Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Hillary Clinton and the Trouble with 'Minority Rights' (complete)

Part I: Civil Rights versus "Minority Rights"

Last November 8th, Hillary Clinton gave the keynote address to a conference on the "Plight of the Roma" hosted by Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Europe (text here and video here). She prefaced her remarks by noting that she had immediately agreed to the invitation to talk on the issue of Roma in Europe,

...because during my time as First Lady in a number of my visits to Central and Eastern Europe - focusing on the plight of the Roma, particularly the children - it was something that I tried to bring more attention and broader public awareness of, both in the host country and in our own.

Furthermore, Senator Clinton placed the question of improving the condition of Roma in Europe squarely under the banner of "ethnic minority rights" as "embraced", as she put it, by the European Union:

Many of you know everything I'm about to say about the Roma and ethnic minority rights in Europe, but the significance of this conference is not only because individual nations are beginning to address the challenges that Roma people face in being integrated into their larger societies but it is in many respects a civil rights movement that the European Union has been willing to embrace. And because it is about civil rights and human rights and about shared responsibilities and opportunities, I think it has resonance to those of us in our country as well.

Mrs. Clinton repeatedly emphasized the importance of "minority rights", notably in recounting her visits to Central and Eastern European countries as First Lady, which, according to her reminiscences, also included some seemingly disagreeable visits to Roma-majority neighborhoods:

When I visited countries with large numbers of Roma - Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary - I would often visit the areas where they predominantly lived which were often without up-to-date utilities and services; rundown, rather despairing-looking places. And it is now for the first time, largely because of the expansion of the European Union and the willingness to look at some of the internal problems that Europe will face if they are not dealt with now, that the issues surrounding the Roma are being addressed....

The leadership of the countries were often not enthusiastic about my visiting these places and talking to the representatives of the Roma community. But I thought I needed to make it a point to do so, especially as so many of these nations were in the midst of a transition to democracy and were struggling to understand concepts that we take for granted like minority rights....

So in explaining democracy often the situations they had at that time only five or six years of experience [sic.], stressing the role of minority rights I thought was a critical ingredient for them to acknowledge....

Now, contrary to what Senator Clinton seems to suggest, the concept of "minority rights" is by no means "taken for granted" by most Americans- perhaps she was addressing only the European members of the audience - and this is hardly surprising since it is virtually unknown in American law. It could be argued that it is implicit in various "affirmative action" provisions - and indeed when these are linked to either explicit or de facto quotas, they do approximate one aspect of what are known as "minority rights" in the European context. However, as even Senator Clinton would admit, such measures are in principle supposed to be temporary. Hence they are not, strictly speaking, a matter of rights.

By contrast, the "concept of minority rights" is nowadays a commonplace of European political discourse and is even enshrined in European law: both in inter-state European conventions - most notably, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities - and in the national legislations of European states supposed to uphold the terms of the latter. Indeed, per the so-called "Copenhagen Criteria", guarantees of the "respect for and protection of minorities" are a condition for accession to the EU and, according to the European Commission's own declarations [1], this criterion is interpreted in practice by reference to the Framework Convention.

There is here a fundamental incompatibility between European law and American law that Senator Clinton's presentation - by assimilating the European notion of "minority rights" to "civil rights" and, in any case, saying nothing specific about the content of said "rights" - manages to obscure. Whereas American law, of course, prohibits discrimination on the basis of "national origins" and whereas the elimination of de jure and de facto discrimination was the principal goal and indeed achievement of the American civil rights movement, European "minority rights" law in fact positively requires such discrimination. This is because the holders of the rights in question are differentially defined as the members of their respective "national" or "ethnic" minorities and in contrast to the "majority" nation. The assimilation of "national" minorities to "ethnic" minorities in this context, moreover, shows that the notion of "nationhood" in play is precisely that pre-political, fundamentally racist - or if one prefers "racialist" - notion that I have touched upon in some recent posts (see here and here): a notion of "nationhood", in effect, according to which "nations" are not coextensive with the citizenries of states and there can even be "nations" without states. The very attempt to subsume the question of "Roma rights" within the framework of "national minority" or, as according to Mrs. Clinton's preferred formula, "ethnic minority" rights makes this clear.

This attempt is not as self-evident as Mrs. Clinton appears to believe, however. Indeed, there is a certain irony in Mrs. Clinton having chosen precisely a discussion of the Roma as the occasion for her plea on behalf of European-style "minority rights". For in fact the eligibility of Roma for "protection" under European"minority rights" law is a highly contentious issue. This is because in practice the definition of "national minorities" in the national legislation of particular European states further discriminates between members of "minority groups" that are supposed to have "traditionally" inhabited the national territory - so-called "autochthonous" minorities - and members of "minority groups" who have not: so-called "allochthonous" minorities. The latter do not count as "national minorities" at all. Though certain European states (Germany, for instance), whether as a function of political correctness or historical guilt, have, nonetheless, recognized Roma as a "national minority", it is not hard to see how such provisions would tend to exclude Roma - the non-sedentary "people" par excellence - from "minority rights" protections. As I have discussed in my "Anti-Semitism and Ethnicity in Europe", they also tend to exclude Jews. Finally, they exclude, and are indeed designed to exclude, all more recent immigrants: for example, the some 2 million persons of Turkish origins currently living in Germany or the 1-2 million persons of Russian descent in the Baltic states.

Thus Estonia, for example, in ratifying the Framework Convention submitted a declaration to the effect that it would only recognize as “nationality minority” such “citizens” (presumably the idea is rather groups of “citizens”) as “maintain longstanding, firm and lasting ties with Estonia” – a condition clearly devised in order to exclude ethnic Russians. On account of similar concerns about its large Russian population, Latvia has not yet ratified the Convention. But the performance of the European Commission – indeed the very fact that it found Latvia to have satisfied the political conditions for EU membership despite its refusal to accord ethnic Russians “national minority” status – shows that it has nothing to fear from the EU in this regard and that the EU as such accepts in practice the criterion of “autochthoneity”.

There is, moreover, yet another reason why Mrs. Clinton's choice of the Roma to illustrate the supposed virtues of European "minority rights" law is ironic, and in this case the irony is particularly bitter. For arguably the greatest catastrophe to befall Roma in Europe since the Second World War was the direct consequence of European agitation - followed by combined US and European intervention - on behalf of another supposedly oppressed "ethnic minority".

Part II: Forgetting Kosovo

Last June 10, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) published a report titled “Five Years of Ethnic Cleansing of ‘Gypsies’ from Kosovo”. Its opening paragraph reads as follows:

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptians and other persons regarded as "Gypsies" from Kosovo. In the wake of the cessation of NATO action against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in June 1999 and the subsequent return of predominantly ethnic Albanians from abroad, ethnic Albanians violently expelled approximately four fifths of Kosovo's pre-1999 Romani population -- estimated to have been around 120,000 -- from their homes. In the course of the ethnic cleansing campaign, ethnic Albanians kidnapped Roma and severely physically abused and in some cases killed Roma; raped Romani women in the presence of family members; and seized, looted or destroyed property en masse. Whole Romani settlements were burned to the ground by ethnic Albanians, in many cases while NATO troops looked on. A number of Romani individuals who disappeared during the summer months of 1999 remain to date missing and are presumed dead.

It is significant that the ERRC dates the beginning of the expulsions to June 10, 1999: i.e. the very day of the suspension of the NATO air campaign against then Yugoslavia following the agreement by Belgrade to withdraw its troops and cede control of Kosovo province to NATO. It is remarkable that Mrs. Clinton, who claims to have been so touched by the “plight of the Roma” during her time as First Lady, should ignore the tragic consequences of the major foreign policy decision of her husband’s tenure as President for the Roma of Kosovo.

The Kosovo example is illustrative of the risks involved in a policy of promoting “minority rights”: risks not only for the stability of existing states, but even indeed for those persons who might find themselves classified as belonging to “minorities”. There is a sort of inverse relationship between the two sets of risks. The stronger an ethnic-national “minority” movement is and the more capable it is of obtaining concessions in the form of “rights” or even local governmental competencies (“autonomy”), the more fragile and or dysfunctional become the central state institutions. Thus, a state recognizing “minority rights” – and hence necessarily distinguishing between “national minorities” and the “majority” nation, i.e. ethnically construed – will have an objective interest in reducing the demographic weight of “minorities” in its population. The late Franjo Tudjman, the first President of independent Croatia, is accordingly said to have regarded the reduction of Croatia’s “ethnic Serb” population, from the roughly 12% of the total population it represented on independence to under 3%, as a “strategic goal” [link in German]. By the time of the 2001 Croatian census and following the mass expulsion of Serbs from the Krajina in 1995, this “goal” had nearly been reached. While the “extreme” nationalism of Tudjman and the party he founded, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), is nowadays condemned even by some of his erstwhile European patrons, it cannot be said that Franjo Tudjman did not understand the nature of the ethnic-national state. Even “moderate” nationalists, if their nationalism is of the ethnic variety and if they are consistent, would arrive at conclusions similar to his.

In any case, the nationalist militants of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the political formations affiliated with it – on whose behalf, in effect, NATO intervened in the Kosovo conflict – did not need to enter into such complicated calculations. Whereas Bill Clinton presented their struggle to a woefully misinformed and under-informed American public as the defensive struggle of a threatened “ethnic minority”, more knowledgeable observers, such as the German Balkan specialist Wolf Oschlies, saw something rather different. Writing in the August edition of the Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Oschlies notes:

...radical Albanians from Albania and Kosovo have always understood the conflict as a ‘war against the Serbian people’, as a militant contribution to the ‘idea of Albanian national unification’, which has first to be carried out against the Serbs, then against Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro…finally against Russia (the supposed ‘protector’ of the Serbs) and Italy (in the South of which approximately 100,000 Albanians live). Illuminating details are to be found in the Manifesto of the Albanian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Tirana, which was published in mid-May 1999 [n.B. in the very midst of the NATO bombing campaign - JR] with the title ‘Starting Points for a Solution of the Albanian National Question’: the most ancient Balkan nation, the Albanians, needs a ‘ethnically pure’ state, to which also belong Kosovo, parts of Southern Serbia, of Macedonia, of Montenegro and of northern Greece.

It was inevitable that the victory of a movement animated by such an ideology would spell disaster for such residents of Kosovo as were not recognized as belonging to the “Albanian nation” – and this even though the UN-appointed administrator of Kosovo graciously promulgated a “constitutional framework” that promised them all the “protection” afforded by the “Framework Convention”. Not only local Serbs, but, as the ERRC report makes clear, local Roma have paid a heavy price for NATO’s ostensible defense of the “minority rights” of the Kosovo Albanians.

It could be thought that Hillary Clinton’s taking up the cause of “minority rights”, though very European, is without dangers for America and Americans. Lest anyone harbor this illusion, it is worth recalling Henry Kissinger’s remark to the effect that if Yugoslavia could be expected to accept foreign troops on its soil in the name of securing the autonomy of Kosovo and on the grounds of changes in Kosovo province's “ethnic” demographics, then by the same logic the US could also be expected to accept the presence of foreign troops in order to “return the Alamo to Mexico” and on the grounds of the “ethnic” demographics of southern Texas. If Americans are not attentive to the practical meaning of "minority rights", Kissinger’s observation might some day prove prescient.


[1] See the chapter on the Copenhagen Criteria in European Commission: Strategy Paper and Report 2003: "As regards respect for minority rights and the protection of minorities, the Commission devotes particular attention to the implementation of the various principles laid down in the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities." It is commonly supposed, and this formulation would indeed seem to imply, that ratification of the Framework Convention is thus itself a condition for accession. It should be noted, however, that Latvia was admitted to the EU without having ratified.