Should members of cultural minority groups have special rights in addition to their liberty rights?
Whatever position one adopts to the question of multiculturalism, there is now little doubt that it is an issue of considerable concern. Most theorists on the subject point to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism as being a key turning point. Above all, the numerous ethnic and national groupings that simmered under the communist regimes have, since the early 1990s come to actively propagate a political and social outlook that assumes clear ethnic, national or religious connotations (Preece, 2005). Moreover, in the established democracies of the west, increased immigration and migration has meant that diversity on a variety of levels has come to personify societal makeup. Such progressions have raised a number of serious questions for those concerned with cultural diversity. Above all, should minority groups in society be afforded specific rights beyond those which apply to the national polity as a whole? Or, alternatively does the establishment of such rights merely serve to further divide societies in a way which creates greater marginalisation and more protracted social conflict?
Such questions are the ultimate concern of this work. The various discussions and examinations which follow below, aim to highlight the contesting debates currently taking place in the academic realm. As such, both of the outlooks suggested above are given full expression. However, at the outset it is prudent to offer one’s own assessment on the matter. Above all, not only is multiculturalism a reality in every advanced part of the world, it is also an issue of paramount concern. Ultimately, developments over recent decades which have seen the continued propagation of universal rights has done little to douse the fires of ethnic, cultural and religious conflict. As such, conceptualising minority rights within the same legal framework as everyone else has failed to create the necessary inclusion and harmony as was once thought. Thus, in line with the assessment of Kymlicka (1996; p. 4) I conclude that “Traditional human rights standards are simply unable to resolve some of the most important and controversial questions relating to cultural minorities”. Barry’s (2002; p. 266) assumption that multiculturalism itself is the problem and that “universal egalitarianism” is capable of addressing minority rights is ultimately misguided. Thus, when one makes such a conclusion, the only viable way forward is inevitably to actively legislate for minority rights.
The problematic connotations which arise from cultural diversity are far from being modern phenomena. Indeed, a plethora of historical examples indicate the degree to which cultural, ethnic and religious difference often cause human beings to exhibit the most brutal and barbaric tendencies. The conclusion of the most hideous example of such tendencies came in 1945 with the defeat of Nazi Germany. As such, in terms of modern developments regarding rights and liberties, it is here that detailed examination must begin. As Kymlicka (1996; p. 2) suggests, in the immediate post war period “many liberals hoped that the new emphasis on ‘human rights’ would resolve minority conflicts”. As such, the prevailing opinion was that by ushering in a new period of universal human rights which transcended the sovereign auspices of the nation state, the rights of minority groups would be preserved and propelled. Thus, by giving certain human based rights to everyone, it was hoped that greater harmony would result. Therefore, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights contained no “references to the rights of ethnic and national minorities” (Kymlicka, 1996; p. 3).
However, Barry affords significant prevalence to such developments. He suggests that “The notion of an ‘international community’ has become far more of a reality than it ever was before, as international agencies and non-governmental organisations have proliferated”. Although Barry (2002; p. 284) does highlight the “limits of universalism”, the implicit suggestion made is therefore that through universal human rights it is theoretically possible to ensure the protection of minority rights. Barry (2002; p. 5) is also critical of the academic developments which have witnessed the increasing criticism of “the universalistic moral ideas that alone make sense of efforts to enforce human rights and punish the violator”. Thus, if we are to concur with Barry’s assessment, it is through the further propagation, and if necessary the imposition of universal human rights that minority rights can be effectively accounted for and protected.
In many respects, conflict caused as a consequence of ethnic and national identity came to personify the latter 20th century. Moreover, this progression of sometimes violent factionalism has continued unabated in the early 21st century. In addition, even in cases where violent conflict has been avoided, there is still a variety of problems inherent in the approaches undertaken with regards to the position of minority groups. The onset of universal human rights has therefore done little if anything to address the concern of minority groups in various national settings. For example, Kymlicka (1996; p. 4) outlines how questions pertaining to “which languages should be recognised in the parliaments… [or] should each ethnic and national group have publically funded education in its mother tongue” have not, and cannot be addressed with reference to universal human rights. As such, the initial assumption we can make is that instilling universal human rights beyond the nation state level has failed to ensure the protection of rights for ethnic and cultural minorities.
In response to this problem, various liberal democracies have chosen to undertaken the route of “affirmative action” (Kymlicka, 1996; p. 4). However, the degree to which such methods have been successful is once again open to serious doubt, especially as by no means are all members of minority groups disadvantaged at all, and many white, male, native-born members of societies such as that in the UK certainly are. Naturally, some thinkers such as Barry (2002; p. 116) argue that “affirmative action based on race” itself merely serves to intensify the problem which it aims to solve and make achievements in the careers ethnic minorities questionable. However, even if one concurs with affirmative action as a method of addressing the issue of minority rights, it remains the case that such methods are short term solutions. Indeed, affirmative action is invariably viewed as being a short term approach which aims to address “historical discrimination” (Kymlicka, 1996; p. 4) – (especially in the USA with its history of slavery and a large, long-established black population; in the UK, ‘positive action’ – discriminating in favour of certain groups in training and internships, fo example, is legal, but racist or sexist affirmative action is not, officially at least). Therefore, the foundations of minority discrimination and subordination to the majority remain unchanged even if active short term policies aimed at affirmative action take place. As such, issues pertaining to minority resentment cannot be combated either through universal human rights or affirmative action policies.
The inherent problem with regards to ensuring the rights and sentiments of minority groups in society are fully accounted for in practical terms is therefore clear. Affirmative action policies may be beneficial in the immediate term; however their short term nature fails to allow for effective long term resolution. Moreover, although the presence of universal human rights is still argued by commentators such as Held (1999) to be the most effective method of ensuring minority rights, the practical failures since 1945 highlight the degree to which this is simply not the case. Moreover, the suggestion that further development and greater enforcement of universal human rights represents the best way forward fails to account for the various failings outlined above, along with the basic inability of universal rights to effectively account for minority rights.
As such, if we are to assume a theoretical position in line with that provided by Kymlicka (1996; p. 4) then actively legislating for a “permanent differentiation in the rights and status of the members of certain groups” appears to be the only logical way forward. However, the logic in this outlook has in many respects failed to pervade academic discourse on the subject of minority rights. Multiculturalist thinkers have tended to focus on a combination of affirmative action and universal rights as being the most preferential way of moving forward. Alternatively, Barry (2002; p. 6) is quite correct to determine that those of other political persuasions “tend not to write about it at all but work instead on other questions that they regard as more worthwhile”. As such, the idea of offering permanent rights to minority groups in national settings is something which is often rebuked by thinkers on both sides of the divide in the multiculturalism debate. However, the painful experience which has been witnessed in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union clearly highlights the degree to which a new agenda needs to be undertaken. Barry’s assessment that multiculturalism itself is the essential problem may in some respects be correct. However, the fact remains that the problem is still there. As Barry (2002; p. 6) himself lamentably points out, “I used to believe that multiculturalism was bound sooner to later to sink… [however]… there is no sign of any collapse”. Thus, if multiculturalism is to be effectively addressed in modern complex societies then the only viable method is to “supplement traditional human rights principles with a theory of minority rights” (Kymlicka, 1996; p. 5).
In conclusion, the issue of minority rights within the wider framework of rights and liberties for all is clearly a difficult and protracted subject. However, experience since 1945 tells us that a radical new approach is required. Above all, attempting to dismiss multiculturalism itself in the way carried out by Barry (2002) offers no substantive answer to the inherent problem. Moreover, recent history shows us that the onset of universal human rights has done little to enhance the position of minorities in national settings. Actively legislating in a way which results in permanent minority rights may be a radical move, but the only move which addresses the fundamental issues at work.
Barry, B (2002) Culture and Equality: an egalitarian critique of multiculturalism. New York: Harvard University Press.
Held, D (1999) Global Transformation Reader: politics, economics and culture. NewYork: Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Preece, J.J (2005) Minority Rights: between diversity and community. London: Polity.
Kymlicka, W (1996) Multicultural Citizenship: a liberal theory of minority rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.