Ethnic minorities have long been one of the poor relations in the human rights field. For all the talk about group rights and the increasing acceptance that economic, social and cultural rights have too long been overlooked in favour of civil and political rights, the torture, summary execution and unfair trials of individuals continue to attract more interest and concern. As the Minority Rights Group's World Directory of Minorities makes clear, the problems they face are immense and may in many places be reaching crisis point.
One of the difficulties with the subject is the trouble in establishing who, precisely, belongs to a minority. Estimates range from 10-20 per cent of the world's population, belonging to several thousand groups and sub-groups. The MRG accepts as a minority any non-dominant ethnic or religious community - whether or not it is numerically in the minority - that is without power, marginalised and discriminated against.
The past decade has seen the fragmentation of large numbers of national states and the rise of minorities each demanding its own identity, language, land and estate. Where these rights are systematically denied, violence follows. Of the 30 or so conflicts going on today, virtually every one is taking place within a state and not across a border.
The 13-year-old war between the Turkish authorities and their Kurdish minority has seen some 3,000 Kurdish villages razed to the ground, over two million Kurds turned into refugees and south-eastern Turkey turned into a vast armed camp. Each year, $8 billion, nearly a fifth of the entire Turkish budget, goes to feed the war. In Burma, the Karen, Shan, Mon, Chin, Kachin and Arakanese minorities, making up between them a third of the population, are being forced from their homes and turned into slave labour by Burma's military rulers who are building a 416-mile pipeline through the mountains and jungles to carry gas to Thailand. Foreign companies, eager to invest, turn a blind eye to human rights violations. Some multinationals have pulled out, shamed by international outcry and a landmark ruling in the United States courts that has said US firms may have to take responsibility for the human rights abuses of the countries they work in. Others, indifferent to the damage they cause or the needs of the minorities whose lands they ravage, are quick to take their place.
The past few years, as MRG's director Alan Phillips explains in his preface, have seen a number of improvements. Growing acceptance that intercommunity tension and conflict can pose a serious threat to peace and stability, with a potential for chaos that goes far beyond borders, is gradually pushing the international community and major funders to accept the need for pre-emptive development strategies. Since 1991, the World Bank has insisted on an indigenous peoples' development plan before a project is even appraised. Recognition of the extent to which vast programmes carried out in the name of development have damaged vulnerable communities has led to stricter policies for investors and a call by Amnesty International and others for a proper charter to protect minority interests and the environment. But these are small steps, given the many issues that need to be addressed - education, language, religion and land rights. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Minorities makes no reference to land rights.
The World Directory of Minorities is an immense and expensive book, but it provides a unique reference work on some 200 minorities. As the entries make clear, there are few minorities not beset by conflict, discrimination, pressure to assimilate and, often, violence. Although invaluable for all who work in the field, the World Directory does not make happy reading.
Caroline Moorehead is author of Durant's Dream: War, Switzerland and the Red Cross, which will be published by HarperCollins this month.
World Directory of Minorities
Editor - Minority Rights Group International
ISBN - 1 873194 36 6
Publisher - Minority Rights Group International
Price - £100.00
Pages - 850