Minority Rights

What links the Indian caste system, Sikh religious headgear and Welsh devolution? Well, these seemingly disparate topics have all been central to discussions about minority rights in the last century - a period of time which has seen Western societies become increasingly diverse thanks to globalisation, migration and socio-cultural development. 

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Minority Rights


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What links the Indian caste system, Sikh religious headgear and Welsh devolution? Well, these seemingly disparate topics have all been central to discussions about minority rights in the last century - a period of time which has seen Western societies become increasingly diverse thanks to globalisation, migration and socio-cultural development.

The debates around minority rights are an important aspect of multiculturalism. Let's dive right in and find out more!

Meaning of Minority Rights

The issue of minority rights is intimately linked to Multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism refers to the phenomenon of diverse cultures existing in close proximity; the political argument this state of affairs is possible or desirable and also the academic study of all of the above.

Multiculturalism is also a by-product of globalisation.

Globalisation refers to a set of economic, political, and social processes that are linked to increasing global interconnectedness, through technological or other means. Globalisation has led to increased flows of goods, ideas and even people between countries and across state borders.

As individuals move to new parts of the world and form new cultural communities, they inevitably come into contact with the dominant culture of their new home society. In cases where views on religion, culture, dietary practices, gender and sexual identity differ significantly between the dominant culture and the minority culture, questions about minority rights inevitably emerge. But migrants aren't the only minority groups. As cultures and societies change, new minority groups emerge based on sexual identity, diet or belief systems.

Minority rights are those rights which are claimed by minority groups vis-a-vis the dominant culture or society around them. These rights could relate to religious practice or belief, diet, gender or sexual identity or any number of other points of difference between social and cultural groups.

Minority Rights Issues

Multiculturalism, in its various forms, is informed primarily by liberal ideology. One of the fundamental concepts of liberalism is the freedom of the individual to make their own choices and the inalienable rights and freedoms with which each individual person is endowed.

In this sense, minority rights represent a special category of rights, since they belong to a specific group, rather than all individuals. For example, the right for observant Sikhs to wear a ceremonial dagger is a right granted specifically to that group and would be meaningless to those who don't belong to the Sikh faith. This has important for the study of liberalism, as it demonstrates how liberal multiculturalism, by accepting minority rights, can also include elements of collectivism, to which it often stands in opposition.

Collectivism refers to ideological approaches that emphasise the rights and responsibilities of the collective, rather than the individual. It is often contrasted with individualism, which gives greater priority to individual freedoms.

For a deeper dive into Collectivism and Individualism, check out our explanations on these topics.

But while minority rights might be understood to refer primarily to culturally-specific beliefs, practises and norms, discussion of minority rights also relates to the fundamental rights of minority groups that are threatened by discrimination, prejudice, racism and historical inequalities.

Fundamental rights are those rights which belong to all regardless of their cultural, racial, religious or social background. One commonly-accepted exposition of fundamental rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to life, education, freedom of religious belief and freedom from the threat of violence.

In India, for example, caste membership has often been a barrier to receiving education. Since members of the dalit group within India's commonly-accepted caste system rely largely on poorly-paid manual work in order to support themselves, parents have often had to put their own children to work in order to make ends meet. This has led to dalit children missing out on an education, thereby continuing the cycle of social and economic exclusion of dalits in Indian society.

India's caste system is a complex system of social stratification which derives in part from Hindu thought, but which is widely accepted by Indians of other faiths too. It associates social status and class membership with certain social roles and professions. At the top of the caste hierarchy, Brahmin's are usually religious leaders, whilst at the bottom, dalits perform risky or unpleasant manual labour.

In summary, minority rights issues can be divided into two categories:

  • Specific Rights - Relating to particular aspects of minority cultural or religious belief or practice.
  • Fundamental Rights - Guaranteeing the full exercise of fundamental rights in the face of social or economic disadvantage, racism, discrimination or other limiting factors.

Theory of minority rights

One of the most well-known theorists of minority rights is the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka. In his critically-acclaimed work Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (1995), Kymlicka identified three kinds of minority rights: self-government rights, polyethnic rights and representation rights.

Minority Rights Theory of Minority Rights StudySmarterFig 1. Will Kymlicka

Self-government rights, according to Kymlicka, belong to national minorities such as Native Americans, the Sami people of Scandinavia or the Welsh-speaking minority in the United Kingdom. The right to self-government means the right to have power devolved from the national level, allowing these minorities to form self-government in areas where they are geographically concentrated. In some cases, where these minorities have faced historical injustice, this right to self-government may extend to the right to territorial secession and the establishment of a sovereign state.

Kymlicka identifies national minorities as indigenous peoples who have become minorities in their own traditional homelands as a result of immigration, such as the First Nations peoples of Canada or Native Americans in the US. Within this definition, Kymlicka includes historical immigrant groups who are distinct, or a minority, within larger migratory movements, such as Canada's french-speaking Quebecois community.

Polyethnic rights are those rights which help to balance the cultural distinctiveness of immigrant communities vis-a-vis other groups in society, especially the dominant ethnic, cultural or religious group in that society. These would include, for example, the legal arrangements necessary to allow Jews and Muslims to fulfil their own dietary practices without breaking animal cruelty legislation, or the exemption of turban-wearing Sikhs from wearing helmets as part of their work uniform.

Within Kymlicka's discussion of minority rights, a distinction is drawn between national minorities, whose minority status is not the result of a personal or collective decision, and immigrant minority groups, whose status as a minority in their new home countries is the result of a conscious, positive choice to migrate there from somewhere else.

National minorities are therefore given the right to self-government in order to preserve something of their cultural life before they became minorities as a result of colonial settlement and domination by non-native groups. Immigrant minority groups, by contrast, do not have an automatic right to self-government, and their rights are developed, negotiated and protected within the context of the state to which they (or their forebears) migrated by choice.

Representation rights refer to measures to ensure equal representation and participation of various minority groups in the social, political and economic life of the society to which they belong, including in education and cultural expression. Representation rights belong to members of all minority groups and include such measures as quotas for minority representatives in political bodies. Kymlicka believes that measures such as positive, or 'reverse' discrimination are justified in order to ensure that disadvantaged minority groups are adequately represented in all areas and at all levels of the society they live in.

Positive discrimination, or reverse discrimination, has been the basis of measures introduced to tackle historical racial inequality in the United States, where it is also referred to as affirmative action. Since the 1960s, many colleges and universities in the US have introduced measures such as quotas and less stringent admissions requirements for African American students in order to increase the numbers of black students in higher education and, thereafter, in top jobs. Affirmative action has faced legal challenges, but the principle was upheld by the Supreme Court in its ruling on Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978).

Examples of Minority Rights

Let's have a look at three case studies which also align with Will Kymlicka's three categories of minority rights.

Minority Rights Examples of Minority Rights StudySmarterFig 2. 'Y Siambr' - the main debating chamber of Senedd Cymru (the Welsh Parliament) in Cardiff Bay.

Devolution in Wales, United Kingdom

The Welsh people descend from the Brythonic-speaking Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles. In the 13th century, the English (those descended from European settlers) invaded Wales and deposed the Welsh sovereign Llewelyn ap Gruffudd. This puts the Welsh very much within the category of national minority identified by Will Kymlicka. There followed eight centuries during which Wales was governed as part of England, although the Welsh language persisted and Welsh culture continued to develop. By the late 19th-Century, calls for local self-government for Wales, and protections for the Welsh language, increased. The 20th century saw the foundation of the first national institutions in Wales - a Library and University - as well as the designation of a national capital - Cardiff. In May 1999, a national legislature for Wales was established which has since developed into the Welsh Parliament - or Senedd Cymru - a fully bilingual body with devolved powers, making Welsh laws for the citizens of Wales.

Workplace Rules Change to Accommodate Turbans

In the post-War period, there was significant migration from India's Punjab region to Great Britain. Observant Sikhs are expected not to shave or cut their hair, which is wrapped in a distinctive turban. In 1967, Wolverhampton bus driver Tarsem Sandhu turned up at work with a beard and turban and was immediately fired from his job. The protest movement that developed from this incident eventually led to a string of turban-specific exemptions for workplace rules in a number of professions. The Motorcycle Crash-Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act 1976 made crash helmets compulsory for all motorcyclists except turban-wearing Sikhs, and by 2015 the right of workplaces to discriminate against turbans was finally removed altogether, except in a very limited range of professional activities requiring headwear.

Reserved Political Positions

Apart from affirmative action, discussed above, one way to guarantee representational rights for minorities within public life is to create reserved political positions for minority representatives.

The Republic of Kosovo, which has a majority ethnic Albanian population, seceded unilaterally from Serbia in 2008 after many years of inter-ethnic conflict between Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians. Currently, Kosovo's legislature, the National Assembly, reserves 20 of its 120 seats for representatives from national minorities, who are directly elected in the same manner as other members. Ten seats are reserved for Kosovan Serbs, four for Romani, Ashkali and Balkan Egyptian representatives, three seats for Muslim Bosniaks, two for Balkan Turks and one for the Slavic-speaking Goranci Muslim minority.

Benefits of Minority Rights

Does the protection of minority rights offer any benefits to a multicultural society? Well, for many multiculturalists this question isn't one that would occur naturally. For most modern democracies in Europe and North America, the idea of a multicultural society and the notion that minority rights should be protected, are both absolutely fundamental to the self-understanding of contemporary democracies. For these societies, minority rights are not so much about benefits as principles, with most democracies holding themselves to high standards of freedom and representation for minorities, as well as society at large.

Minority Rights - Key takeaways

  • The issue of minority rights is central to multiculturalism, which views culture as the fundamental element of individual and social identity. Minority rights guarantee cultural freedom.
  • Will Kymlicka is a well-known theorist of minority rights, identifying three categories of rights: self-government, polyethnic and representation rights.
  • Minority rights can be culturally-specific, or they can be universal, fundamental rights which require additional measures in order to guarantee them.
  • Positive discrimination, or affirmative action, is one such measure, which has been used extensively in the US in order to guarantee access to education for the country's African American minority.
  • For most modern democracies, guaranteeing minority rights is not a question of costs or benefits. Rather, the self-perception of most modern democracies is contingent upon the principle of protecting the rights of all citizens, including those from a minority background.


  1. Fig 1. Y Siambr The Chamber (51845941381).jpg (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Y_Siambr_The_Chamber_(51845941381).jpg) by Senedd Cymru / Welsh Parliament (https://www.flickr.com/people/39069511@N03) licensed by CC-BY-2.0
  2. Will Kymlicka.jpg (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Will_Kymlicka.jpg) by Camera licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Minority Rights

Minority rights refers to the rights of minorities in society. They may be specific to that minority's cultural or religious practices or beliefs, or they may be fundamental rights, like access to education, freedom from violence and freedom of religion. 

The fundamental rights of minorities are the inalienable rights of all indviduals within society, including freedom from violence and intimidation, freedom of religion and access to education and healthcare. Additional measures, such as 'positive discrimination' or 'affirmative action' might be needed to guarantee these rights for minorities.  

Ensuring minority rights is a matter of principle for most modern democracies, most of which guarantee equal rights for all citizens regardless of faith, ethnic background, or any other factor. 

Devolved government for Wales in the United Kingdom, the right of Sikhs to wear turbans instead of crash helmets when using a motorcycle, and legal provisions to ensure minority representation in government - such as Kosovo, where seats in parliament are reserved for minority groups - are all examples of minority rights. 

Multiculturalists view culture as the bedrock of cultural and social identity, giving individuals a sense of meaning and belonging. For multiculturalists, minority rights are essential for providing this freedom of cultural expression. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which of the following is a widely-accepted list of fundamental rights?

The National Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo reserves seats for members of the country's Serb minority. True or false?

What is a national minority according to Will Kymlicka?


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