UN nears accord on minorities

A LONG-AWAITED international agreement on minorities has crept into its final lap. Today, the 'Declaration on the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities' is due to go before the United Nations General Assembly, where it is likely to be accepted by the member states.

The declaration on minorities has not had an easy ride. Dreamt up 13 years ago by human rights organisations interested in extending their sphere of interests to include not simply individuals abused by governments but groups whose rights were being violated, it has on several occasions threatened to collapse altogether. The first two years were lost because no agreement could be reached on a definition - hence the laborious title.

Three years slipped by while representatives from different countries failed to agree on the wording of Article 3, which concerns the exercising of different rights. And when that was settled, the conflict in Yugoslavia robbed the debate of its protagonist, because all through the 1980s Yugoslavia had been the moving force behind the deliberations.

More important, two camps developed among member states. Some, such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Ukraine, argued that the declaration must have teeth. Others, such as Belgium, France and Greece, liked the idea of a liberal-sounding agreement, but were reluctant to include any notion of power or action.

Within the human rights world, the declaration is being greeted with cautious optimism. 'This is the first instrument on minorities before the UN,' said Alan Phillips, director of the Minorities Rights Group, which has lobbied for most of the past 13 years to keep the debates alive. 'That makes it crucial. But it must be seen as a beginning, not an end.'

Minority rights have been neglected. Organisations professing to campaign on behalf of minorities have often become more interested in the rights of indigenous people alone. The question now is not so much whether the declaration will get through the General Assembly, but whether it will lead to a convention, at which point it would take on a certain force. As a declaration, it may be doomed to remain little more than fine words.