minority rights, a country like Finland for example has worked hard to implement legislation in order to promote good ethnic relations among its population. The Swedish-speaking Finns are the largest minority in Finland at 5.71 per cent of the population. The status of the Swedish-speaking Finns is exceptional compared to that of other national minorities, due to the fact that Swedish is, in addition to Finnish, an official language of Finland. In recent years, the Government has redoubled its efforts to settle the question of land ownership by the Sami, the indigenous people of Finland. Finnish, Swedish or the Sami language is taught as the mother tongue of the student, and under the new legislation, children who reside in Finland permanently, thus including immigrant children, have both the duty and the right to go to comprehensive school.

International standards and monitoring

In 1992, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. As the only United Nations instrument that specifically addressed the special rights of minorities, the Declaration can be viewed as a point of reference for the international community. It includes a list of rights that minorities are entitled to, including the right to enjoy their own culture without interference, and the right to participate effectively in decisions at the national level, among others. States are requested to take measures in the field of education in order to encourage knowledge of the history, traditions, language and culture of minorities existing within their territories. Also, States are asked to implement national policies and programmes with due regard for minority interests.

Multilateral monitoring of the compliance of states to their international commitments with regard to protecting minority rights has increased transparency. Within the United Nations system, this responsibility is shared by the Commission on Human Rights, the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. A Working Group on Minorities has also been established in order to review the promotion and practical realization of the Declaration. It serves as the focal point of the United Nations in the field of minority protection and is the main forum for constructive dialogue on the treatment of minorities by Governments.

Although all of the above mentioned bodies are integral to the promotion of minority rights, it is the reports submitted on behalf of the State parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination that provide an overview of the status of minorities within a specific country. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) meets twice a year to review State party reports as well as shadow reports submitted by NGOs. In extreme cases, the Committee implements early warning measures to assist Governments to prevent problems from escalating into conflicts and identify cases where there is a lack of an adequate legislative basis for defining and criminalizing all forms of racial discrimination.

What needs to be done at national level?

No matter how effective international mechanisms might be, and they are far from being sufficiently so at present, there is no substitute for a concerted domestic initiative of implementing national obligations towards these rights guaranteed internationally. The implementation and compliance with international human rights treaties and standards are ultimately national issues a reality, which is often lost in the midst of rapid internationalisation of human rights. Good governance plays a vital role in involving minorities in societies and protecting their rights and interests. Through recognition, dialogue, and participation, all the citizens of a diverse society can form a greater understanding of one another's concerns. The media and education have important roles to play in this regard, as do political representatives and community leaders.

Other positives action taken by States include: legislative measures that introduce higher maximum penalties for racially motivated crimes; the use of ethnic monitoring to ascertain the number of persons of particular ethnic and national origin in various kinds of employment and the setting of targets to increase the employment of persons of minority origins in fields where they were under-represented; the establishment of new advisory bodies on matters relevant to combating racism and intolerance, including the launching and implementation public awareness campaigns intended to prevent racial discrimination and increase tolerance; and the establishment of human rights institutions and ombudspersons for ethnic and racial equality.

What is happening in some parts of Bangladesh against the backdrop of peaceful parliamentary election of October 1, 2001, is not conducive to the growth of liberal democracy. The government, different political, social organisations and all concerned to come forward to resolve the problem. The government should ensure secure rehabilitation of the affected persons by providing them adequate compensation, publish reports of the incidents traced out by the government as well as taking legal actions against the offenders. Members of the society including students, teachers, social workers and scholars to take long term initiatives to strengthen communal harmony in the country. Tendency to make the minority people scapegoats for political belief must be resisted.

State authorities need to ensure that minorities enjoy the fundamental right to equality, both in written legislation and in society at large. The roles of local government, civic organizations and NGOs are important in this respect. Police, prosecutors and judges need to be more aware of what constitutes racial discrimination and racially motivated crimes and in some cases, changing the composition of police forces to better reflect the multi-ethnic communities they serve may be appropriate. It is also incumbent upon minorities to integrate themselves into their communities. Other recommendations include monitoring hate speech, promoting empowerment through education, and ensuring adequate housing and access to health care.

Human Rights are for everyone

Politically motivated statements and multifarious propaganda are spreading misconception about the oppression and leading the crisis towards a complicated ending instead of towards a fair solution. Whatever might be the extent of the incidents, it was clear that there was oppression on the minorities and that should be stopped immediately. All concerned should also bear in mind that a single instance of act of terrorism is enough to panic the people of a whole community, at least, psychologically. The Hindu minority has little effective leadership. Its only response to the situation has been to vote with its feet. The divisive and conservative approach of the community leaders, in fact, contributes to the growth of mutual disbelief and hatred.

The mere holding of periodic elections is not the only yardstick of measuring democracy or health of a society. Religious intolerance can alone destroy the fabric of harmony from the society. Any society that claims itself as democratic should have no place for communalism. As a new century begins, each segment of our society needs to ask itself certain questions. Is it sufficiently inclusive? Is it non-discriminatory? Are its norms of behaviour based on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and all kinds of related intolerance have not gone away. They very much persist in the new century and that their persistence is rooted in fear: fear of what is different, fear of the other, fear of the loss of personal security. And while it is recognized that human fear is in itself ineradicable, it is also maintained that its consequences are not ineradicable.

Source of Information: United Nations; Law Watch, A Centre for Studies on Human Rights Law; United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Source: The Star Magazine, Dhaka, 21 October, 2001