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Minority rights

The Constitution of Bangladesh can be identified as a pro-nationalism piece of supreme law which has declared ‘Islam’ as the state religion and ‘Bangla’ as the state language. The issue of state religion was inserted through the 8th Constitutional Amendment, while Bangla has been state language since the adoption of the Constitution in 1972. The protection of minorities were overlooked in the 1972 Constitution, and only very recently in 2011 a special provision to protect and develop the “unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities” has been placed in the Constitution through the 15th Constitutional Amendment (Article 23A). The provision for the conservation and improvement of the “national language, literature and the arts” is in existence since 1972. The Constitution has not clearly defined ‘minorities’ though Bangladesh as a member of international community is duty bound to protect them from all forms of discrimination and violence.

Who are minorities under international law?

As yet, there is no global consensus on the definition of minorities. According to the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (1950), “only non-dominant groups in a population which possess and wish to preserve stable ethnic, religious or linguistic traditions or characteristics markedly different from those of the rest of the population”, are identified as minorities. As this definition requires, such minorities must be a number of population sufficient by themselves to preserve their culture or traditions, and they must be loyal to the State of which they are nationals.

Adopted in 1992, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (commonly known as the UN Minorities Declaration) defines ‘minorities’ based on national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity, and mandates the States to protect their existence.

Protection of minority rights under international law

According to the UN Minorities Declaration of 1992, persons belonging to minorities are entitled to:

* Protection, by States, of their existence and their national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity (Article 1);

* The right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, and to use their own language in both private and public spheres (Article 2 (1));

* The right to participate effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life (Article 2 (2));

* The right to participate effectively in decisions which affect them on the national and regional levels (Article 2 (3));

* The right to establish and maintain their own associations (Article 2 (4));

* The right to establish and maintain peaceful contacts with other members of their group and with persons belonging to other minorities, both within their own country and across State borders (Article 2 (5)); and

* The freedom to exercise their rights, individually as well as in community with other members of their group, without discrimination (Article 3).

The obligations of States to protect and promote the minority rights include:

* Ensuring that they may exercise fully and effectively all their human rights and fundamental freedoms without any discrimination and in full equality before the law (Article 4 (1));

* Creating favourable conditions to enable them to express their characteristics and to develop their culture, language, religion, traditions and customs (Article 4 (2));

* Allowing them adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue (Article 4 (3));

* Encouraging knowledge of the history, traditions, language and culture of minorities existing within their territory and ensuring that members of such minorities have adequate opportunities to gain knowledge of the society as a whole (Article 4 (4));

* Allowing their participation in economic progress and development (Article 4(5));

* Considering the legitimate interests of minorities in developing and implementing national policies and programmes, and international programmes of cooperation and assistance (Article 5);

* Cooperating with other States on questions relating to minorities, including exchanging information and experiences, to promote mutual understanding and confidence (Article 6);

* Promoting respect for the rights set forth in the Declaration (Article 7);

* Fulfilling the obligations and commitments States have assumed under international treaties and agreements to which they are parties.

Finally, the specialized agencies and other organizations of the UN system shall also contribute to the realization of the rights set forth in the Declaration (Article 9).

Besides this Declaration, the rights of the minorities are protected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 (Article 27), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 2 (2)), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Article 1), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 30).

Established in the year marking the 20th anniversary of the UN Minorities Declaration, the UN Secretary-General endorsed a Network on racial discrimination and the protection of minorities in Policy Committee decision No.2012/4 of 6 March 2012. The UN Network was set up to develop a communication strategy to make people aware as regards the implementation of the Declaration, with particular focus to minority women and other potential victims of multiple discrimination.

This write-up is prepared based on materials obtained from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR.ORG).

Courtesy: The Daily Star

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