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  • Cultural Genocide, the Universal Declaration, and Minority Rights
  • Johannes Morsink (bio)

This essay will show how in the late 1940s the drafting of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1 and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 2 overlapped in a significant manner. That overlap helps explain why neither of these documents directly addresses the crime of cultural genocide. While they retained the original title, the drafters of the Genocide Convention severely weakened the prevention part of their goal when they cut out of their document the prohibition and punishability of acts of cultural genocide. Such a prohibition was part of the first draft of the Genocide Convention. 3

During the drafting process, it was clear that the communist and Arab delegations favored a cultural genocide article for the Genocide Convention as well as a minority rights article for the Universal Declaration. However, the nations from both Americas were wedded to their respective policies of assimilation and, therefore, opposed both provisions.

In the end, the balance of the votes lay with the delegations from Western Europe. Having witnessed Hitler’s acts of ethnic cleansing first-hand, [End Page 1009] the Western delegates understood the connection between cultural genocide and physical genocide, which the communist and Arab delegations were making. They argued, however, that the right place to make that connection was in the Universal Declaration and not in the Genocide Convention itself. Therefore, they voted to delete the cultural genocide prohibition from the Convention on the promise that they would support a similar measure for the Universal Declaration. However, when the time came, they chose (for reasons having to do with the rhetoric and reality of the Cold War) not to make good on those promissory notes. The breakup between Stalin and Tito further weakened the pro-minority rights lobby.

Since the Cold War has ended and nations on both American continents are becoming more nuanced in their approach towards members of minority groups, this essay ends with an argument for the completion of the Universal Declaration. Amending that document with a separate article on the rights of members of religious, linguistic, and cultural minority groups will allow us to address the greatest problem in international affairs today, the treatment of members of minority groups and, at the same time, correct and complete some of the work begun by the moral visionaries who, in the late 1940s, shaped so much of the world in which we now live.

I. The League of Nations Background

Overtly, the Universal Declaration is like the Charter of the United Nations 4 in that neither document contains a special provision for the protection of minority groups. Such provisions were very much part of the Peace Treaties that were signed at the end of the First World War. 5 Having witnessed the horrors of “ethnic cleansing” ourselves, we can readily grasp President Wilson’s comment of May 1919 that “[n]othing . . . is more likely to disturb the peace of the world than the treatment which might in certain circumstances be meted out to minorities. . . .” 6 When the global powers redrew the map of Europe, certain religious, ethnic, and linguistic minorities were created. In order to protect these minorities, fourteen treaties involving [End Page 1010] seventeen countries were drawn up. 7 The June 1919 Treaty with Poland 8 was the first one and served as a model. 9

Poland promised to place no restriction “on the free use by any Polish national of any language in private intercourse, in commerce, in religion, in the press or in publications of any kind, or at any public meetings” and to give “adequate facilities . . . to Polish nationals of non-Polish speech for the use of their language, either orally or in writing, before the courts.” 10 In this way, the German speaking minority in Poland had its language and culture protected. 11 We should note that the language of this protective shield is the language of nondiscrimination. The Polish government promised not to discriminate against, and not to interfere with the use of “any language” by, “any national.” The language here is general, but the underlying aim was to protect the German speaking...

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