Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives

A series of blog posts in partnership with H-Nationalism

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On the 100th anniversary of the Versailles Treaty, this series of blog posts will explore historical and contemporary issues relating to one of the main conundrums that democracies have had to confront since the establishment of self-determination and majority rule as the main principles of political legitimacy: the presence of minorities.

Starting in spring 2019, the series will explore a theme a month through the publication of posts by scholars from different disciplinary perspectives, followed by comments from the readers. It will appear simultaneously on this website and H-Nationalism.

Feel free to contact us if you would like to join the conversation.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Seventy: Juridical and Historical Perspectives

On December 5, 2018, the Myth of Homogeneity (MoH) Team at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, along with the Geneva Academy of Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, organised a seminar on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The event brought together historians and international lawyers discussing the background, main characteristics and legacy of the UDHR. The one-day seminar was closed by a public lecture by Philippe Sands on the ‘Individual and the group: the UDHR and the Genocide Convention at 70’.

The symposium was also the occasion to present some preliminary results from the MoH’s project. Emmanuel Dalle Mulle and Mona Bieling opened the day with a paper on ‘The Ambivalent Legacy of Minority Protection for Human Rights’, where they argued that the current literature on the history of human rights tends to paint too stark a contrast between the minority protection system of the League of Nations and the human rights regime put in place under the aegis of the United Nations after the Second World War. In this perspective, and mostly on account of its collective character, interwar minority protection is often portrayed as being incompatible with human rights—these latter being conceived of as having an exclusively individual nature. The paper develops three critiques of the current literature.

First, while it is correct to highlight the discontinuity between the League and the UN rights systems, this interpretation loses sight of the fact that the minorities treaties contained a hybrid bundle of rights mixing individual and collective provisions and extended some rights to the entire population of the countries concerned, while at the same time reserving others for members of minority groups. Hence, the minorities treaties were a pragmatic and sui generis scheme rather than a theoretically coherent whole, but one that, as other authors have noticed, allowed interwar supporters of human rights to see the universalist provisions contained in them as a model for the adoption of human rights instruments.

Second, authors focusing on the 1940s ‘triumph of individual human rights’ tend to overlook the fact that the first human rights instrument ever adopted by the General Assembly (a day before the UDHR) was the Genocide Convention, a legally binding treaty defending group rights that, although it did not openly mention minorities, was drafted with those in mind.

Third, the ‘triumph of individual human rights’ perspective fails to notice the continuing currency of some of the most distinctive elements of the minority protection regime during the negotiations of the Genocide Convention and the UDHR. As a matter of fact, the countries of the Soviet bloc, joined by a few others, strove to obtain the inclusion of an article on cultural genocide in the homonymous Convention, as well as of provisions on protection against assimilation within the Declaration. Although they did not manage to pass their amendments, and their commitment might have been more the product of incipient Cold War politics than a sincere dedication to the minority cause, their struggle is an unmistakable reminder that, despite the failure of the League’s system, some clauses of interwar minority protection still enjoyed support among a substantial share of state representatives in the late 1940s.

For a more extensive description of the event and the full programme click here.

The Myth of Homogeneity

Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919-1939

‘The response of West European political and administrative elites to the issue of national and linguistic heterogeneity has for long been simply to ignore it’ – John Coakley

“The Myth of Homogeneity: Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919–1939” is a Swiss National Science-funded research project hosted at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. The aim of this research is to acquire a clear and in-depth picture of the history of the relationships between national minorities and majorities in Western Europe during the interwar years through the analysis of patterns of minority protection and/or assimilation. The project entails a multi-layered and multi-archival inquiry focusing on three case-study countries: Belgium, Italy and Spain.

The project revolves around three levels of analysis: government legislation concerning minority protection and/or assimilation and its enforcement; sub-state national minority mobilisation, or lack thereof; transnational and international interactions between state and non-state actors dealing with the issue of national minorities. It is multi-archival because it relies on a wide range of government, international organisations, and diplomatic archives as well as regional, international and transnational repositories. Moreover, despite including an analysis of the minority regime built around the League of Nations in the interwar years, the research will not be limited to that international organisation. This would be a gross mistake as Western minorities did not fall under the jurisdiction of the League’s Minorities Section and, in any case, the League ultimately enjoyed very limited latitude without the support of the Great Powers. For these reasons, other actors and repositories will be taken into account at different levels: government and civil society, centre and periphery, domestic and international.

The objective is to contribute to the existing literature revising the widely held assumption of national homogeneity in Western Europe during the period under study, an assumption furthered by the then prevalent tendency of Western governments to ignore their own minority issues while, at the same time, imposing legislative constraints concerning the protection of national minorities on the new states emerging from the dissolution of the Central and Eastern European empires. The goal is not at all to suggest that minority issues in Western Europe were the same as those in the Eastern part of the continent. It is rather to inquire into the specificities of minority-majority relations in Western European countries in order to provide material for a better-informed and scientifically grounded comparison with the situation in Eastern Europe. The relevance of the project goes beyond the academic need to fill a lacuna in the existing literature. At a time when Western Europe is confronted with strong separatist demands and centrifugal forces, it is necessary to question national homogeneity and to acquire a better understanding of the historical evolution of majority-minority relations.