The rights of national minorities
23 January 1996
Rapporteur: Mr CUCÓ, Spain, Socialist Group
1. The Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography is keenly interested in the question of the protection of national minorities in particular because so many conflicts involving them have generated refugees and displaced persons.
2. To take the most obvious recent example, it is possible to argue that had the rights of national minorities in the newly independent states of the former Yugoslavia been fully safeguarded under viable constitutional arrangements, the war that raged in the Balkans until three months ago might have been avoided. Instead we had millions of refugees whose fate is even now uncertain. I would stress that in the process of implementing the Dayton peace accord, it is more than ever vital to ensure that the rights of those minorities are adequately protected, otherwise the refugees and displaced persons will not feel that it is safe to return.
3. Mr Bindig for the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has produced an excellent report, which brings us as far as possible up to date with the situation as regards the Council of Europe. He could not of course refer to the decision taken by the Committee of Ministers' Deputies at their 554th meeting to suspend the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on Minorities to produce a draft Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing certain individual rights in the cultural field, in particular for persons belonging to national minorities. The Committee of Ministers' decision is extremely regrettable, and it is important that work on this question should be continued as a matter of urgency. As Mr Bindig rightly points out, failure to adopt such a Protocol would not only prejudice the future of minorities, it would also undermine the credibility of the Council of Europe.
4. Turning to the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography wholeheartedly supports the view that the two most urgent priorities are ratification by member states and the setting up of a strong implementation mechanism as outlined in paragraph 14.iv of the draft recommendation submitted by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. Again, it is a matter of the Convention's effectiveness and the Council of Europe's credibility. The need for an effective implementation mechanism is all the more important where contracting states, which can include states that are not members of the Council of Europe, may be tempted to ratify the Convention in order to mask a poor record on minority rights.
5. As for the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, it must be said that the probable reason why ratifications have been so slow is that its provisions are in fact quite effective. Contracting states have to select a number of paragraphs in the Charter by which they undertake to be bound. Care will therefore have to be taken, in considering whether a minimum common "hard core" of such paragraphs should be accepted by all contracting states, not to slow the process of ratification further.
6. Only one paragraph in the report is devoted to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, whose importance was rightly stressed by several members of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights in the context of the protection of minorities, since it enshrines the right and ability of local authorities "within the limits of the law, to regulate and manage a substantial share of public affairs under their own responsibility and in the interests of the local population". It was unfortunate that when the Charter was drafted it did not include a provision allowing the Committee of Ministers to invite non-member states to accede. I would suggest that an amending protocol should be drawn up in this sense. Accordingly, it would be desirable if the following amendment were made to the draft recommendation presented by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights:
- in paragraph 14, add a sub-paragraph to read as follows: "draw up an amending protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government empowering the Committee of Ministers to invite non-member states to accede to the Charter".
7. In conclusion, at a time when the Council of Europe may be on the threshold of bringing many new minorities within its ambit, it is more than ever vital that every opportunity be taken to strengthen their protection. The Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography looks forward to a more general debate in the Assembly on the situation and problems of national minorities in Europe.
Reporting Committee: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights (Doc. 7442)
Committee for opinion: Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography
Origin: Order No. 501 (1995) of 31 January 1995
Draft opinion: unanimously approved by the committee on 23 January 1996
Secretaries to the committee: MM. Newman and Sich