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10th Forum on Minority Issues

Statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

1 December 2017

Distinguished panellists,
Colleagues, Friends,

I am delighted to join you at this 10th Forum on Minority Issues, and I welcome your focus this year on the rights of young people from minority communities. This is an issue of great concern to my Office.

In more and more countries, across a wide range of geographies and political and economic contexts, the rights of minorities are being neglected, abandoned or trampled. All of us are painfully aware of the disgraceful atrocities against the Rohingya and the Yazidis, but it would be simply impossible to enumerate here the names of every community in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa which is currently voicing rising concerns about discrimination, deprivation, violence, forced displacement and, to varying degrees, persecution.

We hear from numerous young people from minority communities that they are viewed with suspicion by teachers, police, prospective employers and in their neighbourhoods and streets. They tell us they are held back from educational and employment opportunities, and trapped in a deepening cycle of poverty. Young people are fighting harder than ever today just to be respected – simply to have a future.

In many cases, young women from minority communities face additional burdens. Although important progress has been realised on women's human rights, when the aggregated data is analysed with respect to racial or ethnic origin, migration status and minority status, shocking inequalities are revealed. Women from minority groups are more likely to live in poverty. Their access to health services, their progress in education, their right to shelter, to live free from fear and to participate in decision-making – all are curtailed by multiple, intersecting and bitter forms of discrimination which continue, in every region of the world, to hold them back.

This morning's discussion will look at the challenges and opportunities offered by digital media technologies for minority youth, and young women in particular. This is a particularly interesting topic in terms of human rights, because in many ways we may be at a turning point in this regard. Clearly digital technologies can be a powerful equaliser – bringing information and perspectives to people in remote areas, and giving them a voice, and an audience for their concerns. But currently, what we're seeing in several countries is that minority communities do not have access to the digital universe – so that the new tools deepen inequalities, instead of ending them.

We need to break down the digital divides which are suffered by members of minority communities, especially women. We must sharply increase our awareness of and action against online hate speech, stalking and incitement to violence.

But online is just one area where we need massive structural change to affirm the rights of members of minority groups, including women and youth. The fact is, 25 years after the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, many of the world's States continue to fail the rights of minorities. The Declaration’s messages of inclusion, equality and respect for different cultures are being challenged by policies, laws and actions that enable or even promote discrimination and hatred, and which fail to acknowledge and redress the harms of the past. This is not only damaging for the rights of the individuals concerned – it is also profoundly toxic to the sense of shared values that every society needs.

Upholding minority rights is not only the right thing to do – it is a powerful way to de-fuse tensions, prevent conflict and facilitate broad-based economic prosperity. Driving wedges between people; building walls of suspicion and grievance; repressing fundamental civil, political, economic and social rights; and attempting to erase or dismantle linguistic and cultural identities – these are measures which harm everyone. No society will ever find sustainable harmony and peace without justice; and development will always be impeded when members of society are held back.

Bigotry and discrimination are disgraceful, unjustifiable – and the battle to put an end to these toxins is one we must win. Indeed, there is hope for this struggle. In several countries, my colleagues report the beginnings of a counter-movement – networks of activists, often led by youth, who are standing up and speaking out for human rights, including minority rights. These agents of change are using street protests, social media, mixing new and old forms of activism. New platforms are being created, and as the Assistant Secretary General recently pointed out, we are proud of the role of former OHCHR minority fellows, whose recent achievements range from a Roma youth network in Moldova to a linguistic rights forum in Cameroon.

Dear friends,

Mid-way through this Forum, please allow me to welcome all of you, to encourage you to speak up. Put your skills to work. Take a stand. We are here to pool our thoughts, our energy, our experiences and our hopes, the better to face the challenges which so many of us share. We need you. To uphold the values of equality and justice, to resist policies of exploitation and hate and to help build governance which serves the people, we need your energy and conviction. We need your understanding that on this fragile, increasingly connected planet no nation or group can truly or durably flourish when others are crushed. We need your skills, your insights, your vision.

We need you to stand up for the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which helped end the churning cycle of world wars, and which lit the path for millions of people to overturn empires and cast off poverty.

Minorities – and minority youth – are not a threat; they are under threat. They do not undermine social harmony and security; they enrich society with a diversity of outlooks, experiences and skills.

One day at a time, one hour at a time, one person after another – together, we can face the challenges of hatred, despair and selfishness, and build a world which gives everyone a chance to flourish.