"Preventing or mitigating the impact of humanitarian crises
through respect for minority rights"
It is a pleasure to address you at this year’s Forum on Minority Issues on the topic of protection of minority rights in humanitarian crises. The protection of minority rights lies at the heart of UNHCR’s mandate and drives our efforts around the world. Members of racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities are often amongst the most marginalised communities, and their vulnerabilities are often exacerbated in situations of conflict and natural disaster.
The heightened vulnerability of minorities in situations of displacement requires more reflection—and action, as today we are witnessing a period of unprecedented global displacement, with more than 65 million people displaced at the end of 2015. Displacement is not only occurring more frequently but lasting longer, too. It is fuelled by a higher number of internal conflicts, particularly as the denial of rights to specific groups remains a key driver of displacement. It is also driven by recurring situations of natural disaster, which can have a disproportionate impact on the ability of minorities to secure assistance.
Let us not forget that the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is in a way one of the first minority protection instruments adopted by the international community. The Convention recognizes the link between minority protection and the refugee definition, as Article 1.2 refers to persons fleeing persecution as a result of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.
Refugees and internally displaced persons who are members of minority groups may also face particular challenges in the search for solutions to displacement, such as voluntary repatriation to places of origin or settlement elsewhere in the country of origin, once crises have subsided. In such situations, minorities may be faced with return to situations where the demographics of the communities have changed, the underlying tensions persist, or where access to services and property rights of certain groups may be limited.
Similarly, when attempting to integrate locally in host communities, some minorities may find that the religious, ethnic, or other tensions that compelled them to flee have followed them across international borders, and re-emerged in their relationships with their host communities. Also, as displacement increasingly figures in public debates, it has been cast by some as a potential opportunity to economically revitalise communities and foster diversity and inclusiveness, and by others as a threat, giving rise to racism, xenophobia, and populism, all of which have the potential to affect minority communities in very serious ways.
The protection of minorities is critical to UNHCR’s work with all persons of concern – asylum-seekers, refugees, the internally displaced, and stateless persons. The specific needs of all individuals, including members of minority groups, are identified and addressed at all stages of a humanitarian response – from planning, to implementation, to evaluation. In the context of our work, ensuring that the rights of minorities are respected means finding concrete ways of promoting the principle of non-discrimination at the heart of minority rights to ensure the protection of all.
On the basis of UNHCR’s long-standing engagement with minority communities, I want to focus the remainder of my remarks on a “group within a group” that does not tend to receive much attention when we speak about minority rights or minorities in crisis: that of stateless minorities.
Statelessness is often described as an invisible problem, as its causes and consequences are indeed frequently much less visible than those associated with refugees. The majority of people who are stateless today have become stateless as a result of discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity, religion or gender, and most of them belong to minority groups. The deprivation of nationality, for instance by excluding entire sectors of a population from nationality, creates social and political tensions that can precipitate conflict, violence, and displacement. Leaving statelessness unresolved can have considerable costs in terms of human rights protection, development, and security.
The strong legal framework developed to prevent and reduce statelessness, includes the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, as well as complementary provisions in human rights treaties, including the provisions on the right to nationality in the ICCPR, CRC, CERD, and CEDAW.
Article 9 of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness explicitly states that a contracting State “may not deprive any person or group of their nationality on ethnic, racial, religious or political grounds” – and yet this continues to happen all over the world. Also, although protection measures manifested in the international human rights treaties are intended to apply to all people equally, and not just citizens, in practice, stateless minorities are more likely to suffer rights deprivations and are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses such as sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
I have three recommendations for how the right to a nationality could be made a reality for stateless minorities:
First, the solid legal framework of the 1954 and 1961 Conventions, and the political commitments underpinning the Sustainable Development Goals, provide States the opportunity to remove anachronistic legal provisions that perpetuate the denial of citizenship. Taken together, Article 9 of the 1961 Convention and Goal 16.9 of the SDGs to provide legal identity for all, including through birth registration, by 2030, provide a strong framework for action.
In 2017-18, UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign will focus on promoting ‘equal nationality rights’. Through our work, we hope to highlight the tangible benefits that the recognition of former stateless minority groups as citizens can bring to their communities and societies, and to use this evidence to effect real change. Already, UNHCR has witnessed greater awareness and political will, as manifested in the international community’s level of engagement with statelessness, with progress made with respect to accessions to the Conventions, and positive efforts underway to remove discriminatory provisions in nationality laws in a number of countries.
Second, building on the body of human rights law and existing mechanisms, more work needs to be done to ensure the integration of statelessness considerations and relevant recommendations within these frameworks. I strongly encourage States and other actors to make enhanced use of available human rights mechanisms to help end statelessness.
We need more consistent recommendations to States as part of the Universal Periodic Review that they remove discrimination from their nationality laws and accede to the Statelessness Conventions, for example. We also need more attention to issues of discrimination in the right to nationality from all relevant Special Rapporteurs, including those with country mandates. We are pleased that a right to nationality resolution was passed at the Human Rights Council last June, and I hope that the co-sponsors of the resolution on minority rights will include stateless minorities in the resolution coming up in March 2017.
The #IBelong campaign serves as a platform for forging alliances and partnerships, and provides an excellent opportunity to involve minority rights groups to work with us to examine legislation, policies, and practices in a more holistic manner, and improve our advocacy, eventually leading to legislative reform and change.
Third, agreeing to the draft recommendations under discussion as outcomes for this Forum would be an important contribution towards ending statelessness, enhancing minority protection as a result. The recommendations highlight the disproportionate impact humanitarian crises have on stateless minorities, and call for the removal of discriminatory laws in paragraph 20(j). The adoption of these recommendations could lead to real reductions in statelessness on the ground.
The integration of measures to eradicate and prevent further statelessness in national legislation and practice can be the key to resolving some of the challenges that arise for minorities from discriminatory State practices. The availability of accurate data and analysis of stateless populations in this regard is paramount, and I believe it is our collective duty to ensure that the evidence base underpinning our advocacy on behalf of stateless minorities is sound.
It is helpful that the September New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, adopted this past September, recognizes that “statelessness can be a root cause of forced displacement and that forced displacement, in turn, can lead to statelessness.”
For minorities in a displacement context, this means ensuring that statelessness is prevented, including through early identification of those who might be at risk of statelessness and provision of documentation. Such measures will be important not only to mitigate harms to which both minorities and stateless populations are more vulnerable, but also to facilitate durable solutions for displaced populations, including the possibility of eventual sustainable return.
There is much work to be done now to translate the New York Declaration into operational improvements and meaningful change in the lives of stateless minorities, and we count on you to help us to do this over the course of the next two years and beyond.
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