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United Nations Forum on Minority Issues discusses the issue of Minorities in the Criminal Justice System

On 24 and 25 November 2015 the annual UN Forum on Minorities Issues took place in Geneva. At this meeting minorities from all over the world come together in Geneva to discuss a specific theme that is of relevance to minorities and also to address their problems and grievances to the international community. It is the only place on the global level where representatives of minorities are able to speak and get into direct dialogue with the representatives of Member States of the United Nations. FUEN legal and policy advisor Frank de Boer attended the Forum.

The Minority Forum was prepared by the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Ms Rita Iszák, and chaired by Joshua Castellino, a law professor and minority expert from England. Approximately 500 representatives of UN Member States and minorities attended and addressed the Forum, including representatives from FUEN member organisations ABTTF and Ec.Fe.Con.

International law protects persons in contact with the criminal justice system who belong to national or ethnic minorities. It prohibits discrimination in the administration of justice and creates obligations for states to ensure that justice systems are sensitive to, and facilitate the effective participation of minorities. In this regard the role of the police cannot be underestimated: in many cases disproportionate numbers of persons belonging to a minority are coming into contact with the police, which underscores the importance of strict non-discrimination. This risk increases where the police force does not reflect the diversity within the population.

The debate at the Forum could be divided into two elements: first of all minorities and state parties made comments to the draft recommendations on “Minorities in the Criminal Justice System” from their experience. These interventions were often quite detailed in regard to what has to be done to improve the situation.

On the other hand, minorities told about their personal experiences and showed that in many countries the situation on the ground is light-years distanced from what is written down in the law, in treaties and international recommendations. Most of these statements were about the problem of exclusion and the lack of accountability of perpetrators, the impunity of officials in cases of discrimination and harassment of minorities. But much more serious minority problems were addressed too: about the genocide, mass killings and systematic rape on the Yazidi population of Iraq and Syria by ISIS, the forced expulsions and killings of the indigenous population in the Ogaden region, slavery in Mauritania, the situation of dehumanised and excluded Dalits in South Asia. In most cases, the justice system appears to be largely ineffective.

In the breaks of the Forum, side-events were organised. One of these was organised by the Ecumenical Federation of Constantinopolitans (Ec.Fe.Con) and dealt with the redress of past violations against minorities in Turkey and necessary reforms in the criminal justice system. In another side-event, organised jointly by the mission of Austria at the UN and Minority Rights Group, the floor was given to minorities from Pakistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka to give a detailed account of their problems with combatting impunity and the need for effective justice in their countries. At the side event at the second day, experts and UN officials elaborated on the development of minority rights and the chances for improvement of the framework of protection inside the United Nations system.  

The system of minority rights protection at the global level is much weaker than the minority framework in Europe. There is a Minority Declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1992, which resembles European documents such as the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, but unlike the Framework Convention it effectively is only a Declaration and does not come with a system of monitoring or binding rights. Also the UN Forum on Minority Issues cannot do much more than issuing recommendations and forward these to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, and hope that they will be applied by the states.

Nevertheless, the Forum is important because it brings together the representatives of minorities from all continents and because the states’ representatives are genuinely listening to them during the Forum. Almost half of the Member States of the United Nations were present during the meeting and many of them responded directly to the statements of minorities, or presented the situation in their countries. 

More information:
UN Minority Declaration (1992)
UN Forum on Minority Issues