26 April 1990 - 28 April 1991

Problems of Heterogeneous Societies: Patterns of Autonomy

Chair: Dr Claire Palley

In setting up this conference I had a clear idea in my own mind of the intended focus, but it quickly became apparent that problems of definition would be difficult. In particular the word ‘minority’, which figured in the original title, means different things to different people and is roundly rejected by some who, to most, seem to qualify.

Discussion therefore over the weekend tended to shift between the establishment of individual rights with particular reference to non-discrimination, and the some-what different concept of rights which might be claimed and accorded to communities or groups, in a spectrum ranging from limited self-government to complete independence. This served to clarify, for me, a useful distinction between the claims of individuals who, though dispersed throughout the wider community, through historical accident or as a result of settlement, nonetheless belonged or saw themselves as belonging to an identifiable group, and others, equally members of an identifiable group, usually historic or indigenous, but who were territorially concentrated. The former might rightly demand individual rights on a par with the generality of citizenry, while aspiring to specific privileges, as a group or community; while the latter could demand group rights and aspire to individual privileges.

Taking both categories, it was generally agreed that you were a member of a group if you thought you were, whether on grounds of common culture, common language or common religion, though some added a further test, recognition of your claim by others. For the dispersed members of a group, often, if not usually, immigrants, the rights to be accorded should include the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of association (which could include the right to establish schools teaching in the language of the group, though whether that should be at public or private expense was, I thought, left open), the right not to be discriminated against, and so on. The case of the so-called Hispanics in the United States was cited, who sought no territorial base or control. Individual privileges might include active discrimination and special representation, e.g. by reserved seats in the central parliament, though such seats ran counter to the concept of one man, one vote. To demand more, as of right, was generally thought to be unreasonable and voices were raised for the protection of the rights of majorities, who must not be forgotten.

In this context, the point was made that separate education for a minority, while it might seem justified in terms of fundamental rights, could work to create or intensify tensions between majority and minority communities. (It is ironic that in these situations “separate but equal” may be seen as a legitimate demand: how long before it comes to be seen as discriminatory?)

Where a group or community was concentrated in such a way as to constitute a majority within an identifiable territory, the “right” of self-determination, the right to control the group’s own destiny in fields of importance to it (culture, language, religion), could be held to operate. There was no virtue in unity per se, and, in human terms, if not in logic, there was advantage in preserving variety in cultural traditions, provided that conflict could be avoided. The sophisticated arrangements working in Belgium were cited and the long-established tradition of local autonomy in Switzerland. The case of Lebanon, where such arrangements might provide a model, if only cooler heads could prevail, was mentioned but not discussed. It was stressed that even though self-determination had come to be equated with independence, it was necessary to contemplate patterns of self-government or autonomy which fell short of separation or secession. For example, though this was not quoted in the discussion, Scotland enjoys weighted representation in the Union Parliament and also a measure of self-government in matters of law, education, etc.; and the Basques in Spain constitute an autonomous region with wide powers of self-government, including taxation. Any grant of autonomy in this sense carried with it the danger that new minorities would be created within the autonomous region - the Russian doll phenomenon - with the risk of oppression of that minority by the newly-created majority. To guard against that federal law must require that nothing be done in the autonomous regions to violate the human rights safe-guarded centrally.

The link between indigenous nations, with inherited and prized cultures, and the land was recognised. For other communities the link to territory might not be so strong, but except in certain areas, such as personal law or the right to elect to reserved seats, autonomy probably required to be connected to territory.

Whether self-determination was a fundamental human right or a privilege to be claimed or granted according to political considerations was discussed at some length. Sadly, the readiness of the minority group to make trouble, and in the last resort to shed blood, its own or that of others, was probably the decisive factor in many situations in bringing majorities to concede the claim, however much it might be thought that “civil discourse’ ’ alone ought to suffice to resolve the issue - there was no dearth of examples. A decisive factor here was the extent to which the majority felt threatened by the claims of the minority or perceived any concession as the thin end of a wedge. It was suggested that experience showed that proportions were important: at 95% the majority perceived no threat and no need for repression; at 51% the threat was clear, but the balance was such as to induce prudence. The critical proportion lay in the 75%-80% area, where the majority saw the threat and felt strong enough to repress it. This might well be the situation in the particular case of the Kurds. Even if a clear popular demand for an independent state existed, practical political realities made the satisfaction of such a demand very unlikely. However, the Kurds were entitled to human rights, including representation in government and non-discrimination.

The case was examined of a minority which is large in relation to the nation state in which it finds itself, but would become relatively small, and one of several similar minorities, if that nation-state itself were to form part of a wider regional grouping. The Basques, for example, or the Bretons fell below the critical level within the European Community. And where such groups spanned existing national borders (cf. the Basques and the Catalans), the possibilities of friction were mitigated as those borders became more open, for people and trade. The idea of an erosion of the power of the nation-state, upwards to confederal bodies and downwards to autonomous local authorities, was canvassed. However, to the question whether the age of the nation state was over, the answer was no.

The demand for independence is the extreme expression of the claim to self-determination. The general feeling, it seemed, was that in the last resort, it was necessary and prudent to concede it, the precedents of the American and Nigerian civil wars notwithstanding. People had the right to misgovern themselves if they wished. The point was made however that independence was often merely a stage on a path to inter-dependence, the right to take part in a wider group.

This led one participant, echoed by others, to suggest that the solution of minority problems lay more in the heart than in the head. Furthermore, it was unanimously agreed that situations varied so much that there could be no single recipe for success; that management of problems was probably as much as could be expected; that for that reason procedures or mechanisms were more important than general principles; and that even seemingly successful solutions could not be regarded as permanent

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression. 

Conference Chair: Dr Claire Palley
Principal, St Anne’s College, Oxford; Member, UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Council, Minority Rights Group


Mr Etienne Gutt

President emeritus, Belgian constitutional Cour d’arbitrage

Professor A Alcock

Head of Department of European Studies and Modern Languages, University of Ulster at Coleraine
Professor A N Allott JP
Professor of African and Comparative Law, University of Buckingham
The Rt Hon Peter Archer QC MP
Member of Parliament (Labour) Warley West; a Recorder of the Crown Court; Vice President, Council for Education in World Citizenship
Professor Michael Banton JP
Professor of Sociology, University of Bristol; Director; Member, UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Mr George Brock
Foreign Editor, The Times
The Hon David Gore-Booth CMG
Assistant Under Secretary of State (Middle East), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
Mr Keith Kyle
Special Assistant to the Director, Royal Institute of International Affairs (1986-90)
Mr Edward Mortimer
Assistant Foreign Editor, Financial Times; a member, Programme Committee, the Ditchley Foundation
Mr Alan Phillips
Director, The Minority Rights Group
The Rt Hon Timothy Raison MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) Aylesbury
Mr Henry Steel CMG OBE
Leader, UK Delegation to UN Human Rights Commission, Geneva; Consultant on international and Commonwealth law
Mr Ben Whitaker
Director, The Gulbenkian Foundation (UK)

Ms Lise Bissonnette

Independent journalist, currently with Montreal-based CRB Foundation
The Hon Aldéa Landry QC
Member, Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick (Liberal) Shippegan-les-Iles; President of the Executive Council and Minister Responsible for Intergovernmental Affairs, Government of New Brunswick; Member of Board of Management and Executive Committee of Cabinet; in private practice with the law firm of Tremblay, Landry and Landry
Professor Stephen A Scott
Professor of Law, McGill University, Montreal (Faculty of Law); Barrister; Counsellor on public and commercial law matters

Professor Emmanuel Decaux

Professor of Law, Universite du Maine, Le Mans; Lecturer at Institut d’Etudes Politiques; Consultant to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris; Member, Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for human rights; Member of French delegation to Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe)
Dr Yann Fouéré
L'avenir de la Bretagne (Breton national and European federal newspaper); author

Professor Per Fischer

Lecturer in Political Sciences, University of Mainz
Dr Roland Schönfeld
Executive Director, Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft, Munich; (member, Board of Directors); President, German Association for Central and East European Partnership Studies, Bonn; Member, Board of Directors, Advisory Board for East West Relations, Auswärtiges Amt, Bonn; Advisory Boards, Centre for Hungarian Studies, University of Hamburg
Baron Hans von Stein
Head, Directorate for Consular Affairs, Auswärtiges Amt, Bonn

Mr Laszlo Labody

National and Ethnic Minorities College, Budapest

Sr. Joseba A de Aguirre

Chamber of Commerce, Bilbao

Miss Radhika Coomeraswamy

Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo

Dr Dharam Ghai

Director, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Geneva
Professor Luzius Wildhaber
Professor of Law, Universität Basel

Professor Richard A Falk

Albert G Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice, Professor of Politics and International Affairs and Faculty Associate, Center of International Studies, Princeton University; author
Mr Pete Garcia
President and Chief Executive Officer, Chicanos por la Causa Inc (CPLC); Member, Phoenix Economic Growth Corporation, Phoenix Community Alliance, Arizona Educational Foundation, United Way Executive Directors Association, ASU Minority Advisory Council
Dr Nathan Glazer
Professor of Education and Sociology, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University
Professor Hurst Hannum
Associate Professor of International Law, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, MA; author
Chief Oren Lyons
Faithkeeper, Turtle Clan, Onandaga Nation, 6 nation Iroquois Confederacy; Director, Native American Studies, Buffalo, New York.
The Hon Michael Novak
George Frederick Jewett Professor of Religion and Public Policy and Director of Social and Political Studies, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC; author
Mr Paul Piccone
Editor, Telos Press Ltd, New York; author
Dr Michael Rywkin
Professor, director, Russian Area Studies Program at City College, New York; President, Association for the Study of Nationalities (USSR & E. Europe); author
Professor Henry J Steiner
Professor of Law and Director, Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School; author
Mr James P Turner
Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, US Department of Justice. In consultation with Attorney General and Solicitor General, sets and executes national civil rights litigation policy. Member, American Bar Association

Professor Danilo T
Professor of Law, Univerza Eduarda Kardelja, Ljubljana; Member, UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities