A trans-national approach needed to support South Asian minorities

With increasing globalisation, human and minority rights are becoming an important supranational policy issue. The EURASIA-Net research project investigated the knowledge base on minority protection, comparing current European and South Asian approaches, and creating a framework for future research cooperation between Europe and South Asia. It suggests a more coherent and pan-regional research policy in relation to human and minority rights, and an inter-disciplinary approach that stresses globalisation and trans-nationality.

South Asia has a long tradition of regional research in the field of cultural, religious, linguistic and ethnic management but there are few attempts to integrate this research across nations. The EURASIA-Net project has analysed the status of research and knowledge in this area, to identify the type of study and collaboration that could inform policies to reduce ethnic-religious conflicts in South Asia. It consisted of Scholar Exchanges and Summer Schools for European and South Asian scholars, as well as information sessions and exchanges between EU Officials and South Asia stakeholders such as academics, media, decision-makers and NGOs.

The project identified a number of important features in current policy and research that could influence future study:

Research on minority and human rights

Minority research is not centrally organised in South Asia but conducted at different levels, which can sometimes be at cross-purposes. Although minority research has become a hot topic, it tends to be uneven and focused on the ‘large’ minorities that have been recognised by the state. Following on from this, most studies focus on minorities within individual countries and very little work has been done on comparing or discovering their continuities and links across borders. This may be accentuated by concern that cross-border linkages could create a threat to the integrity of the states of South Asia. Minorities tend to be seen as ‘national minorities’ and governing them has become an issue of placing minorities within a national body rather than recognising them as an international group.

The project also suggests that existing comparative research tends to be between ‘politically benign’ countries – i.e. states which have good political relations, such as the minorities of India and Malaysia. There is a lack of comparative research on minorities in countries which have tense inter-state relations, for example comparative research on Indian and Pakistani minorities is under-researched.

Policy on minority and human rights

Currently, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the main body for co-ordination of minority and human rights issues. The SAARC Social Charter1 was signed by the seven states of Asia in 2004 to protect minority and group rights, especially those of the elderly, women and children. There is also a South Asian Charter on Minority and Group Rights, which can be used as a reference tool by governments, human rights institutes and NGOs to promote legislative reform. As a follow up to this the Charter on Minority Rights in India has been drafted which lays out 11 principles. These are not enforceable but facilitate the enforcement of existing provisions.

Despite the existence of these charters they state little about protecting minorities within their respective territories. This has been hindered by some deep-rooted tensions among Member States, an asymmetry in power between different regions (in particular India) and the lack of involvement from some governments. Compared with Europe, there is a lack of regional autonomy, meaning it is difficult for minority voices to be heard politically. For example, in Bangladesh the Chittagong Hill indigenous people are still struggling for fundamental rights and territorial autonomy. There is also little attention paid to languages as a regional issue whereas the Council of Europe has the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM)2 and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages3 which both attach the utmost importance to language rights.

However, the project suggested that SAARC was not comparable to the Council of Europe and could not be approached as such. It highlighted the challenges of understanding and overcoming the differences between the EU and South Asia. It suggested that these are mainly due to South Asia’s underdeveloped regional perspective and the existence of large asymmetries between South Asian regions, as exemplified by India’s hegemony.

When compared to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), it appears there are several limitations in the SAARC procedures and institutional development. For example, SAARC lacks a mechanism to settle disputes within its organisation, which has hindered the development of a regional South Asian concept of peace and security. It is suggested that the SAARC processes need a thorough review to agree on a roadmap for progressing the association from a declaratory to an implementation phase. This would probably include an amendment to the SAARC charter and its rules of procedure to permit consideration of both bilateral and contentious issues within its remit. Some believe that SAARC should create an office of Special Rapporteur, which would review and report on the status of minorities in the different countries.

The project did note the work of national Human Rights Institutions in South Asia which, in cooperation with the civil society sector, could play an important role in convincing governments and SAARC to put human rights on the agenda. It also suggests that the EU should work on issues related to autonomy and social justice in its dialogue with South Asia.

The project provided several recommendations for future research, which could help inform policy in this area:

  • Research should have a more pan-regional and supranational focus. Current research tends to focus on minorities as confined to state territories and as victims of discrimination. A research approach that examines the linkages and connections of minority groups across borders could help inform more effective protection of minority rights.
  • Migration across nation-states has increased rapidly over recent years. This has created new minorities and triggered schisms between locals and migrants. Cross-national research is needed in the area of migration to inform strategies to manage it appropriately.
  • In the context of minority rights, language is an important issue. More research is needed on its social and cultural impact and on comparing the linguistic rights of ethnic minorities in Europe and South Asia.
  • More in-depth research is needed on minorities within minorities, a complex reality which comprises minorities living in territories where another (larger) minority exists (e.g., the Ladins in South Tyrol, Italy), or members of minority groups such as women, adherents to minority religions and persons of homosexual orientation, or indeed, persons combining a number of minority characteristics.
  • Closer examination is needed of the few cases in South Asia that serve as models to be followed. For example, the Indian state of Mizoram that broke away from India has been showcased as a success in supporting minority rights; however, on closer examination, it appears that individual rights tend to be suppressed in this new society.
  • Research should be more focused on informing policy and evaluating institutional alternatives for promoting minority rights, such as some of the exiting autonomy arrangements in Europe (e.g., the Åland Islands in Finland).
  • Research must consider the historical interplay of European and South Asian experiences as well as current impacts of globalisation. Europe can learn from South Asia, especially with respect to new minorities in Europe.

In order to facilitate research into these different areas, EURASIA-Net suggested the following:

  • Continuation of the study visit programme and summer schools started by EURASIA-Net. This should be done by universities in Europe and South Asia with external support.
  • An inter-disciplinary approach that stresses globalisation and trans-nationality, i.e. to foster regional and trans-border studies.
  • An agreed research policy and trans-national platform between the two regions.
  • Formalised processes to support co-ordination between universities in Europe and South Asia.
  • EU involvement for a centre for peace studies in South Asia.
  • Dissemination of publications that reach a wider audience, such as the educational material, material for media and materials for NGOs produced by the project. In addition, more creative ways of producing research data are needed, such as video documentaries.
  • The creation of information collecting points in EU Member States and South Asia where reports can be disseminated.


1 See: http://www.saarc-sec.org/areaofcooperation/detail.php?activity_id=7

2 See: http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/minorities/default_en.asp

3 See: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/minlang/default_en.asp

EURASIA-Net – Europe-South Asia exchange on supranational (regional) policies and instruments for the promotion of human rights and management of minority issues (duration: 1/1/2008–30/06/2010). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 8 “Strategic activities", Research area 8.2 "Horizontal measures to support international cooperation". Coordination and support action (support action).

See: http://www.eurac.edu/eurasia-net

Contact: Dr Günther Rautz, g.rautz@eurac.edu