Laval Conference on Minorities

By Maria Murillo

On March 5, 1985, John Peters Humphrey, original drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and former Law Professor at McGill University, gave a brief speech at the Conference of Minorities held by Université Laval at Chateau Frontenac, in Quebec City.[1] From beginning to end, he expressed his interest in minority rights, especially those of linguistic minorities across Canada. Humphrey began his address in French, expressing his appreciation of the language and acknowledging that as a representative of the Anglophone minority in the province of Quebec, he would continue his speech in his native tongue.

Humphrey continued his address by acknowledging the importance of analyzing and questioning the role that both the state and international law play in the protection of minorities: “in and age when majority rule is apt to be considered the ultimate value, it is well to remember that, as the Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘a country can be judged by the way it treats its minorities’”.[2] His speech essentially goes through a brief review of the absence of international law in what he calls the “positive protection of minorities.”[3] Rather than praising the role of the United Nations Charter, the Universal declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Genocide convention in advocating for and defending the rights of minorities; he was openly critical of their attempt of only preventing discrimination with no other intended actions to actually fully protect minorities’ cultural identities. He believes that advocating only for equality is simply not enough. Also the lack of consensus of what is to be done to protect minority groups, comes from “most if not all states, which did not and do not want to help minorities preserve their cultural identity, but rather assimilate them.”[4] Although article 27 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does mention “the protection of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and the group’s rights to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion or to use their own language”[5] it still does not impose any duty on the states to perform any additional service that would guarantee the protection and survival of diverse cultural identities.

He found this particularly problematic because as he illustrated with a Canadian example, countries have failed to reflect their international obligations in the matter of human rights.[6] Before any amendments were made to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Charter did not include the prohibition of discrimination based on language.[7] In fact, as Humphrey describes, the list only clearly stated discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.  If it were not for the two first words: “In particular” on article 15 of the Charter, Canadians would be completely unprotected from active discrimination based on linguistic grounds.[8] This and other examples used in this speech illustrated the lack of cooperation between states and international law to come to an agreement on how to best protect the identity and the interests of minorities.

The significance of this speech is of great value especially in today’s political climate. Although Humphrey did refer to the protection of minorities in general and not on any specific category of their identity, his audience was made up of a linguistic minority at a time when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms did not explicitly condemn their discrimination based on language in the province of Quebec. It is important to recognize that language is a key element of ethnicity and culture and that its protection is essential to the survival of cultural identity.[9] Although changes and amendments have been made in both international law and Canadian law[10] Humphrey’s main argument still stands. As long as the protection of cultural identity of minorities is not adequately achieved through the vindication of equality and the prohibition of discrimination,[11] and as long as there are no enforceable obligatory rules to be followed by states in regards to the protection of minorities, the words in the United Nations Charter, and the various conventions and bodies of law criticized by Humphrey are simply just symbolic. This is not to suggest that all of the current international laws condemning discrimination, genocide, etc. are of no use, but rather that there must be some change in the way they are enforced.  Only then will states actually be accountable and will not force the assimilation of certain minorities into the mainstream without facing serious repercussions.

Humphrey often referred to this change as a positive protection of minorities, “that is to say an obligation assumed by the state to provide certain services for the minority, such as minority schools, in order to help it preserve certain characteristics that distinguish it from the majority population or, more simply put, to help the minority preserve its identity.”[12] Although his intentions are good, my understanding from this is that it could perhaps lead to unintentional exclusion of certain groups. I do agree that spaces should be provided, but I would still much rather see respect and tolerance of difference rather than assimilation, or exclusion of a group.

The arguments presented in this speech represent an innovative way of questioning the validity of international law. It makes one realize how the laws sound great on paper, but are they actually being followed and enforced? I believe they are to an extent, however, there is a need for more pressure on establishing clear repercussions if the protections are to ever be violated. I believe this speech is extremely important and can be linked to several news events in the last few months. I choose to focus on the controversial executive order made by US President Donald Trump on the barring immigration entry from seven majority- Muslim countries. It has been thoroughly studied, and it is certain that this order violates several international treaties ratified by the United States, some of which include: the post-World War II Refugee Convention of 1951, as well as the laws present in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which the US is bound and requires state parties to “guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law.”[13] Nevertheless, violations of this sort are not new in the United States. After 9/11 attacks, all the measures taken to fight against terrorism have discriminated based on race, and religion.[14] So despite the controversy of the ban, it is not the first time it has occurred and although there is a lot of condemnation from international leaders, as well as from the United Nations, not much else has been done to solve this violation or past violations. This is where Humphrey’s argument is extremely beneficial to understand the need for these laws to be enforced to actually protect the minority of Muslims living in and immigrating to the United States. Until then we will continue to witness history-repeat-itself.

[1] Humphrey, John Peters. “Laval Conference on Minorities.” Speech, Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City, March 5, 1985. Accessed February 20, 2017. 1-13.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mowbray, Jacqueline. 2006. “Ethnic Minorities and Language Rights: The State, Identity and Culture in International Legal Discourse”. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. 6 (1): 2-29.

[10] Tavani, Claudia. 2012. “The Protection of the Cultural Identity of Minorities in International Law: Individual versus Collective Rights”. European Yearbook of Minority Issues Online. 9 (1): 84-92.

[11] Ibid., 92.

[12] Humphrey, “Laval Conference on Minorities,” 4.

[13] Dakwar, Jamil. “All international laws Trump’s Muslim ban is breaking.” USA | Al Jazeera. February 02, 2017. Accessed February 22, 2017.

[14] Ibid.

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