By Maria Savvidou, coordinator of the research unit “International & European Law”
During this past week a very crucial issue has been at the forefront of major Greek newspapers: the expropriation of properties that belong to the Greek minority living in Himara, Albania. Expropriations of properties are not uncommon; one can only look at the fate of American properties in Iran. For them to be lawful,certain conditions must be met (public purpose, payment of compensation, due process and non-discrimination). Triggered by the requirement of non-discrimination, this analysis examines the rights of national minorities. It consists of a part concerning International Law and another one concerning European Union law.
Before examining their rights, a definition of minorities is in order. According to Article 1 of the United Nations Minorities Declaration (1992), minorities “are based on national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity”. There is no list with a fixed number of identified minorities, because a minority to be construed as such must fulfill an objective requirement (common ethnicity, language etc.) as well as a subjective one (individuals must identify themselves as members of the minority). Perhaps the most important characteristic of minorities is that they have a non-dominant position inside a given territory, since they constitute a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population (definition by UN Special Rapporteur – 1977).
Apart from the UN Minorities Declaration, an explicit protection of the rights of minorities is provided by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which in Article 27 states that persons belonging to minorities “shall not be denied the right, in conformity with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language”. Under the Council of Europe, national minorities not only enjoy all the rights established by the European Convention on Human Rights, which is a universal declaration not particularly addressed to them, but their rights are also protected by the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1998). The Court has held that “a balance must be achieved which ensures the fair and proper treatment of minorities and avoids any abuse of a dominant position”. The Court has also held that minorities enjoy freedom of expression, right to education, freedom of religion, and effective participation in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life. It is worth mentioning that the languages used by traditional minorities are protected and promoted.
In the context of the European Union, Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union explicitly lists among the EU core values the human rights of minorities. Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights (2000) prohibits any discrimination on grounds of nationality. The European Court of Justice has held that, always pursuant to strict proportionality, a candidate country can deviate from the acquis for the sake of minority protection. Much discussed was case T-646/13where the General Court of the EU annulled the Commission decision refusing registration of the proposed European citizens’ initiative (ECI) entitled “Minority SafePack – one million signatures for diversity in Europe”. Although the ECJ decision was mainly rooted on procedural grounds (i.e. the Commission’s lack of “a full statement of reasons” for its refusal), it still opened the path for the improvement of the protection of persons belonging to national and linguistic minorities.
This brief analysis has not dealt with the human rights of minorities in general nor with the issue of reverse discrimination. It has merely examined the protection national minorities enjoy prompted by developments in Himara. This issue steadily gains in importance in the midst of political and economic turmoil which has spurred migration flows and discrimination phenomena.