Middle East and North Africa

Among many issues, that of the treatment of minorities figures prominently in the turbulent politics of the Middle East. The States of the region are immensely varied in their political structures and orientation, their origins, their ethnic and religious composition. As a corollary, the minorities under consideration exhibit a variety of demands and aspirations. Properly considered, some “minorities” are not minorities at all: thus the Palestinians are de facto a minority in Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and other host-States, but in the eyes of the international community, and de jure from the point of international law, they constitute a people with a right to self-determination. The fact that the right will inevitably have to be exercised with regard to the rights of other States and peoples in the region (principally Israel) does not negate their entitlement. The exercise of this self-determination will require major political and territorial realignments. This is a feature of the doctrine of which many States are fearful in terms of setting precedents which may work against them. While the Palestinians have established a special case, others have not.

The Kurds constitute a clear example of the kind of minority whose ambitions work against the State system and the inscription of its rules in international law. If the Kurds were to be recognized as holding the right of self-determination, this would, if translated into the vocabulary of independence, subtract from the territorial integrity of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Syria. The Kurds, along with the Armenians, made a breakthrough in their ambitions to rule themselves at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I, securing a conditional promise of independence from Turkey in the Treaty of Sèvres. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Turkish State destroyed this ambition, and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne did not refer to the Kurds by name. Their treatment since then demonstrates that even a tenuous independence is preferable to permanent minority status in sternly nationalist States such as Turkey and Iraq.

Other minorities include the myriad religious groups, often of millennial antiquity, in this region which is the cradle of the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The general Islamicization following Arab expansion in the seventh and subsequent centuries AD resulted in unique systems of accommodation between Islamic polities and non-Islamic “Peoples of the Book”, and by extension Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists and adherents of other scriptural religions. The Ottoman Millet system gave Christians and Jews protected status within the Empire. Remnants of this system still exist, for example in Israel, giving a particular community dimension to the treatment of minority groups. However, the tolerance accorded to other religions was not always manifested, and the contemporary rise of Islamic fundamentalism in States such as Iran has created grave problems for minority religions, including those related to, but outside mainstream Islam. The Baha’is, Alawis, and Assyrians are among those groups which have suffered religious intolerance to varying degrees. The position of the Baha’is in Iran is particularly serious. Iran tries to deflect international criticism of its treatment of this group by denying that Baha’is, constitutes a religion: rather, it is described as a product of the colonial era, and can thus be aligned with all the other evils of colonialism as deserving of elimination. Denial of the existence of a religious minority parallels claims made by governments in many States that they have no minorities (see introduction to South and Central America). The first, minimal requirement of an effective international supervision of minority rights must be a means of establishing that the groups “exist”. Regrettably, there is as yet no legally binding definition of what constitutes a minority.

The retreat of the Ottomans, the rise of Arab nationalism, the emergence of Arab Socialism, intolerance and continued interference by the powers in the region produce many other minority issues. Lebanon and Cyprus have fragmented under a combination of internal and external pressures. Christianity, Judaism and Islam can appear to be mutually irreconcilable. The eruption of Israel on the international scene has brought a new dimension of conflict. Rival groups use terror as a weapon in their struggles. The Middle East has occupied the centre of the world stage in recent decades and will do so for some time to come. Tolerance, rapprochement, stability and a consistent structure of rights for individuals, peoples and minorities appear to be distant prospects.

Instruments on Minority Rights

There is no general “Islamic” treaty on human rights comparable to regional instruments in Europe and the Americas. States profess difficulties with some aspects of contemporary human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration. Saudi Arabia abstained on the vote for this instrument, arguing that it proclaimed freedom to change one’s religion, a “freedom” not permitted to Muslims. Iran has also stated that any conflict between the Quran and human rights must be resolved in favour of the former. Islamic scholars who debate the relationship between Islam and human rights are not of one mind, but the relative lack of Islamic participation in the drafting of the Universal Declaration is still capable of exciting adverse comment. Despite this, Iran is a party to the UN Covenants on Human Rights and other instruments such as the Genocide Convention. The record of other States in the region is generally good in terms of ratification of instruments. Turkey is one exception: it has not ratified the UN Covenants nor the Convention against Racial Discrimination. Turkey is, however, a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and, in that context, has accepted the right of individuals to petition the Council of Europe at Strasbourg regarding human rights violations. Saudi Arabia has the least number of ratifications of human rights treaties: of the major relevant treaties, only the Genocide Convention has attracted its support. Israel has signed but not ratified the UN Covenants, but is a party to the Convention against Racial Discrimination. The independence of Cyprus was secured by specific international treaties containing guarantees for the Greek and Turkish communities. The principles of this “communalism” were embodied in the complex Constitution of Cyprus 1960. In this case, the attempt to secure minority representation in the State through particular agreements proved ineffective.

In terms of constitutional law, there is a considerable variety of minority-related regimes, both negative and positive. Privilege for particular peoples may flow from such as Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1944: a guiding principle of State policy is “. . .the natural right of the Jewish people to be master of its own fate, like all other nations, in its own sovereign State. . . The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles. . .”. On the other hand, the Declaration promises to “. . .foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants. . .”. Religious communities in Israel enjoy recognition and considerable autonomy; religious laws of the communities govern their members in matters of personal status. Broad forms of autonomy may also be found in such as the Autonomy Law of 1974 for the Kurds in Iraq. Some instruction on relative treatment of groups may be gained from comparison of the legal regimes to which a dispersed group such as the Kurds are subjected. Whatever the defects of implementation, the regime in Iraq is at least potentially better than that in Turkey. The preamble to the 1982 Constitution of Turkey recites that “. . .no protection shall be afforded to thoughts or opinions contrary to Turkish national interests, the principle of the existence of Turkey as an indivisible entity. . . Turkish historical and moral values, or the nationalism, principles, reforms and modernism of Atatürk. . .”. The Constitution devotes itself to secularizing, modernizing and homogenizing the population of Turkey. Article 26 of the Constitution provides that “no language prohibited by law shall be used in the expression and dissemination of thought”. This genre of stipulation is so rare in modern constitutions as to call for comment or at least some indication as to what is addressed. The prohibited language appears to be Kurdish so that the target is, unsurprisingly, a minority group. It is an interesting speculation for the future to assess the compatibility of this provision with provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights on freedom of expression.

Treatment of minorities

The complex politics of the Middle East do not allow for ready generalizations about minorities. States both maintain traditions of tolerance and commit atrocities. Fierce passions of a religious or nationalist nature can displace structures of law and rights. The Kurdish Autonomy Law has not saved Iraq from allegations of genocide. The religiously inspired revolution in Iran created enormous problems for human rights, and some minorities were singled out for singularly oppressive treatment. The disintegrating State of Lebanon allows inter-minority conflicts to run virtually unchecked. Traditional, established religious communities need continued vigilance in unsympathetic States. The Israeli treatment of Palestinians stems in part from the siege mentality displayed by that State, the fear of being submerged in a sea of hostility. Jews in turn may suffer privations in States beyond Israel: anti-Zionism may become anti-Semitism. Perhaps what is most required is some degree of stability. Before structures designed to promote civil and social justice can operate, a degree of order is required. A binding statement of human rights for the region would assist — though the North African States may be parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Turkey and Cyprus adhere to the European Convention. In the same way as Africa has adapted the basic philosophy of human rights to its own history and traditions, so may the Islamic States in the fullness of time.

Alawis of Syria

Armenians of Turkey and the Middle East

Baha’is of Iran

Beduin of Israel


Copts of Egypt


Druzes of Israel and the Golan Heights

Greeks of Turkey

Jews of the Middle East and North Africa (excluding Israel and Turkey)