minority, in international law, population group with a characteristic culture and sense of identity occupying a subordinate political status. Religious minorities were known from ancient times, but ethnic minorities did not become an issue in European politics until the rise of nationalism in the 19th cent. The potential conflict arose from nationalism's equation of the nation with the identity of the dominant cultural group, with an attempt to eradicate separate identities through conformity. The minority group sought to establish its own culture as a national identity, either by incorporating with a nearby country that shared its identity or, if none existed, by seceding and forming its own nation.
Before World War I, the minority problem was especially acute in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), and Russia. During the war, each side promised autonomy or independence to minorities in enemy states, and revolts (e.g., of Arabs and Czechs) were encouraged. One of President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points was the freeing of minorities. Hitler made adroit use of the minority issue to annex the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and to attack Poland, thus launching World War II. After the war, Czechoslovakia and Poland took the extreme step of deporting all Germans.
Communist nations have traditionally asserted that they have no such difficulties because all ethnic groups are allowed full expression; this was belied by the crucial role that was played by minority national groups in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Nowhere has the post-Communist assertion of minority rights had more dire results for minorities than in Yugoslavia, which fissured into several warring national and subnational entities.
Many politically unstable African nations include disparate ethnic factions, frequently embattled because of national boundaries that were artificially drawn by European colonialists. In recent years, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan have been the site of severe ethnic, religious, or clan-based feuding. Pakistan was formed in 1947 for the Muslim minority of Hindu India, but the nation combined different peoples who shared only a religion. In 1971 the Bengalis of East Pakistan seceded to form the nation of Bangladesh. Since the 1960s, Northern Ireland—largely Protestant with a sizable Catholic minority—has witnessed much sectarian strife, although the late 1990s brought the hope of peace.
In the United States the toleration of legal discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities came to an end after World War II. To ensure recently gained equality, the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) gave a special protected status to the victims of historic injustices. Affirmative action decrees of the 1960s and 1970s mandated that race, gender, and national origin be taken into account in employment situations. African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans are ethnic minorities that are protected under affirmative action regulations.
Since 1945, the United Nations has been active with respect to minority problems, especially through the Commission on Human Rights. In 1948, the United Nations approved two important documents concerning minorities: the Genocide Convention (see genocide) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
See J. Davis, Minority-Dominant Relations (1978); A. C. Hepburn, Minorities in History (1979); G. Dench, Minorities in the Open Society (1986).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.