ECMI Minorities Blog. Why the States Fail to Secure Their Minorities: Securitisation and Minority Rights


Author: Dr. Marika Djolai

If a concerned analyst, researcher or citizen visited any of the leading security websites such as they won’t find a reference to minorities among the recent articles discussing imminent security threats. And yet, securitisation of minorities and minority rights seems to be a recurring theme in diverse societies that they share with majority group(s). A notion that minorities pose a threat to the society and social order is used as an excuse by the governments to turn against them, often employing different forms of violence. A recent drastic example is the genocidal terror campaign (2014-2017) against Yazidi, one of the largest non-Muslim minority ethnic groups in Iraq, perpetrated by the Islamic State of the Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Their religious freedom was formally guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was ratified by Iraq in 1971 but the government never really complied with the protocol. The Yazidi were not only attacked because of their social identities and beliefs, but they were also abandoned by all actors who had a possibility to protect them from ISIL: the Iraq Government, Kurdish forces and Yazidi’s neighbouring communities.

A similar violent fate struck the Rohingya population in Myanmar, a stateless Indo-Aryan ethnic group, who were forcibly evicted from their homes and pushed to migrate to neighbouring Bangladesh. Until this campaign by the Myanmar army in 2016/ 2017, Rohingya were permitted to reside in the country as stateless people, but were denied citizenship as well as the right to education, employment and had a restricted movement under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The same law did not recognize them as ‘indigenous race’ and gave the military government, which was in power between 1962 and 2011, an excuse to treat them as immigrants from Bangladesh.

These two examples show how volatile the position of minority ethnic groups or other minority communities can be if the state fails to protect them or to formally recognise them, in combination with a lack of commitment to international safeguarding protocols. Absence of inclusive national policies puts minorities in an unequal position in the structures of power and makes them vulnerable to the most extreme forms of insecurity, such as violence, exclusion and poverty. What do we need to know about security and which security matters when it comes to minorities?

Security is a wide and dynamic concept in the scholarly and grey literature.  It has been given a new meaning since the 1990s, essentially expanding it to “common” or “human security”, also discussed under the term “security in the vernacular”, to denote entitlement of citizens and all human beings, to protection from violence, abuses of rights and social injustice, or existential risks. This expansion of security made it more focused on the citizens and shifted the analytical focus but also the national policies away from military security of the national and supranational entities (Rotchild, 1995). Nils Bubant (2018) argues for “treating ‘security’ as a socially situated and discursively defined practice open to comparison and politically contextualized explication, rather than merely an analytical category that needs refined definition and consistent use.

” The concepts of ‘vernacular security’ or human security are thus best positioned to encapsulate security challenges that minority communities face, from the lack of protection to their right to negotiate the terms of this protection with the governments, lack of power sharing arrangements or failure to recognize them as citizens with equal rights. International mechanisms for the protection of minorities are comprehensive and guarantee recognition of cultural diversity, which is linked to the social position of different groups and historical background of the context. The protection of minorities as a legal issue works in the frame of the general system of human rights protection but rapid changes of the context may easily overturn or diminish this protection.

Some of the biggest national security threats include cybersecurity, transnational organised crime, but also ideologies and beliefs (e.g. Islam) and migration. Major scale, global economic and political instabilities, conflicts and wars tend to instigate movement of populations, often towards Europe, or lead to changes of formal status of specific ethno-linguistic and religious groups.

Changes of borders, historical and more recent, that accompanied the emergence of new states in the last century also affected the demographic structure and composition of many countries, which lead to the movement of long-settled populations (e.g. post-Cold War era; Balkan wars, Ukraine conflict, population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923 as part of the Treaty of Lausanne). Any upheaval that significantly alters demographic composition creates a sense of discomfort and insecurity among the majority groups, old settlers or traditional minorities and indigenous groups, which may result in restructuring of power and political representation. State security policies often depend on whether the minorities are traditional and long-term settlers, with a distinct language, culture and religion in comparison to majority of the population or new i.e. migrants recently arriving to the country of current residence.  However, the traditional dichotomy of old and new minorities has been questioned as being dated when it comes to protection, because it is not coherently maintained in the most relevant rights frameworks such as the Framework Convention on National Minorities (FCNM). In this context, security problems are often about perceptions and not real threats.

Long settled minorities and indigenous people may feel pressure from more recent migrants, particularly when they get numerically outnumbered or if a state creates unequal policies for assimilation, integration, participation and protection of the newly arrived population. On the other hand, new immigrants may feel more at a disadvantage because the indigenous groups and historic minorities are already well established in the societies, with strong political representation, participation and mechanisms for cultural preservation. Finally, strained group relations between each of the minority groups and majorities, partly resulting from social, political and economic inequalities, can become a threat to stability.

For the communities that share a society, competition over resources or perceived injustices linked to the presence of minorities, are likely to be interpreted as a security threat. Perceived threats and their drivers are likely to shape exclusionist political attitudes of the majority towards minority groups, as well as negative feelings and xenophobia. In Israel, a country where international immigration is very common for Jews arriving from other countries, while the relations between Jewish and native Arab communities are complex and marked by long-term violent conflict, perceived security threats by the majority domicile community differ. Palestinian Israeli citizens (Palestinian in Israel) are the largest ethnic minority group in the country and they are primarily perceived as a security threat, while the more recent immigrants from the Soviet Union are perceived mainly as an economic and symbolic threat, while an ethnic minority is perceived as a security threat.

If the minority communities and indigenous groups are perceived as a security threat, with obvious cultural, economic or religious ties to the perceived enemy, this will determine attitudes of the majority groups and state policies towards them. Securitisation of minorities is also likely to happen when another conflict occurs in a proximity, which for example happened in the Baltic States where national minorities (Russian) are perceived as a source of danger and a threat to national identity following the annexation of Crimea by Russia. While these examples explain security concerns of the majority groups, minority communities will have their own perceptions of what constitutes a threat observed from the point of the vernacular security. Therefore, we also need a better understanding of the current security discourses and perceptions among minority groups not only to improve relevant state policies, but to find better ways for managing diversity.

We can conclude that sharing spaces in diverse societies and creating fair policies to manage diversity is not always a smooth process, and significant presence of the minorities more often than not leads to some form of insecurity. Both in international relations and in the field of human security, the risk of violence is the most extreme form of insecurity, while political exclusionism and different forms of discrimination are at the other end of the insecurity spectrum. On the one end of the spectrum the minorities are not feeling secure in their home states, while on the other are perceptions of security threat resulting from the presence of the minorities leading to securitization and justifying violent and restrictive behaviours against them by the state. In short, the presence of the minorities is often perceived as a threat by the majority communities, which differs in nature and scale, irrespective of their origin and formal status. An important question that remains is whose perspective should be considered when identifying security threats – that of the majority or of minority communities?

If the minority communities do not pose a real security threat, the states should not fail in securing their minorities, let alone securitise them on a large scale. Nevertheless, both the academic and grey literature show that the presence of minority communities is intrinsically linked to security issues, which points to the need for better conceptualisation and understanding of the security threats and the concept of security itself in shared and diverse societies. European societies have always been fluid, and they remain so, which means that demographic and territorial changes are imminent, but orientation towards diversity management and pluralistic policies should prevail over the tendency to securitise minority communities, in combination with extensive efforts to secure them.


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