May 23, 2018

“Circles” of minority protection

What is the “minority problem” and how has it affected (ethno-national) diversity management in the contemporary international community?

Scene 1: On a street in Sarajevo a bunch of armed Serb nationals beat up an unarmed, helpless shopkeeper – a Muslim. Another Serb soldier stops the group and is being beaten to death.

Scene 2: An old Serb man whose son was killed by the father of a boy now lying wounded in his arms answers “yes” when a car driver asks whether he is his son.

“Circles”, 20131

As expounded by one of the main characters in this movie, the events and fates of life might be compared to the circles that appear on water when you throw a stone in—we do not know how many and what kind of circles will appear. What we can control is throwing the stone in the first place and choosing our behaviour and reactions as the circles appear. In the words of Epictetus, an Ancient Roman philosopher whose philosophy was meant to be an art of living rather than a purely theoretical discourse, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”.2

In the scenes above we can see how people behave differently in the same historical and cultural circumstances. The movie vividly shows how important national identity and historical consciousness are and at the same time how irrelevant they may become if pure humanity or a lack of it prevails. It is, in part, up to the state to direct us towards the spirit of scene 1 or 2: a society of conflicting “us” and “them”, turning into bellum omnium contra omnes, or a society in which humanity dominates, where every person is respected as an equal—as a neighbour and friend, as a human being. This should be the very aim of the process and concept of “diversity management”. Does contemporary diversity management convey this idea? The question can be analysed through three interconnected and overlapping frameworks: the perception of minorities on an international level; the perception of minorities on the state level; and the perceptions and behaviour of individuals. Let us call these “the circles of diversity management”:

It might be said that there was no “minority problem” until political arrangements came to be based on “linguistic, religious or cultural divisions between human beings”.3 The “stone” of ethnic or religious division was thrown by rulers who saw minorities as a threat to their power—either for the principle of cuius regio eius religio, or (since the Peace of Westphalia and Bodin’s state sovereignty concept catalysed by the French Revolution) the unity of the nation.4 This “stone” brought with it an assumption that anyone different to “us” (a dominant group) is a threat and needs to be made “harmful”.

The principle of “divide and rule”, known since the times of Ancient Rome and employed by rulers to control people living in conquered areas by allowing them to sustain their religious and cultural traditions, astonishingly resembles current diversity management—the baseline in dealing with minorities is to resolve a “problem”. This brings new conflicts rather than creating an environment in the spirit of humanity, enabling minorities to express, preserve and develop their identity.5 If governments’ attitude is that minorities constitute a threat to state sovereignty or even national identity, the international legal framework—which is always a political compromise between governments—cannot be significantly different. The subject of minorities was discussed under the heading of security at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.6 Examples of compromise between the language of human rights and security can also be found in the preamble of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), in which almost every article includes a clause confirming respect for state sovereignty. A few examples (emphasis added):

Considering that the realisation of a tolerant and prosperous Europe does not depend solely on co-operation between States but also requires transfrontier co-operation between local and regional authorities without prejudice to the constitution and territorial integrity of each State;

… to ensure, in the member States and such other States as may become Parties to the present instrument, the effective protection of national minorities and of the rights and freedoms of persons belonging to those minorities, within the rule of law, respecting the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of states.7

Thus, on the national and international level the underlying idea, alongside the notion that minority rights are human rights and the principle of non-discrimination, is the same as centuries ago: minorities need to be dealt with to eliminate the threat of conflict arising.

Let us look at one concrete example of national- and international-level diversity management. Under [President Vladimir] Putin’s leadership, a new unifying set of ideas is being sought, the aim of which is, in the words of Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov, the “rebuilding of Russia’s ties with its history”. The New York Times reported that

Cossack militias are being revived, regional officials are scrambling to present “patriotic education” programs and Slavophile discussion clubs have opened in major cities under the slogan “Give us a national idea!”8

Karaganov considers the problem concerning this approach as: “Our country was formed around defense, and all of a sudden there is no threat”.9 Based on the resolution on the implementation of the FCNM in Russia, it might be said that national minorities are one of the new enemies. The five recommendations for “immediate action” are all in following spirit:

… take more targeted measures to prevent, investigate, prosecute and sanction effectively all instances of racially motivated offences; condemn firmly all expressions of intolerance, racism and xenophobia, particularly in politics and in the media; redouble efforts to combat the dissemination of racist ideologies in the population, particularly among young people.10

The recommendations carry the spirit of humanity, but remain mere recommendations. Let us recall that diversity management is a “legitimate concern of [the] international community”, first and foremost as far as it affects security. Of course, the idea of universal, inherent and indispensable human rights also serves as a basis here, but, taking into account the debates on Western imperialism under the flag of human rights and the text of the FCMN itself, expressing the subsidiary nature of international regulation, it is much more difficult to use in practice.

Thus we come to the last, but definitely not least, circle of diversity management – people. Although not possessing any official instruments of power like governments or international organisations, people hold the greatest power for making a systematic change in all “circles”. Only people can hold the spirit of humanity in everyday life. Only people can love or hate each other, and perceive someone as a negative “other” or a different friend. People elect their representatives and make some policies legitimate and others not. Influenced by state policies, they are also the very power influencing these policies.

People’s behaviour and attitudes derive from identities, historical conscience and the perception of “other”. These beliefs are to large extent created in school and it is therefore up to the state to influence them. Not only does history influence our life and culture today, but the reverse is also true: history “happened” in the past but it is being written now. It is written by people and also by states, through history education and the politics of memory. The teaching of history is an integral part of creating a new national idea.11 By creating the general “culture” of human rights, education has a plausible ability to change all levels of diversity management to perceive minorities as an asset, not a problem. It should be the role of international regulation and people themselves to diminish the state’s arbitrary power to manipulate history and identities in a way that prevents past suffering being overcome, instead breaking down artificial lines of conflict in society, and finding peace, reconciliation and closeness.

Agreeing with Nelson Mandela’s idea that “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”, I believe that education—especially history education—is the key to changing the perception of minorities from security threat to valuable diversity, sustaining the spirit of Scene 2 as a quintessential part of life.


1 Srdan Golubovic, “Circles”, produced by Film House Bas Celik/Neue Mediopolis/La Cinéfacture/Vertigo/Emotionfilm/Propeler Film, Serbia, 2013. See…,…

2 “Epictetus was a Greek-born slave of Rome in the first century. He became a great philosopher and teacher, and was eventually granted his freedom.” Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Self-Help Resources. GET Self Help. Accessed 14 December 2013.

3 Roter, P. “Locating the ‘Minority Problem’ in Europe: A Historical Perspective”, Journal of International Relations and Development 4 (September 2001), pp. 221–49 [223].

4 Ibid., pp. 224–6.

5 See note 3.

6 Roter, P. “Minority Protection as a Joint European Regional Project”, in Šabic, Z., Fijałkowski, Ł. & Fenko, A.B. (eds) Global Impact of Regional International Organizations: Issues of Regionalism and Regional Integration. Toruǹ: Wydawnictwo Adam Marszalek, 2009, pp. 76–95.

7 See…

8 Barry, E. “Putin, in Need of Cohesion, Pushes Patriotism”, The New York Times, 20 November 2012.…

9 Ibid.

10 “Resolution CM/ResCMN(2013)1 on the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities by the Russian Federation (Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 30 April 2013)”.…

11 See, e.g., Liñán, M.V. “History as a propaganda tool in Putin’s Russia”, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 43(2) (June 2010), pp. 167–78.

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