chapter  5
20 Pages

Liberal multiculturalism and human rights

The past 40 years have witnessed dramatic changes around the world in the status and treatment of ethnocultural minorities. Older models of assimilationist and homogenizing nation-states have been increasingly challenged, and often displaced, with newer “multicultural” models of the state. This is reflected in the spread of a wide range of minority rights, such as land claims and selfgovernment rights for indigenous peoples, language rights and regional autonomy for national minorities, and accommodation rights for immigrant groups. It is also reflected in the emergence of minority rights norms at the international level, including Declarations and Conventions on minority and indigenous rights at the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Organization of American States.1 These changes have been controversial, and remain vulnerable to backlash and retreat. A number of objections have been raised to multiculturalism and minority rights, but in this chapter I want to focus on one issue in particular – namely, the relationship between minority rights and human rights. Many critics worry that minority rights conflict with human rights, and that the spread of multiculturalism is threatening to erode the hard-fought successes of the human rights movement. According to Alain Finkielkraut, for example, the UN’s embrace of multiculturalism has involved abandoning Enlightenment universalism for cultural relativism:

The United Nations, founded to propagate the universalist ideals of Enlightened Europe, now speaks on behalf of every ethnic prejudice, believing that peoples, nations and cultures have rights which outweigh the rights of man. The “multicultural” lobby dismisses the liberal values of Europe as “racist”, while championing the narrow chauvinism of every minority culture.2