Minorities and Human Rights

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By

Raja Tridiv Roy[*]

We often tend to forget that every member of a majority community is a minority in some context or when somewhere else. A majority status is only true when confined within a fixed boundary or compartment. Germans living outside Germany are a minority as are the Chinese outside China, Hong Kong and Macau and Russians outside Russia, a Sunni Muslim in Iran and a Shia Muslim in Pakistan. Even inside Pakistan a Sunni of the Deobandi school of thought may find he is in the midst of a great number of Brehlvis in a certain area, or, vice versa. It is axiomatic that in almost all countries of the world there are ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities. And in many, their cultural freedom and human rights need protection.

Some of the ancient empires built by the sword also perished by the sword. A Roman citizen in England and another in Italy took on different nationalities when the Roman Empire disintegrated. An Austrian and a Hungarian national became such after the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Hapsburgs collapsed. Maria Theresa (1717-80) was the queen of Hungry and Bohemia and the Arch duchess of Austria. She succeeded her father Charles VI as Empress of Germany in 1740. Her right to the throne was contested and resulted in the war of the Austrian Succession (1740-48). During her reign, Fredrick the Great attacked and defeated Austria in the Seven Years War (1756-63). Her daughter, Marie Antoinette, became the queen of Louis XVI of France and was guillotined on 16 October 1793. To try and determine the nationality and citizenship of the mother and daughter would require quite a bit of working at the Jigsaw Puzzle. People in Alsace and Lorraine as well as Shleswig Holstein were alternately French and German as well as German and Danish nationals even in the 20th century. The seat of the European parliament today, Strasbourg in Alsace, is back in France.

The process of historical change gave birth to the present day concept of political sovereignty in the nation state. In the last three hundred years, due to centrifugal forces, the political map of the world has changed a number of times. Nation states emerged as in the cases of the Central Asian nations on the demise of the Soviet Union, the resurrection of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, the separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Pakistan and, to a small extent, Indonesia (after the emergence of East Timor). On the other hand, sometimes states decide to give up some of their sovereignty and state powers as in the case of countries that formed the European Union, by abolishing visas and the national currencies, and adopting several common laws and responsibilities. So even if the national boundaries exist they are being transcended by common consent in many fields. In this continuous process of political evolution, a majority can become the minority or, the converse. The Jews, almost a perpetual minority in known history, have now become a majority in the state of Israel. East and West Germany became one state and much of Europe is getting closer to forming one government, allowing centripetal forces full play. People thus keep groping in their eternal search for the most viable forms of inter-relationship between man and man, between state and state and between citizen and state.

Minorities, religious and ethnic, almost everywhere feel discriminated against. Discrimination, whether real and actual or perceived, is a fact of life. In Canada, the US, Australia, even in Japan and Brazil, lately, there have been instances of judicial and sometimes governmental actions, in affording the minorities a measure of relief, like the creation of Nunavit. The Cree in Canada, the Inuit, earlier known to the west as Eskimos in Alaska (discovered by the Danish explorer Vitus Bering in 1741), the Amerindians and some of the Australian Aborigines are the beneficiaries of these belated but welcome gestures. The modern day Americans too are increasingly aware of the ancestral wrongs done to the first peoples, to the African slaves, and to the Japanese Americans during World War II, and have consequently started a process, antithetical to the previous racist and imperialistic attitude toward these unfortunate groups.

This salutary trend deserves emulation worldwide, particularly in Latin America, Asia and Africa, where subtle to the grossest discrimination exists. As far as Europe is concerned it is not that blatant today, but is nevertheless on the increase against African and Asian ethnic groups. We would do well to keep in mind the massacre of Jews in Russia in 1905-6, of the Jews and Gypsies between 1939 and 1945 under the Nazis and Stalin’s “purges,” wherein millions perished. Going further back, to the days of the Emperors Caligula (37- 41 A.D.) and his nephew Nero (54 -68), it was the custom throw Christians and slaves to hungry lions merely for sport. Apart from the saying, current even today, that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, while it may or may not be literally true, it is nonetheless an indication of his attitude. Undeniable, moreover, is the fact that his mother was executed on the charge of plotting to dethrone him. Nero ignored her pleas of innocence and letters for reprieve. Yet it was through his mother’s efforts that Nero had become heir to the throne. The Emperor Justinian brought about the cessation of persecution of the Christians and they were no longer fed to lions, and in 313 A.D. Christianity was accepted as a religion in the Roman Empire.

In 1189, Kind Richard the Lionheart was crowned in Westminster Cathedral. Shortly thereafter he joined Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa and Philip Augustus of France in the “Holy War” against the Saracens in an effort to regain Jerusalem, which the Christians had conquered in the first crusade (1096-99). In the third crusade (1189-91) they captured Acre and set up a Latin Kingdom in the East. They fought against the gathering might of the Muslims led by one of the noblest of warriors, Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi, a Kurd, who often forgave and released his enemies after capturing them. It is ironical that today the Kurds are fighting against the soldiers of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The Ottoman Turks overran much of Christian Europe in the 16th century, and twice knocked at the gates of Vienna. If Vienna had fallen, which it had almost done, the history of Europe, and perhaps much of the world, would have been vastly different today.

On 12 October 1492, Columbus landed in the Bahamas, and then sailed on to Cuba and the island of Hispaniola that makes up today’s Haiti and the Dominican Republic. However, until the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in the “Mayflower” in Jamestown, Maryland in 1605, the indigenous or First Peoples, the Cherokees, the Iriquois, the Sioux and other Amerindians, continued to live their traditional lives in freedom, by and large unmolested by intruding foreign Palefaces, though the hostile “us” against “them” was there even then. But once the Anglo-Saxons arrived, they wanted to take over everything, including the land. They began massacring the natives and appropriating their lands, having developed a credo that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. The WASP, White Anglo Saxon Protestant, entity or group-feeling developed later, despite sections of lager Catholics in New York and pockets in the eastern seaboard like the Kennedys of Boston, and in the southern counties portrayed by Margaret Mitchell’s O’Haras at Tara in “Gone with the wind.”

The Amerindians fought back with bows, arrows and tomahawks, in an effort to save their land, their culture and their honor. The Sioux fought a war and were not finally defeated till as late as 1862, in Minnesota. The Europeans also introduced hitherto unknown diseases that decimated whole populations in North and South America. After numerous massacres, the Amerindians, or what was left of them, were corralled into “Reservations,” in the United States. Frustration, humiliation and dishonor propelled the proud and upright son of the soil to a slothful existence, and to alcohol. The Amerindians therefore have had no cause to forget the genocide by the Anglo-Saxons in North America, by the conquistadors in Mexico, Central and South America, and also by some of the Argentine caudillos.

Human rights violations at the hands of depots or extremists in multifarious forms demonstrate how essentially inhumane human beings have often been, when charged with power or with racial or religious fervor.

The Australian Prime Minister John Howard had expressed regrets over the past policies of government that had caused so much suffering to the Aboriginal population. In July 2000, a “UN committee rebuked Australia,” a Reuter report says, “for its treatment of Aborigines who make up about 2.3 percent of the 19 million population. It urged Australia to do more to make amends for a past government policy under which about10, 000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families, some forcibly, between 1910 and 1970, to raise them in a civilized environment. Official figures show that death rates among Aboriginals are higher in all age groups than for Australians, with many of the deaths attributed to socio-economic disadvantages. Rates of suicide, crime, alcoholism, smoking and deaths in police custody are also significantly higher for Aborigines.” A recent judicial denial of compensation to those who years ago as children had been forcibly taken from their parents and raised by white foster parents was deeply disappointing. The Hon. John N. Button, former Member of the Australian Parliament, Leader of the Government in the Senate, and Industry Minister 1983-93, in his foreword to “Patrol in dreamtime” by Colin Macleod, says, “Today there is an uneasy soul-searching debate about the issue of Aboriginal reconciliation. The High Court’s Mabo decision of 1992, and the 1996 Wik decision have not, in the short term, made it any easier, but they have enhanced the probability of a just and more equitable solution.”

The rights of the indigenous peoples have even stirred the judiciary in homogeneous Japan. The Time magazine, August 21-28, 2000, reports: “In a landmark 1998 ruling, a judge in Hokkaido recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people for the first time. While Tokyo has yet to follow suit, it no longer claims Japan has no racial minorities. Recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people would raise land-rights issues the government would rather avoid. But after intense lobbying by Kayano and others, Tokyo officially accorded the Ainu minority status in a law passed in 1997.” The Ainu number less than twenty thousands souls. In Brazil, too, the indigenous people are speaking up.

Sad as it is, today violence and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in the sub-continent have become endemic and are almost looked upon as natural phenomena. In Sri Lanka, the negotiations between the Government and the Tamil Tigers, brought about through Norwegian mediation gave some initial hope. In Bangladesh, the conflict between the majority Bengalis and the ethnic minorities like the Chakmas and others collectively called the Jumma, and in India the insurgencies in the northeast have caused many deaths, not to speak of the terrible tragedy in Kashmir. In Pakistan, religious minorities often feel discriminated against, not as a consequence of State policy, but for lack of political will to confront the extremist elements, which though a minority in themselves wield disproportionate power and authority on society at large.

In Europe there were the Inquisitions and religious wars, not to speak of the territorial wars. However, the blood and thunder, the cruelties and the hateful sprees of aggression have not been confined to the white races, nor to Europe and the Americas. In Asia and Africa history has recorded as many instances, if not more, of murder, mayhem and massacre. In Latin America, Asia and Africa subtle to gross forms of discrimination and deadly antagonisms, like that between the Tutsis and the Hutus, have been rampant. In Asia we can name conquerors even more bloodthirsty than the Europeans. Ghengis Khan the Mongol conqueror, and the White Huns or, Epthalites like Toramana and his son Mihiragula, are a few examples. Leaving aside the rapacious conquests of the past as aberrations bred by ignorance, today, in the new millennium too, apart from some sporadic forays into global poverty eradication, and fitful gestures at social justice here and there, the overall picture of the deprived and the disinherited, particularly amongst the minorities all over the world, ranges from pitiable to horrendous. Today, apart from the vast disparities in wealth and privileges between the proverbial haves and have-nots, and the grossest discrimination against women from bride burnings in supposed accidents while cooking in the kitchen, to honor killings, there exists persecution at worst and irresponsibility at best, in the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities.

In Bhutan there is the problem of the ethnic Nepalis. In Nepal, till recently, there was continuous Maoists militancy. In northeast India the ethnic hill people are asking for more autonomy and economic justice. In Burma, apart from the Karen and Shan aspirations, there is the standoff between the democratic forces under Daw Suu Kyi and the military government. The Kashmir dispute, which remains unresolved, has in the past led to conflict and in recent years brought nuclear armed Pakistan and India to the brink of a disastrous war.

In Bangladesh, there was a peace Accord signed between the government and the Shanti Bahini in December 1997, as a result of which the Jumma, mainly Chakma freedom fighters, laid down their arms. Despite a lapse of several years in the troubled Chittagong Hill Tracts the promised Regional Council has been formed but has not started functioning. Many of the thousands of uprooted hill people have neither got back their lands nor proper compensation.  The government sponsored and inducted settlers from the plains’ districts have not been rehabilitated outside the tracts, despite the European Community’s offer to finance the operation. Some of the promised amendments too have not been introduced in parliament. Documented gross human rights violations have not been inquired into, or when inquiries were held, the inquiry reports have not been published. Needless to say, not a single person has been tried for human rights violations, including murder.

Apart from the injustices to the Jummas in the Hill Tracts, there is the festering case of the Biharis. It appears that neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh, not international community, is sufficiently interested in rehabilitating these unfortunate people either in Bangladesh or Pakistan, or, in some other countries. As a consequence thousands live wretched lives, in deplorable conditions in refugee camps in the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka and this has been their fate since 1971.

In “Double standards on HR issues,” Tommy Koh, the statesman of Singapore writes, “Because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formulated against the background of the unspeakable horrors that Europeans, especially Jews, suffered during  World War II, the driving inspiration behind it was to protect the individual against the state. In the past 50 years, the declaration has given birth to a large family of international human rights laws, institutions, procedures and norms. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the declaration, the Asia-Europe Foundation and the German weekly newspaper Dei Zeit recently co-organized a colloquium in Hamburg. It brought together 40 Asian and European statesmen, scholars and activists in the field of human rights.”

It is not only obvious but urgent that minorities be protected. They need more than professions of good intentions by governments, particularly at international moots, where they are all professed champions of human rights and protectors of the minorities in their charge. Religious and ethnic minorities definitely, and on a priority basis require the establishing of an independent, fully autonomous Anti-discrimination Authority (ADA) under the auspices of the UN or as an organ of the UNCHR. The ADA must have adequate authority to monitor, inspect, and take punitive actions wherever discrimination or human rights violations occur. They should also have their subsidiary establishments wherever they consider necessary. The ADA should submit an annual report to the Secretary General who should present it to the General Assembly every September. These measures are not going to eradicate discrimination or human rights violations immediately, but they would help reduce them. The problem and the challenge lies in finding an acceptable balance, an equilibrium, between a state’s right to disallow “interference” in its internal affairs on the one hand, and a minority community citizen’s right to be protected against omissions and commissions by the state or its functionaries, or, groups of citizens. In the 1960s, I had asked, on the floor of the East Pakistan Assembly, that on the lines of the French Droits Administration and the Scandinavian Ombudsman, the Government of Pakistan should introduce the system of Ombudsman in Pakistan, initially at the provincial level. More than 40 years later we have the Ombudsmen in Pakistan. To protect citizens’ rights further, his office should be strengthened and be made more accessible even at the tehsil and union level.

To empower a supranational body, states will have to give up a small part of their jealously guarded “sovereignty,” but nations everywhere have already made some concessions in this regard, or else, the United Nations and its various organs including the Hague Court for war crimes in Bosnia, could not have been set up, nor the European Union, The European Parliament, the Euro etc. The High Commissioner for Human Rights certainly needs greater empowerment and resources.

Can a modern day dictator perpetrate another holocaust within the state boundaries? If the scale of murder and mayhem is not widely publicized, can and do human rights violations take place in different and diverse parts of the “global village”? The answer is an unequivocal YES. We cannot allow the state, or a given society, to have absolute authority to ride rough shod over human rights and commit violations against its own citizens, be it through state machinery or, groups or, individuals. This then is the bottom line.

So then, what are we waiting for? How many more of the interminable resolutions at national and international forums would we require before a potent, capable, internationally supported and universally recognized body is established, and empowered to take punitive as well as preventive measures against infringements of human rights, as defined in the Universal Declarations? Only then we can hope to minimize persecution, and cruel and inhuman violations. Only then can we have a fair and humane interaction between the wielders of authority in a state and its minority citizens. Is that too much to expect in this new millennium? Or do have to wait for the year 3000 to arrive?


[*] Raja Tridiv Roy is a federal minister of the Government of Pakistan.