Reconciling Minority Rights and State Sovereignty

When the East/West conflict ended ten years ago, many hoped that the democratic changes in Eastern Europe would inspire peaceful resolution between the claims of human rights and those of state sovereignty throughout the world. Instead, ethnic conflicts have multiplied, shaking many East European and Asian countries. Minority and ethnic rights, it appears, are only demanded at the barrel of a gun, as in Chechnya and East Timor.

Why is this so? The call for ``human rights,'' which have been made repeatedly since 1989, accents the rights of individuals in their struggles against overweening state institutions. Freedom of thought, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly: these were the rights that have been stressed most often, probably because they reflected the long struggle to restore the individual liberties smothered under communism.

But human rights confined to the context of freedom for individuals are insufficient to resolving ethnic conflicts, because ethnic communities and groups cannot use the mechanisms of human rights laws and agreements to secure an effective hearing for their claims. States, after all, are usually the forces suppressing their demands. Minority and ethnic violence arises out of the sense of frustration that results.

In order for the international community to use the concept of human rights to resolve and settle ethnic conflicts, a concept of community must be incorporated within the framework of our understanding of human rights. Only if groups are offered corresponding instruments to assert their own collective human rights will there arise a chance that ethnic minorities will not resort to violence in order to achieve their ends, but will seek satisfaction in a civic forum.