Lilija Alijeva, Dr Anna-Mária Bíró, Dr Corinne Lennox and Marcus Oda on a new web-based forum designed to amplify the voices of minority groups, who continue to struggle to find a suitable place where they can raise issues and concerns.
The voices of minority groups are not often heard at the international level. The United Nations (UN) Forum on Minority Issues is the only space in the UN where any minority group representative can raise issues of concern, such as lack of political participation, the closing of minority language schools, high rates of poverty, denials of citizenship, forced displacement from land, and even targeted violence against them.
We wanted to amplify these voices. To aid this aim, we recently launched at the UN in Geneva a new web-based resource: minorityforum.info. This database compiles all statements made in the 2008–16 sessions of the UN Forum on Minority Issues, as well as key minority rights standards, reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, and recommendations in the field of minority rights.
For the past three years, the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) and the Tom Lantos Institute (TLI) have been working on a joint research project titled Global Governance of Minority Rights – Assessing the UN Forum on Minority Issues.
Our aim in this research project is to understand how the Forum is being used and how it could be more effective in fulfilling its purpose for dialogue, reviewing of the UN Declaration on the Rights of National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and sharing good practice. It provides a key space for minority groups, states, experts and inter-governmental organisations to exchange views and practices.
When we started researching the Forum, we were grateful that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had created a web space where statements made to the Forum were posted, offering some form of archive and dissemination. However, we found there were limitations to the way the statements were stored, which meant we could not search them, there were no translations, and many were missing.
We did not want the important information presented at the Forum to be lost. We wanted to make it easily accessible. We also wanted these important issues and practice examples to be brought to wider attention and used in other ways.
We were inspired by other initiatives like UPR Info and Right-Docs which have increased access to UN documents. We also benefited from working with HURIDOCS, an NGO dedicated to supporting human rights defenders to manage documentation of human rights issues.
This website is based on our research project, which used the qualitative data analysis computer software NVivo. NVivo features offer easy storage and organisation of our data in a manageable platform or, in other words, a database. As this is a qualitative data analysis software, the data consists of very rich text-based data. In the case of the Forum project, this data was primarily based on statements delivered by various actors. We gathered nearly 100% of statements from the first nine sessions, which amounted to more than 1,250.
The software allowed us to analyse them in an organised way; for example, by identifying the re-occurring themes, such as the rights and the minority group discussed. It allowed us to assign certain characteristics to the speakers, such as who presented the statements and in which geographical region they were.
Although our first aim was to use this analysis for research, we also decided that, if shared publicly, the analysis could be put to wider use. Our research involved closely reviewing each statement and analysing them to identify trends in themes and trends among the speakers themselves. This coding analysis meant that we could create a database searchable not just by keyword, but by coded themes and characteristics, significantly increasing the ability of users to find topics of interest among the 1,250 statements.
For example, searching only for the keyword ‘self-governance’ in the database would yield 24 statements but searching for the coded theme of ‘self-governance’ would yield 67 statements, because our coding frame included related ideas such as ‘autonomy’ and ‘managing our own affairs’, which we concluded were forms of ‘self-governance’.
After about three years of data collection and analysis, we began developing a prototype website for this purpose. We presented a draft of this website in Geneva at the Forum in 2017 and invited feedback from potential users, and received some excellent advice on how to strengthen it as a tool.
What is Minority Forum Info?
MinorityForum.info is a searchable database of all statements from 2008–16, and of the reports by the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, such as country reports. It includes global and regional minority rights standards, also searchable, as well as the background documents and recommendations of each Forum session.
How could key users make use of the website?
We sketch out below some possible ways various groups make use of the database:
NGOs new to the Forum:
1. See previous statements on their country or minority group.
2. Track recommendations made to their country in previous sessions and on other topics.
3. Learn from examples of strategies in other statements.
NGOs returning to the Forum:
1. Identify trends over time regarding interventions made to their country or concerning their minority group.
2. Review previous recommendations or commitments made by their country in earlier Forum sessions.
3. Build networks with other NGOs working on similar issues.
4. Search reports of the Special Rapporteur to find relevant issues and recommendations.
1. Identify minority rights issues in the countries where they work.
2. Build networks with other NGOs working on similar issues.
3. Gather data on themes of human rights affecting minorities in many countries.
1. Review concerns raised by minorities in their country. 2) Share statements with relevant national level actors.
3. Share information with embassies on minority issues in other countries.
4. Identify best practices on certain themes of minority rights from other countries, mentioned in statements and also in the Special Rapporteur’s reports.
International Organisations (such as UN agencies):
1. Share statements with relevant country teams.
2. Identify best practices and/or violations on certain themes of minority rights from different countries.
3. Identify NGOs working on minority rights issues in various countries.
4. Offer a resource of minority rights standards and searchable Special Rapporteur reports.
Experts (e.g. researchers, lawyers, journalists):
1. Conduct country or theme-based research.
2. Develop longitudinal studies on trends in minority rights violations and protection.
3. Identify good practice example options for the implementation of legal standards based on examples discussed in statements or in the Special Rapporteur’s reports.
This process of data collection, analysis and transfer was not without its challenges. First, there was the challenge of tracing the missing statements. Our team and volunteers listened to the audio recordings of the Forum and transcribed the missing statements. Where there was no audio recording available, participants were contacted via email for their statements.
The second difficulty was translating the statements delivered in other UN languages (Russian, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese) into English, which was successfully done by our volunteers. And the third challenge was coding. We needed to agree on a coding strategy to ensure that our qualitative method was consistent across coders. We developed a codebook to guide our team in assigning themes to the statements. We also tested the reliability of our coding through Nvivo inter-coder reliability tools.
The final challenge was developing a conversion software to convert the NVivo data into a website. For the website, we used a new, open-source software called Uwazi, which was developed by HURIDOCS. Uwazi is now being used by many NGOs for their digital documentation needs. Our project will contribute a new open-source tool to enable other researchers to also translate Nvivo data into an Uwazi, shareable platform.
We hope that MinorityForum.info, which was endorsed by the Special Rapporteur on minority issues during the November 2018 Forum session, will help governments, UN agencies, researchers and others learn about the issues affecting minority groups and how they can protect their rights.
Anyone who has presented a statement to the Forum can send us a copy at email@example.com. We also welcome comments on how to make the website more user-friendly.
Dr Anna-Mária Bíró is director of the Tom Lantos Institute.
Marcus Oda is programme manager for Human Rights and Identity at the Tom Lantos Institute.
With thanks to the volunteers who helped to find, translate and review the statements.