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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 170
May 21, 2010

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Resolving ethnic conflicts

What is the role of education?

Shafiqur Rahman Khan

We must do more to prevent conflicts happening at all. Most conflicts happen in poor countries, especially those which are badly governed or where power and wealth are very unfairly distributed between ethnic or religious groups. So the best way to prevent conflict is promote political arrangements in which all groups are fairly represented, combined with human rights, minority rights and broad-based economic development."[Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations Statement on presenting his Millennium Report, 3 April 2000]

Minority issues have been at the heart of many violent conflicts. In 2002, an assessment of 53 ongoing conflicts found that over seventy-one percent of the world's conflicts had an ethnic dimension. Internationally, ethno nations, especially in Europe, Asia and Africa, have been divided by state borders through wars, the wake of communism or colonialism. This sometimes caused very serious kin-state/home-state conflicts.

Minorities are the part of a population that suffer most from conflict and are most likely to become victims of crimes under international law. This is acknowledged by one of the fundamental principles of minority rights law, namely the contribution to peace and stability. Furthermore, the major international legal instruments governing the rights of minorities relate to this objective, by setting out obligations regarding the physical existence of minorities. Additionally, the fact that the crimes as set out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court do, for a large part, have a minority aspect inherent in them shows that minorities could be the primary beneficiaries from international justice in the future.

Furthermore, international and domestic peace can also be jeopardized when an ethnic minority considers itself a nation and wants to break out of a country either to become independent or to join a neighboring state. Minorities are particularly vulnerable to persecution by their own governments in internal conflicts and what has been called “tyrannical regime victimisation”.

According to a study, nearly fifty ethnic and religious minorities have been targeted in forty-one episodes of genocide and mass political murder, resulting in at least thirteen million and as many as twenty million casualties of non-combatants. Non-international conflicts in the twentieth century resulted in more than 170 million deaths until the mid-nineties. In the last decades, the conflicts raging, inter alia, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (hereinafter: Former Yugoslavia), Rwanda, Northern Ireland and East Timor can all be traced back to the existence of minority people asserting various rights. The suppression of minorities leads not only to internal instability and unrest, but can cause destabilisation of entire regions, such as the former Yugoslavia and Indonesia.

Minority rights can be used to prevent crimes perpetrated against them in a variety of areas. This can be the case in fields conventionally associated with minority rights such as identity of communities and the education of the general public thereof. Additionally, areas that seem to be at first glance further away from the traditional realm of minority rights, such as the international criminal legal system that sets out deterrence as one of their major objectives, have a lot to gain from taking minority rights into account.

International criminal law can serve as active protection of minorities. However, these findings are currently not implemented in the practical work of international criminal justice, in particular in the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Tribunal for Rwanda. This is regrettable, since their impact could increase by making use of the concept of international minority rights law as a way of broadening the understanding of crimes committed as to their roots, causes and prevention.

Therefore, education and mutual exchange within different societal groups or between different branches of law or legal practitioners are seen as key elements in the struggle against crimes perpetrated against minorities. Emphasis should be laid on the interrelation and connection between the areas of international criminal and international human rights law.

Educating minority populations about their rights and raising awareness amongst the general public of the minority identity and culture, and their contribution to a common culture and history, contributes to mutual understanding and acceptance, preventing ethnic entrepreneurs to succeed in dividing communities.

The concept of education needs to be expanded to judicial systems, meaning that practitioners in both international criminal and minority rights law need to realise that the protection of minorities is an interdisciplinary effort, which cannot be achieved by experts focusing on one subject matter or one branch of law alone. If the ad hoc tribunals' claim of deterrence is supposed to be a valid one, they have to take into account minority rights law to expose the system of structural discrimination and violence in a society that often leads to crimes perpetrated against minorities. Experts dealing with the practical implementation of minority rights, on the other hand, can benefit from the research and investigations conducted within the international criminal legal system.

In the future, this linkage might be furthered by the judges of the ICC, who, according to the Rome Statute, need to be experts either in criminal law and procedure or in relevant areas of international law, such as humanitarian or human rights law. A quota provision guarantees that judges of both fields are represented in the court. This constitutes a promising development as to the recognition of the interdependence between international criminal law, international human rights law and public international law and confirms that these areas of law have a lot to gain from each other in the process of combating crimes under international law and protect minorities.

If, as H.G. Wells suggested in 1920, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”; the international community must use the means it has to make sure it supports the right runner.

The writer teaches law at the Jagannath University, Dhaka.


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