Everywhere in the world people are on the move:  they are cramming into leaky boats in West Africa and crossing the sea to the Canary Islands.  They are leaving Albania on their way to Italy.  They are hitching rides on freight trains through Central America and Mexico in search of a better life in the United States.  They are flooding across the borders of South Africa from Zimbabwe and from countries as far away as Burundi and Gabon.  This is one of the inevitable consequences of globalisation – and it is affecting almost every country in the world – including Switzerland.

At the same time historic cultural, ethnic and religious minorities in countries across the world from Indonesia to Guatemala are demanding recognition for their special interests and rights.

One of the central challenges of our globalising world will be to provide leadership in this new multicultural environment and to build bridges between communities in a divided world.

Eight years into the new millennium we are confronted with very different challenges to peace from those that faced the world at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Traditionally, the main source of conflict was the rivalry between nations, alliances and ideologies.  It was such rivalries that spawned the first and second world wars during the first half of the century and which posed the major threat to global peace in the cold war stand-off after World War II.  However, since the collapse of global communism the threat of international and inter-alliance warfare has receded and another form of conflict has come to the fore which has its roots in the inability of different ethnic, cultural or religious communities to coexist within the same political units.  

The present and recent violence in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur and the Ivory Coast are all examples of this kind of conflict.  In some cases, such as those in Kashmir and central Africa, such conflicts also hold the potential of sparking off wars between neighbouring nation states.   They are usually characterised by extraordinary brutality – often involving ethnic cleansing and communal massacres – and by the implacable hatred that develops between the contending communities.

At this very moment, Kenya’s fragile unity and vulnerable democracy is being threatened by intense ethnic conflict following the recent contested election.  At the same time, the world and Europe have to contend with the difficult situation in Kosovo:  the Albanian majority wants independence – but the territory is historically part of Serbia.  Whose rights should be respected in such a case?

Throughout Europe, nations are wrestling with vexatious clashes between established cultures and the cultures and religions of newly-arrived immigrants.  Should Moslem girls be allowed to wear headscarves at schools in France?   Should African immigrants in Britain be able to carry out traditional practices that many Britons find unacceptable?  What are the proper borders of national tolerance – and how will all this affect established European identities?

These are all critical questions that require much more considered and concerted attention from the international community.  

Since the middle ages the norm has been for peoples to group together in fairly heterogeneous nation states.  Increasingly, however the political boundaries of states encompass different communities.  Most frequently, such multi-communal states have their origins deep in the histories of the countries concerned.  In some cases they are the result of conquest or historic expansion – as in the Russian Federation and China. Sometimes multi-communal societies arise from international agreements – as in the case of most of Africa, which was carved up between the European imperial powers in 1885 with scant attention to pre-colonial political borders or demographic realities.  In many other cases multi-communal societies have come about as a result of the voluntary or forced immigration of peoples to new countries.  

In all likelihood, the number of multi-communal societies will increase during the coming decades, primarily as a result of the greater international mobility of peoples which will be stimulated by globalisation.  Already, the principle of the mobility of employees is accepted in the European Union – raising the prospect of the establishment of significant cultural minorities in traditionally homogeneous societies.  

At the same time, the further dissemination of democratic principles – including the concept that people have the right to be governed by their chosen representatives – is likely to stimulate long suppressed communities within larger nation states to demand self-determination or autonomy.  Such demands will receive much more attention throughout the world than they would have before the age of global news coverage and satellite TV.

All this confronts the international community with the challenge of devising principles, approaches and mechanisms to deal with the relationships between communities in multi-communal states.  

We need to address the question of the point at which communities which constitute clear majorities in definable geographic areas have the right to secede.   Is there such a right?   For most states the maintenance of territorial integrity is non-negotiable. However, in a few  federal countries there is a constitutionally recognised right of secession.  Evidently, this right was accepted in the case of Slovakia and the Baltic republics. But what about Kosovo?  It probably would be accepted in the case of Quebec – were the French Canadian majority ever to vote for separation.  However, what would the position be if the Inuit – the native inhabitants of much of the north of Canada – wished to establish their own state, or if the Navajo were to decide to do so in their homeland in the south-western United States?  What of Chechnya and Dagestan?  What of Tibet?  The Peoples’ Republic of China has already warned of the dire consequences that would ensue if Taiwan were ever to declare official independence from the rest of China.   It would appear that each case would have to be judged on its merits and within the framework of economic and political viability and the real political forces involved.

And what of those different cultural and ethnic communities which remain within the same state?  What cultural, linguistic and educational rights should they enjoy?   How should they be represented in the processes by which they are governed and what mechanisms should be created to ensure cordial relations between communities? These are also uncomfortable questions – but they are questions which must be debated.

International conventions are ambiguous on most of these questions. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) stipulates that persons belonging to ‘ethnic, religious or linguistic 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 Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1994) is more categorical and declares that  ‘indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination’ and that they may ‘freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’.   They also have the right to

‘maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their legal systems, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State’;
establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning; and
to participate fully at all levels of decision-making in matters which may affect their rights, lives and destinies;

However, if these rights are accepted for indigenous peoples, on what moral basis can they be refused to other historically established communities?

In terms of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic or Religious Minorities (1993), States are required to ‘protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and
linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories’ and  ‘encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity’.  The Declaration also recognises the right of ‘persons belonging to minorities… to participate effectively in decisions on the national and, where appropriate, regional level concerning the minority to which they belong’ but this must occur ‘in a manner not incompatible with national legislation’.

The Declaration falls short of recognising the right of minorities to mother tongue education and to their own educational institutions and merely calls on States ‘wherever possible’ to make sure that minorities ‘may have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue.’

The Declaration also contains a strong caveat that nothing in it may be construed as permitting any activity contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations, including sovereign equality,
territorial integrity and political independence of States’.

The European Union’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995) calls on parties to ‘promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.’  It also specifically prohibits ‘policies or practices aimed at assimilation of …national minorities against their will.’

In effect, the EU’s framework convention guarantees for national minorities the basic human rights enjoyed by other citizens and protects them from discrimination.  However, it makes no real provision for mother-tongue education – although it permits minorities to establish private schools at their own cost.  Nor does it provide for any political role for minorities in determining policy on their own affairs, apart from a vaguely worded provision that parties should ‘create the conditions necessary for the effective participation of persons belonging to national minorities in cultural, social and economic life and in public affairs, in particular those affecting them.’

Once again, the Convention emphatically excludes ‘any right to engage in any activity or perform any act contrary to the fundamental principles of international law and in particular of the sovereign equality, territorial integrity  (emphasis added) and political independence of States’.

We can draw the following broad conclusions from  these international documents:

in most cases secession is not an option, either because it would pose an unacceptable threat to the territorial integrity of existing states; or because many of the seceding communities would not be economically or politically viable; or because many communities do not constitute majorities in any part of the territory of the countries within which they find themselves; or because most seceding states would include minorities of their own, which would, in turn, continue to cause inter-communal tension;
it also seems to be generally accepted that the forced assimilation of the melting pot is unacceptable – not only because of the resistance and conflict that it is likely to cause, but because it does not work and because it is inconsistent with democratic norms and notions of basic justice.
It is also increasingly accepted that established historic minorities should have greater rights to promote and maintain their identities than newly arrived immigrants.  

The challenge accordingly appears to be to devise approaches and mechanisms which will allow different communities to coexist within the same political units, in harmony and peace.

As usual Switzerland provides a sensible model.  It includes national cultural groups that speak four different languages.  The secret of your success is mutual tolerance; decentralization and pragmatism which assures all of your constituent communities that their cultural heritage and identities are basically secure.  

My country, South Africa, has a great deal of experience in dealing with intractable ethnic disputes.  Until eighteen years ago, we were involved in a seemingly hopeless downward spiral of conflict and repression.  Yet, to the surprise of the world – and sometimes to our own surprise – we managed to pull back from the abyss and resolve our long-standing differences through peaceful negotiations.

How did we achieve this?  And can our experience help other divided societies to solve their problems peacefully?  I believe it can and want to share with you a few of the lessons we have learned from our successes and mistakes.

I believe that in complex societies all cultural communities should be given maximum “breathing space” to promote their identities and to cherish their traditions.  Our new constitution generally includes provisions which make this possible.
A culture of toleration and pride in diversity should be cultivated.  In multicommunal societies, mutual respect and pride in the diversity of national cultures should be fostered through the education system, through the teaching of national languages and through the media.  In South Africa, I believe there is a genuine commitment to multi-culturalism on the part of most of our political parties.

Multicommunal societies, should also wherever possible strive for inclusivity. Simple majoritarianism, where significant minorities can be excluded from important processes of decision making should be avoided.  All communities should feel that they are adequately represented in all of the institutions through which they are governed;  that their bona fide concerns are receiving adequate and sympathetic consideration by those in power.  Special care should be taken that no community feels isolated or alienated from the governmental process.  Unfortunately, the new South African constitution does not make adequate provision for the multicommunal nature of our society with the result that important communities feel increasingly unrepresented and alienated.
Provisions prohibiting discrimination of any form should be strictly enforced.  No community should feel victimised or excluded from any aspect of national life because of its cultural or ethnic identity.  Once again, although the new South African constitution contains strong provisions outlawing discrimination, it also includes broad provisions for ‘affirmative action’ which are viewed by formerly disadvantaged communities as essential measures to correct the results of past discrimination – while in the formerly advantaged communities they are increasingly regarded as discriminatory measures which prevent individuals from obtaining employment, advancement or access to government contracts simply on the basis of their race.
Finally, there should be a concerted effort to establish an inclusive, overarching national identity which can unite all communities, irrespective of their differences.  Common national values and common goals from which all can benefit, should form the framework for such a new national identity. In this process, common symbols and pride in national achievements should be propagated.

One of the main needs that has emerged in our own multicommunal society is the need to nurture relationships between our communities. The reality is that relationships between communities in complex states – like all human relationships – require constant an ongoing attention and care.  Communities must communicate and become engaged with one another in addressing common problems and in promoting mutual understanding.  Constitutional rules and conventions governing the rights and relationships between communities need to be strengthened and observed.  

Perhaps, the time has come for the international community to give the same consideration to the protection of communal or minority rights that it has long striven to promote with respect to individual rights.    There can be no doubt that the accommodation of cultural, religious and ethnic differences will be one of the main challenges of the new millennium.  It is time that we strengthened national and international standards to create a world in which we will all be assured that our cultural and linguistic heritage will be secure – regardless of where we live.