National Minorities in Post-Communist Europe: The Role of International Norms and European Integration | Wilson Center

National Minorities in Post-Communist Europe: The Role of International Norms and European Integration

National Minorities in Post-Communist Europe: The Role of International Norms and European Integration
November 17, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES informal discussion with Will Kymlicka, Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen's University and Visiting Professor in the Nationalism Studies Program, Central European University, Budapest.

A peculiarity of European politics is the internationalization of national minority rights policies. The fact that Europe is composed of Wilsonian nation-states whose political borders do not always coincide with ethnic borders has necessitated a dialogue on minority rights in an attempt to end the long history of ethnic conflict there. More recently when the iron curtain came down, ethno-national tensions escalated. To help ease these tensions, there was a diffusion of discourse on minority rights among academics, NGOs and policy makers. Thus, Europe has become, as Will Kymlicka asserted, the ground zero of the international codification of minority rights.

The need to codify minority rights standards came as international organizations such as NATO and the EU made respect for minority rights a fundamental European value, and thus, a precondition for accession. For the first time, minority rights became as important as democratic elections and functioning free markets in the process of European state building, even though there was no pre-existing European standard for East European countries to follow. Since neither the EU nor NATO had any capacity to determine these standards the task of codifying minority rights was delegated to the OSCE and the Council of Europe.

It was not an easy task to coordinate a unified policy in Europe. After all, each European country has a distinct legal culture, which made it difficult to find common patterns or agree on a language for granting rights. Instead of attempting to unify national laws, international lawyers chose to build on what already existed in international law. Two articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights seemed applicable: Art. 21, which protects the self-determination of peoples and Art. 27, which protects the right of minorities to enjoy their culture. Needless to say, there was a huge gap between Art. 21, which implies the right to secession, and Art. 27, which is a weak, negative provision stating that minorities should not be deprived of rights.

The resulting Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities largely builds upon Art. 27 by adding positive content, such as requiring states to post bilingual street signs in areas dominated by national minorities and offer mother-tongue education. But, Kymlicka notes, the Convention does not go far enough to create an adequate basis for resolving ethnic conflicts in Europe. After all, the conflict in Kosovo is not about bilingual street signs but about self-determination. And since the attempt to codify minority rights in an effort to avert violence has failed thus far, should this project be abandoned?

Kymlika argues that the fundamental problem of codification has been that countries see the provisions in the Convention as the ‘ceiling' for minorities rights. States therefore block attempts by minority groups that ask for special considerations to meet their needs by pointing to the fact that all of the Convention's requirements have been fulfilled. When minority groups cannot get what they want using peaceful negotiation, they need to become belligerent in order to be heard by the international community.

According to Kymlika, international organizations should strive to promote the Convention as the lowest allowable standard, upon which each country should build upon according to the specific needs of their minority groups. Moreover, he applauds the fact that debate has moved beyond the extreme language of Art. 21 and 27, trading goals of self-determination versus respect of culture for a more democratic goal for minorities: effective participation. Kymlika believes that this goal better reflects what minorities really want – to have an influence on policy decisions that affect their lives.