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OSCE High Commissioner's Statement on National Minorities in Greece

1999



In the last few weeks, a number of requests have reached me to give my opinion on the ongoing discussion in Greece regarding the question of national minorities. In that light I should like to make the following comments.


On 28 June 1990, the then Government of Greece, led by Mr. Constantine Mitsotakis, together with the governments of the other states participating in the OSCE , agreed to the Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the OSCE. The Copenhagen Document commits governments i.a. to provide persons belonging to national minorities the right freely to express, preserve and develop (individually as well as in community with other members of their group) their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity and to maintain and develop their culture in all its aspects, to profess and practice their religion, and to establish and maintain organizations or associations.
The discussion in Greece during the last few weeks on the subject of national minorities gives me the impression that there is a certain confusion about the commitments contained in the Copenhagen Document. Some comments give the impression that the recognition in the Copenhagen Document of the right of persons belonging to national minorities freely to express, preserve and develop their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity is tantamount to recognizing the right of self-determination of persons belonging to national minorities. In reality, however, these are two completely different concepts. The right of self-determination relates to the status of territory. In this relation paragraph 38 of the Copenhagen Document makes it clear that none of the commitments mentioned in the Copenhagen Document may be interpreted as implying any right to engage in any activity or any action in contravention of the principle of territorial integrity of States. This means for instance that a State with a population which has predominantly the same ethnicity as that of an ethnic minority in another State will never be able to refer to the commitments contained in the Copenhagen Document as a justification for territorial claims against the State which has such a minority living on its territory. The Copenhagen Document makes it clear that the principle of respect for territorial integrity prevails. Similarly, an ethnic minority will not be able to interpret the commitments of the Copenhagen Document as a justification for efforts to secede. In other words: the right of persons belonging to national minorities to express, preserve and develop their identity is to be exercised within the existing boundaries of the State.
Paragraph 35 of the Copenhagen Document does refer to the formula of territorial autonomy "as one of the possible means" to create conditions for promotion of the identity of persons belonging to national minorities. However, territorial autonomy is mentioned as an option, not as a right or an obligation.
A second misunderstanding is that in order to acquire or enjoy the rights mentioned in the Copenhagen Document a minority will have to be formally recognized by the State. The Copenhagen Document makes it clear that this is not necessary. Paragraph 31 states: "persons belonging to national minorities have the right to exercise fully and effectively their human rights and fundamental freedoms without any discrimination and in full equality before the law." The same principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law apply pursuant to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, when an association of persons belonging to a national minority wants to acquire legal personality for purposes of enjoying one of their enumerated rights, Greek law obliges them to be registered. But the requirements for registration cannot be different from those for associations not composed of persons belonging to national minorities. To require otherwise would constitute a violation of the principle of non-discrimination. Nor can registration be refused because of the mere fact that it is an association of persons belonging to a national minority; this would be a violation of the commitments of the Copenhagen Document as well as a violation of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 12 of the Greek Constitution regarding the freedom of association. On the other hand, Article 105 of the Greek Civil Code opens a possibility to dissolve any association with aims different from those laid down in its memorandum of association or if its object (or actions) proves to be contrary to the law.
Finally, there seems to be confusion about the relationship between the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 and the Copenhagen Document. The Treaty of Lausanne (Article 45) deals with the religious rights of the "Muslim minority" in Greece. But that does not mean that the Copenhagen Document has no relevance for persons belonging to the Muslim minority in Greece. Within the wider religious group, there are smaller groups with an ethnic or linguistic identity of their own, such as Turks, Roma and Pomaks to which the provisions of the Copenhagen Document do apply.
Max van der Stoel
OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities

     
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