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UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues delivers the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Lecture

Rita Izsák, the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, delivered this year’s Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Lecture where she spoke in detail on what defines a minority, whether it be on the basis of religion, ethnicity or language, and on the work that has been done and the legislation that has been implemented to protect minorities and their rights across the globe.

Speaking yesterday (Monday 12 May), she said: “Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is a true gem and should serve as a model for all linguistic communities on how language and a community should be preserved and advanced. I feel privileged to be part of your community, at least for today, and to be able to benefit from the beautiful view and the friendly atmosphere.

“To talk about minorities is indeed timely and as important today as it has always been throughout history. In 2014, we sadly remember the Rwandan genocide that took place 20 years ago, killing hundreds of thousands in just a few months. And this year, we also hold a Holocaust Memorial Year reminding ourselves in Hungary how 70 years ago the tragic deportation of Hungarian Jews had started.”

Rita explained how the first real discussions regarding the protection of minorities had begun within the League of Nations following the First World War and again in the aftermath of the Second World War within the UN, and that it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that the rights of minorities were properly recognised in legislation culminating in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities in 1992. She then spoke of the various ways in which minorities can be protected today, and she gave several recent examples of minorities suffering persecution, violence and discrimination.

Rita added that it was important that minority languages and their speakers were given proper recognition and protection.

“I am very glad to learn that Gaelic is reviving which is due in no small measure to the hard and committed work of this institution which I have had the honour of visiting. I do hope that the trend for more young people to become interested in mastering Gaelic will continue and that there will be more and more bilingual signs, media programs and events conducted in Gaelic all over the country.”

She added that many minority languages were still under threat globally and needed to be protected by the law, and that their speakers were not being given the chance to be educated in their native language. “In some countries the use of minority languages has been deemed a threat to national unity and an attempt by minorities to reinforce territorial or separatist claims and has consequently been restricted or banned. Any restriction on the use of minority languages and freedom of expression must be fully justified and proportionate. Attempts to prohibit or abolish the use of minority languages constitute a gross violation of minority rights.”

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s Principal, Professor Boyd Robertson, said: “Rita Izsák provided a truly fascinating and perceptive overview of the condition of minorities throughout the world which was informed by first-hand experience of visiting theatres of conflict such as Nigeria and Ukraine and interactions with representatives of the minorities and of the various levels of government in each country.  She set the challenges facing Gaelic in an international context and commended the steps that had been taken to revitalise the language.”

Tha Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Lecture began in 1990 when Dr James Hunter gave the inaugural talk. Since then a string of high-profile guests have travelled to SMO to deliver the lecture, including Irish President Mary Robinson, Donald Dewar MSP, First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond MSP, First Minister of Scotland, Gordon Brown MP (the then-Chancellor), and Jack McConnell MSP, First Minister of Scotland.

Rita Izsák was appointed as Independent Expert on minority issues by the Human Rights Council and assumed her functions on 1st August 2011. Subsequently her mandate was renewed as Special Rapporteur in March 2014. She is the second holder of the mandate, is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. Rita Izsák holds a Masters in Law diploma from the Péter Pázmány Catholic University, Budapest, Hungary. Inspired by her own experiences of prejudice and discrimination – her father’s family was forcibly moved under post-war population transfers from Czechoslovakia (present day Slovakia) to Hungary due to their Hungarian ethnicity in 1947 and her mother is of Romani origin – she has been working on human and minority rights for a decade.

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