It will probably appear counter-intuitive but I feel that we are making a serious error with the idea of minority rights. I know it sounds as if these could only be for the good, something to be protected and promoted, but I fear that we have got wrong of the wrong end of the stick.
The concerns about the rights of minorities started around the Congress of Vienna in 1814 in response to concerns about the situation of Jewish and Polish minorities following partition. Over the subsequent years further declarations have been made to protect minorities and the most recently the United Nations and the European Union have codified some minority rights and brought them into international law.
What could be wrong with minority rights, surely we all want to protect endangered minority groups ? Yes, of course we do but minority rights are not what do this. The rights which protect minorities are the same universal rights that every individual has. If you are a Christian in an Islamic State, or vice versa a Muslim in a Christian State (or any other permutation of religions) it is not your right as a Christian or Muslim which protects you but your individual right to freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of association which protect you.
Universal human rights protect individuals and this is the smallest minority – the minority of one. All societies have a mix of peoples and some groups will be in the majority and others the minority and over time these groups will change in nature and composition. We can never predict who the next minority will be (I’d wager 100 years ago that no-one anticipated needing rights for people who changed their gender from male to female or vice versa) therefore it is important that we have rights that are so basic and clear that they protect all of us no matter what sized minority we inhabit.
In essence universal human rights are minority rights. If we give special rights then they are not universal and it is doubtful if we could consider these rights. If these minority rights compel others to act in a special way these are not so much rights as legal duties on others. If these are legal constructs rather than rights then they are much more fragile. If we select one minority for special legal treatment we can later change and select some other group. These ‘rights’ are not unalienable because they are given and consequently can be taken away.
The risk to all minorities is the Tyranny of the Majority. The safeguard against this is that every individual has the same rights and freedoms; the smallest minority is the minority of one. We are all in this minority, and it is because we are protected as an individual that we are protected as a member of a minority group no matter how many, or few, individuals are in that particular group.
I am not advocating that we do not consider special treatment for groups we might consider vulnerable. We may as a society feel we need to create legislation to protect them. However, we should be aware that these are special laws with special legal benefits or responsibilities. Creating law this way means that issues be properly discussed and designed and adapted over time. Laws operate under the framework of rights and play second-fiddle to them. Laws must conform to our rights, our rights can never be made to conform with our laws.
The safeguard for everyone in a democracy is the liberty of the individual, and no minority right can usurp the right of any other individual who may be in the majority or in some other minority. So lets forget about minority rights and instead respect, promote and safeguard the rights of the individual : they are the rights we all share.