Many members of targeted groups and human rights activists believe the path to full participation in society and an end to the travails of discrimination, inequality and violence come when states grant minorities official recognition. The United Nations said as much in its landmark 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which calls on governments to ensure the protection “of certain racial groups."
But minority recognition is always double-edged. Over the past 150 years, minority representatives have demanded that democratic states provide these protections at the same time that minority recognition has become weaponized by those seeking an exclusive, homogeneous society.
For minority recognition to actually achieve equality and combat discrimination, it must be linked, in rhetoric and action, to our common humanity. That is the fundamental meaning of human rights — that all people, no matter their class, race, nationality or gender, deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and are accorded equal rights. Without this firm link to human rights, minority recognition leads to a cul-de-sac and the acceptance that “minority” signifies a “problem.”
The idea of a minority was introduced in 1878 when German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened the Berlin Congress to stamp out the instability of rebellions, wars, ethnic violence and territorial disputes in southeastern Europe. All the major European powers were present, and even the United States showed up as an observer.
Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and Jewish representatives from Western Europe seeking protection for Eastern European Jews came, too, to express their grievances. As the 19th century progressed, Armenians had suffered land seizures and violence from Ottoman authorities and Kurdish bands. They wanted Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and Russia to support autonomy for the six provinces in eastern Anatolia where most Armenians lived. And Jews wanted an end to the severe discrimination they suffered in the majority-Christian Balkan lands.
The Great Powers pursued two strategies they thought would achieve stability in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean. They made Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia into sovereign nation-states and returned to the Ottoman Empire some territory it had lost to Russia. The European powers responded to Armenian and Jewish demands. Each of the new countries and the Ottoman Empire had to agree to establish freedom of religion and equal citizenship rights for all people living in their territories. The Ottomans also had to allow the Great Powers to supervise the treatment of Armenians, a compromise that undermined Ottoman sovereignty.
Jews were ecstatic, but Armenians left Berlin with mixed emotions, having failed to achieve autonomy, their major goal.
Still, their appeal for redress and recognition had been affirmed by the Great Powers. Now, Armenians believed, the persecution and discrimination they had suffered under the Ottomans would be alleviated. Similarly, Jews believed the provisions for equal citizenship and religious liberty would become reality. Jewish leaders profusely praised and thanked Bismarck and trumpeted that theirs was a victory for all humanity and the principle of justice.
Despite their high hopes, the conditions for Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and Jews in Eastern Europe worsened over the next few decades. In fact, their recognition as minorities made the governments of the new Balkan states and the Ottoman Empire view them as ever-present irritants, the minorities that threatened the coherence, the very life, of the four new nation-states and the Ottoman Empire. The Great Powers proved to be fickle supporters of people who belonged to minority groups. Certainly none was going to go to war to protect Armenians or Jews. As a result, tens of thousands of Armenians and some 2.5 million Jews fled the lands of their birth for greater security in Western Europe, the Americas and Australia.
The Great Power lifeline for which Armenians and Jews desperately lunged carried a tag — “minority” — that would lead, ultimately, to the greatest tragedies in the histories of both groups, the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust.
These tragic events helped shape the postwar human rights system of the United Nations. By the 1960s, the United Nations began to actively promote the recognition of minorities and to call for the redress of their grievances. But the results have been mixed, to say the least. Even in avowedly multiethnic countries that supposedly celebrate diversity or are built as federal systems such as Indonesia, the United States and Switzerland, an undercurrent exists that claims the national culture and state for one particular group. Witness white supremacists in the United States today, whose illusory ideology completely ignores the presence of Hispanic, Native American and black people on American soil long before the arrival of many Europeans.
Minority recognition has also made the very groups these laws are designed to protect more vulnerable to violence, stereotyping and demagoguery. Members of dominant groups rail against minorities in manifestos and actively kill and drive out those whom they blame for all the problems in society. This was the apparent motivation of the shooter in the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh which was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. That same motivation drove the assailant in El Paso, who targeted Hispanics, and the shooter who murdered nine African Americans at a church service in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. In India, an ascendant movement of Hindu nationalists targets and assaults minority Muslims. All around the globe, practitioners of violence share a common goal: the creation of an exclusive, homogeneous society by eliminating minorities.
The problem rests in the fact that the recognition of minority groups to protect their rights also simultaneously reinforces the harmful idea that “minority” signifies a “problem.”
Diversity of all sorts is the intractable reality of human existence. How we live with difference is the critical issue. The indelible designation of minority or majority remains the most powerful expression of that diversity in the age of nation-states. Since the 1940s, human rights have been proclaimed for everyone regardless of status as a member of the minority or majority population. Those human rights, robustly recognized and defended, remain our best hope for the future, especially for minorities.