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What are Minority Rights?

Jessica Hobby
Jessica Hobby

Minority rights refer to rights of an individual or a group who are a small number in comparison to the remainder of the population. In the context of international law, minority rights are most concerned with national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities, but other minority groups exist. Minority rights regularly change in conjunction with minority status, which is determined by location. For example, a Jewish man in the United States is considered a religious minority, while the same man in Israel would be part of the majority.

With increasing global awareness and focus on human rights, the United Nations (UN) has made a declaration on minority rights. The declaration is not law, but many countries, especially democracies, are obligated to adhere to its content because they have signed treaties. Although there are still many countries who grossly violate human rights, especially in the case of minorities, the United Nations' declaration offers a well rounded explanation of minority rights.

Minority rights allow individuals to practice their culture without fear of discrimination.
Minority rights allow individuals to practice their culture without fear of discrimination.

Adopted in 1992, the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities globally promotes human rights and individual freedom without regard to race, sex, language or religion. Specific minority rights mentioned in the declaration include the right for a minority group to take pleasure in its own culture, practice its choice of religion and use its own language without fear of discrimination.

Freedom of religion is a minority right.
Freedom of religion is a minority right.

The UN declaration also includes that people who belong to minority groups have the right to participate in all aspects of life, which include cultural, religious, social and economic activities. Additionally, minority groups have the right to establish and organize their own associations. They may choose to exercise or not exercise their rights without discrimination.

Nations who adhere to the UN Declaration are obligated to put particular measures in place to ensure minority rights. When nations create new laws, programs and policies, they must do so with the best interest of minorities in mind. Nations must also create favorable conditions for minorities to practice their culture, religion, customs and language when it does not violate national law. Creating these conditions is often achieved through education.

For example, nations must include opportunities for minorities to learn their native language and be instructed in their native language. Additionally, countries are urged to promote the knowledge of culture, history, tradition and language of minorities within their country to encourage peaceful relations between minority groups and the majority. States are also encouraged to promote minority activity within economic and political developments within their countries.

Discussion Comments


I think the United Nations has helped the world to be more aware of current inequalities within minority groups. It has written a resolution outlining ideas that will help governments to provide equal rights for all minorities.

Some democratic countries are taking the United Nation's ideas seriously and are making changes to assure rights for religious, racial,and language minorities.

I have noticed that some European countries, like France, have begun putting restrictions on Islam tradition, like clothing. There has been quite a bit of conflict over this. This could escalate into a big problem.


When immigrants come to reside in another country, I believe that they should be strongly encouraged to embrace the language and culture.

A country can't possibly cater to all language groups by printing documents and making signs in every minority language. I think public funds should be used to educate all in the language of the country.

On the other hand, minority groups should be able to participate in their own cultural, educational, and language events. With privately funded schools, they should be able to teach their children in their own language.

They deserve to have all the same rights as the majority and to not be discriminated because of religion, race, ethnic group, gender or language.


@JaneAir - I don't really understand why you feel this way. Is it going to hurt you to have some school somewhere in this country teach classes in Spanish? I'm going to answer that question-no it's isn't!

I swear, I hear people whine and complain about minority rights, and I wonder how you would feel if the situation was reversed and your were the minority! And for your information, based on the demographics of this country, in another 40 or so years the current majority will be the minority!


I'm pretty much in favor of minority rights. However, I don't think we should be catering to minorities by having to educate them in their native language. I'm pretty sure we don't even do that in the United States anyway.

We have a pretty sizable Hispanic minority population here in this country. But I don't know of any public schools that teach classes in Spanish. And I think that's good.

I have absolutely no problem with people immigrating to this country. But if they're going to come here, they should embrace our culture and language and become Americans, not Mexicans of Cubans living in America.


@rugbygirl - I agree. I think the concept of minority rights has to be subordinated to a larger question – does the United States as it exists today represent a democracy, or a republic?

If it’s a democracy, then the majority wins. In a democracy each minority has a right to weigh in on issues of national debate, along with the majority. The danger of a democracy is that you wind up with majority rule, or a tyranny of the majority. The whims of the masses can dictate which direction the nation goes from one election to another.

I personally believe that America is a representative republic. In a republic, both minorities and majorities can elect and petition their representatives. The representatives endeavor to rule based on their understanding of the Constitution. The Constitution remains the steadfast guide, in my opinion, unmoved by the whims of public opinion.


@EdRick - In the US, it all comes down to the Bill of Rights. Remember that many of the colonies had been founded by minorities (like the Puritans, who in England were outnumbered by more mainstream "high church" Church of England folks).

They wanted to keep that from happening here, so they codified certain principles - that the government, for instance, should not sponsor a religion as the British government does. And that the government shouldn't make laws about what people can say.

It's those constitutional principles that work to protect the rights of the minorities. Now, if there was a huge majority in this country that wanted to overturn the first amendment and create a theocracy, there's nothing stopping them from getting a new constitutional amendment going to remove the first amendment. But the founders made sure that would be a difficult process, not one that could just be done on a whim.


I've never really understood this concept of minority rights. In a country like the US that follows majority rule, doesn't allows minorities special treatment just lead to a tyranny of the minority?

If a majority want, as a random example, prayer in school, why can't that be allowed? Why should a few people be able to stand in the way of what the majority want? It seems like you so often hear about just one person, or a tiny group of people, protesting against some tradition, holiday display, etc. that no one else minds at all. Then lawsuits get filed and the next thing you know, this thing that the majority may have valued is gone forever.

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    • Minority rights allow individuals to practice their culture without fear of discrimination.
      By: Jeanette Dietl
      Minority rights allow individuals to practice their culture without fear of discrimination.
    • Freedom of religion is a minority right.
      By: Ruggiero Scardigno
      Freedom of religion is a minority right.