By Alex T. Johnson and Mischa Thompson, PhD,
As part of an ongoing initiative to foster ethnic minority political participation in the OSCE region, Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Co-Chairman of the United States Helsinki Commission attended the United Nations (UN) Second Session of the Forum on Minority Issues. The Session focused on Minorities and Effective Political Participation, took place on November 12 and 13, 2009 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
The purpose of the Forum was to “identify and analyze best practices, challenges, opportunities and initiatives for the further implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.” The Forum consisted of a Preparatory Meeting for NGOs, Workshop for Minority Political Actors, the Forum, and two Side events organized by the Minority Rights Group and United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Recommendations based on the proceedings were produced at the close of the forum.
The U.S. delegation to the Forum was led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. In addition to Co-Chairman Hastings, other members of the U.S. delegation included, Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) – Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Delegate Donna Christensen (D-VI). The Forum was Chaired by Congresswoman Lee and convened by United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall. More than five hundred persons participated in the Forum, including more than eighty elected officials and other political actors, forty-five delegates and ninety-five non-government organizations from all over the world.
The U.S. Delegation attended the Workshop for Minority Political Actors, which took place prior to the Forum and allowed elected officials and other political figures to discuss their own priorities and strategies for increasing minority political participation. Participants discussed barriers and possible remedies and efforts governments, parliaments, political parties, national human rights institutions, civil society, treaty bodies, United Nations institutions, the media, and other stakeholders could engage in to foster minority political participation.
The U.S. delegation focused on the need to educate minority populations on their civil and political rights, including voting, running for office, and advocacy. Additionally, to address the lack of representation of minorities in government, the delegation called for initiatives that would increase employment opportunities for minorities in the political sphere. Specifically, these recommendations included introducing civic education programs led by minorities and developing minority youth professional development programs at government agencies, in parliaments, and in international bodies. Congressman Honda highlighted the importance of including minorities in the development, management, and implementation of government initiatives targeting minorities. “One should see minorities in professional positions upon immediately entering national human rights agencies, especially when the agency has a stated goal of combating racism and discrimination,” he argued. (This and other suggestions from the U.S. Delegation were included in the final Recommendations of the Forum.)
As Chairperson, Congresswoman Lee opened the official Forum. In her remarks, she noted that empowering minorities politically is critical to achieving a truly democratic, free and global community. While she cited the election of President Barack Obama as an example of gains made toward fair election processes, she stated that minorities are still underrepresented in the U.S. Congress. For instance, there is currently only one African-American serving in the U.S. Senate.) Additionally, she stated that a continued focus of the Congressional Black Caucus and other minority caucuses was to address disparities between minority and majority populations in all aspects of society including the political arena.
Following her remarks, government delegates and members of civil society ranging from Iranian dissidents to South Asian Dalit activists gave remarks. While many of the governments offered descriptions of their various initiatives to foster minority political participation, some governments provided assessments and prescriptions for improvement, including the U.S. government. Of particular relevance to minority political participation in the European context were the comments of OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek. The Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities is a unique institution of the OSCE in that it is situated in a politico-security dimension of the organization and facilitates confidential direct assessments on the status of minorities in the 56 participating States of the OSCE. High Commissioner Vollebaek highlighted how the underrepresentation of minorities in public services exacerbates the challenge of involving minorities in civic life. More specifically, he noted that exclusion and its causes threaten the stability of societies if left unaddressed. Other presentations throughout the forum corroborated the importance of this message.
Speaking on the panel “Concrete Steps to Advance Minority Political Participation and to Build Capacity of Minorities to Participate Effectively,” Co-Chairman Hastings highlighted his work with minority European Parliamentarians in convening the 2009 Black European Summit. He noted findings from the Summit, including that “the majority of our political and legal systems do not accurately reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our societies.” He called for this problem to be addressed via “simple solutions governments, political parties, and non-governmental organizations can employ such as advertising employment opportunities in minority communities, requiring that at least a percentage of persons interviewed for a position are minorities, and providing fellowships and internships for minority youth in Parliament, government agencies, and other organizations.”
On the margins of the UN Minority Issues Forum, Co-Chairman Hastings convened a roundtable of participants of the April 2009 Black European Summit and other interested parties. The roundtable provided an opportunity to follow up on the Brussels Declaration adopted at the close of the Black European Summit (see Appendix 1), and discuss future initiatives for continuing the transatlantic dialogue. The discussion also informed individuals unable to participate in the Black European Summit about the scope of activities and potential for future collaboration.
Participants identified destinations for study tours to view the situation of minorities and existing initiatives to increase minority political participation in the OSCE region. The United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, and Germany were specifically named given that the populations of visible minorities in these countries remains high and that they each offer unique narratives for analyzing methods to overcome barriers to minority political participation. Participants reaffirmed the need for annual meetings to sustain linkages between minority political actors and agreed to identify additional minority leaders to expand the transatlantic dialogue and plan future initiatives.
The “Recommendations of the second session of the Forum on Minority Issues on minorities and effective political participation” were compiled at the close of the Forum and should serve as a useful guide for governments to foster minority political inclusion. Moreover, in the OSCE region, sustaining a transatlantic dialogue with minority political actors focused on minority political inclusion is not only key to implementation of the recommendations, but also realizing the commitments to democratic societies enshrined in both the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and the Helsinki Final Act.
We, as members of the public, private, and voluntary sectors from Europe and the United States of America convening in Brussels, Belgium from the 15 to 16 of April 2009 for the Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion, draw attention to the need for coordinated strategies to address racism and discrimination;
We recognize the democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-racial nature of our countries’ diverse societies;
We reaffirm the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and recalling that all individuals are born equal in dignity and rights;
We remain concerned that the political and legal systems in some of our societies do not reflect the racial and ethnic diversity within our societies, which then contributes to the continuation of racism and discrimination;
We recognize that the full access of racial and ethnic minorities to participate in the political sphere and relevant areas of decision making at the levels of national, regional, and locally elected government appropriate to each nation is critical to combating racism and inequality and ensuring our democratic societies;
We therefore note the need for concrete strategies to: increase the representation and influence of racial and ethnic minority policymakers; jointly seek solutions to racial and ethnic minorities increased participation in decision-making in the development and implementation of policy initiatives to address discrimination and inequality; and support opportunities to exchange and share perspectives in these areas through the continuance of a transatlantic dialogue to realize these goals.
We today resolve that we will endeavor to enact initiatives to eradicate racial and ethnic discrimination through:
Continuing a transatlantic dialogue that: includes cultural exchanges between American and European racial and ethnic minority groups, including youth; focuses on the development of opportunities for racial and ethnic minority political leadership and participation in the policymaking process; and fosters the exchange of information on best practices to implement and enforce antidiscrimination measures and achieve racial equality;
Joining forces over the coming months to develop common goals and objectives in each of our decision-making bodies to recognize Europe’s Black and racial and ethnic minority populations for their historical and present-day contributions and acknowledge past injustices;
Promoting racial and ethnic minority participation at all levels of national, regional, and local government through the education of civil and political rights, including the legislative process and advocacy of legislative issues relevant to racial and ethnic minority communities, development of targeted professional development and hiring strategies, and increased youth and community outreach;
Reaffirming our continued cooperation and commitment to work with our governments, international institutions, civil society, private sector, and other partners to improve institutions so that they are fully participatory and reflect the democratic principles of equality, justice, and celebration of the strengths of our countries’ diversity.
In 2008, Congressman Hastings Chaired two U.S. Helsinki Commission hearings entitled: “The State of (In)visible Black Europe: Race, Rights, and Politics” and “Racism in the 21st Century: Understanding Global Challenges and Implementing Solutions.” At the hearings, the lack of minority representation in European policymaking, especially at national levels, was identified as a major obstacle to combating racism and discrimination by European witnesses. This prompted a call for a transatlantic dialogue on minority political participation that included best practices from the United States’ Civil Rights Movement. The resulting events have been the 2009 Black European Summit and 2010 Transatlantic Dialogue on Minority Political Leadership.