"The Yezidis and Minority Rights" von Jenny Thomsen

Minorities exist within all countries of the world. It is estimated that minority groups make up 10 to 20 percent of the world’s population. Such groups often suffer from a great deal of disadvantages, being subjected to discrimination and excluded from participation in public life.[1] Most contemporary states are diverse and it is rarely the case that all citizens share the same language or belong to the same national group. Diversity can create issues that are not easily solved. Not seldom there is a clash between minorities and majorities on the grounds of language rights, land claims, immigration policy, and so on. The treatment of minorities is a highly debated and controversial topic, although it is today widely agreed that minorities should be entitled to extra protection in addition to the individual human rights.

The Yezidis form minorities in several states, including Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia as well as European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Greece, France, Denmark and Sweden, among others. Since the group is scattered in many countries the situation and conditions of its members also vary dramatically. States do not only differ in their minority policies, but also in the general attitude among their citizens towards minority groups. A common stand point by states and their citizens is that minorities do not exist within their countries and that, since everyone is entitled to the same rights, there is no need for additional protection of certain groups. Other states have been more willing to recognize their minorities and provide extra protection of their culture, religion and language.

What is a minority?

At the present time no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a minority exists. Minorities can be seen as “political outsiders whose identities do not fit the criteria defining legitimacy and membership in the political community on whose territory they reside”[2]. Since the identities of minorities change in relation to the political community it is very difficult to generalize the concept. The term is commonly used with reference to a smaller number or part; however it is rather belonging than the size that defines a minority. “Minorities are those who are denied or prevented from enjoying the full rights of membership within a political community because their religion, race, language or ethnicity differs from that of the official public identity”[3]. It is also of importance to emphasize that the group has to be non-dominant to be defined as a minority and as a result the term can not be used when discussing groups that exercise control within the society, for example the white population of South Africa during the apartheid.[4]

The fact that there is no universally accepted definition of the term minority is one of the key problems when it comes to protection of minorities within international law. In Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) it is stated that:

“In those States in which ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language”

The minorities are thus given an extra right in addition to the other provisions of the Covenant. The usage of “persons belonging to minorities” indicates that it is not the minorities as such that are subject to international law, but the persons belonging to them. Thus individual rights trump collective rights. However, the individual’s right is based on his or her membership of the minority. The phrase “in community with other members of their group” expresses the need for a group identity.

Article 27 of the ICCPR states that persons belonging to minorities have the right to enjoy one’s culture, to profess and practice one’s religion and use one’s own language. The term culture is a concept without a concise definition, including everything from art to customs. In the international arena the term religion additionally refers to beliefs and conscience. Many aspects of life are affected by religion. Even in a society where, for instance, church and state are separated there still remain aspects of religion within public life, such as holidays and traditions that originate from religious beliefs. Worship is often done in community with others and this may affect the larger society by its associated practices.[5] The use of one’s language is complex and can include common day-to-day use of the language, but also be extended to possibilities to receive education in the language or to use it in public life.[6] These are the aspects of minority rights that are included in the international human rights discourse.

Treatment of minorities

There are two principle ways of dealing with the problem of minorities; by enforcing conformity or recognizing diversity. Enforcement can take different forms: discrimination, assimilation, persecution or separation, all with the aim to resolve the problem by making people conform to the ideal which legitimates a community. Discrimination, persecution and separation make clear breaches of human rights, whereas assimilation is more vague and hence a frequently debated topic. The assimilation process absorbs persons belonging to minorities into the culture and life of the majority of the population. The larger society often pressures the minorities to conform which leads them to adopt certain behaviours in order to gain acceptance, with the risk of the minorities’ own norms and behaviours to fade away.[7] However, assimilation should not be confused with the term integration, which refers to adaptation to the prevalent society without the loss of one’s cultural identity. The other approach to handle minorities is by recognizing diversity and support minorities by giving them special rights, which today is the favoured approach by the international community.

The international legal system is protecting minorities by the above Article 27 of the ICCPR. In addition to the international human rights conventions there are several regional systems protecting human rights. However, the way in which different systems deal with minority protection varies. There are two regional human rights systems that are of particular interest when discussing the rights of the Yezidis. The European system is relevant for the Yezidis of Georgia, Armenia and Turkey as well as for the large numbers of Yezidis living in European countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Greece, France, Denmark and Sweden, among others.  However, in this article only the countries from which the Yezidis originally come from will be dealt with, namely Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. The League of Arab States is the regional system in focus when discussing the Yezidis in Iraq and Syria.

The European system

The European system has the most comprehensive minority protection of all regional systems. In 1995, the Council of Europe adopted a Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The Convention poses legally binding obligations on states in international law. In the Preamble it is stated that the aim is to create “a climate of tolerance and dialogue” and to “enable cultural heritage to be a source and a factor, not a division, but of enrichment for every society”. According to the Convention, minority rights are not solely a concern of the state but also an international matter since minority rights “form an integral part of the international protection of human rights” (art. 1). According to Article 5 (1) states undertake to “preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage”. These elements are similar to the ones stated in the ICCPR.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is another instrument under the Council of Europe that is aimed at national minorities. The overarching goal is to protect historical regional or minority languages that are “in danger of eventual extinction”. State parties shall eliminate all exclusions and restrictions that are endangering these languages and shall work for the recognition and protection of them.[8] In addition to the two conventions, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has adopted a comprehensive system of guidelines on minority protection.

Georgia has ratified the major treaties of the United Nations and the Council of Europe guaranteeing human rights protection. Additionally, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities has been ratified and entered into force in 2006. Upon accession to the Council of Europe the country undertook the commitment to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages although this has not yet been fulfilled.

Armenia is party to the major international human rights treaties and has adopted the principle legally binding treaty on minority rights, the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, in 1998, as well as later ratifying the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages in 2002.

Turkey has been rather reluctant to further its protection of minorities. The State has made a declaration under Article 27 of the ICCPR, stating that it will limit the rights to those minorities which are recognized under its Constitution or the Lausanne Peace Treaty, namely the Armenians, Greeks and Jews. The declaration violates the essence of the Article and the principle that minorities shall be objectively determined and must not be determined by a national government.[9] Turkey has to date been unwilling to ratify both the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The League of Arab States

The League of Arab States was established in 1945 with the aim to “control the execution of agreements concluded by member States, further strengthen relations between them, and to generally supervise the affairs and interests of Arab countries”[10]. It has 22 members containing most Arab States in Northern Africa and the Middle East. In 1994 the Arab Charter on Human Rights was adopted by the member States, however, no ratifications followed. In 2008 the revised Charter entered into force and so far ten members have ratified the document. A range of rights and freedoms included in the United Nations instruments are listed in the Charter. The main provision of interest for minorities is Article 25 in which it is stated that “persons belonging to minorities shall not be denied the right to enjoy their own culture, to use their own language and to practice their own religion. The exercise of these rights shall be governed by law”.

The success of the Charter is yet to be seen. Regional systems generally have many advantages. Since fewer states will be involved it is easier to reach consensus on texts and enforcement mechanisms. There are also advantages when it comes to similarities in culture and traditions. Moreover, when pressure comes from the closest neighbouring states, diplomatic efforts have a tendency to become more effective.

Iraq has ratified most of the international instruments covering human rights. The state is one of the founding members of the League of Arab States. Nevertheless, it has not yet ratified or signed the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

Syria has acceded to all major United Nations conventions concerned with human rights. The State is, like Iraq, a founding member of the League of Arab States. It has ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights although it has not been enforced yet.

The mentioned states, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Iraq and Syria are members to the United Nations and are thus obliged to comply with its standards and make sure not to deny rights to members belonging to minorities. Although some of the states have ratified several major human rights treaties this can not be considered sufficient when it comes to minority rights. There needs to be an intensified focus on the implementation of the treaties and its minority provisions.

Concerning the regional systems, it needs to be pointed out that none of the documents include a definition of minorities. This creates considerable problems since the state in question thus can claim that a group does not constitute a minority in order to deny groups special rights. Additionally, the rights of the Framework Convention as well as the Arab Charter on Human Rights shall be implemented by national legislation and consequently the state can use a definition of minority that will exclude certain groups (like in the case with Turkey). The lack of a universal definition certainly creates problems and it reduces the possibility for some minorities to get the protection they are entitled to. There needs to be a clearer picture as to who is entitled to minority rights in order to achieve equality and to avoid persecution and conflicts that occur as a consequence of such inequality.

As mentioned earlier, the treatment of minorities depends not only on available legal instruments defending human rights, but also on the general attitude of a country towards its minorities. Referring to the large numbers of Yezidis who have been and are still fleeing their home countries, it is obvious that legal provisions, no matter how well-written they are, are not always sufficient in order to protect all individuals within the countries’ borders. Nevertheless, the ratification and implementation of human rights treaties are essential steps in the fight against inequality and persecution and should be encouraged.


[1] United Nations Guide for Minorities; www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/minorities/index.htm

[2] Preece, Jennifer Jackson (2005) Minority Rights (Cambridge: Polity Press)

[3] Ibid, p. 11

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 332

[6] Ibid, p. 333

[7] Ibid, p. 187

[8] Smith, Rhona (2005) Textbook on International Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 336

[9] Kaya, Nurcan & Clive Baldwin (2004) Minorities in Turkey (Minority Rights Group International), p. 5

[10] Article 1, the Alexandria Protocol 1944


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