[New publication] Overlooking continuity: National minorities and ‘timeless’ human rights

Published 14 March 2023

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In the book chapter ‘Overlooking Continuity: National Minorities and ‘Timeless’ Human Rights’, Asser Institute researcher León Castellanos-Jankiewicz critiques the dominant approach to national minorities in human rights discourse. The author argues that this approach fails to account for the ways in which historical and social contexts shape the experiences of national minorities and their struggles for rights.

"Overlooking Continuity: National Minorities and ‘Timeless’ Human Rights" provides a powerful critique of the dominant approach to national minority rights in human rights discourse. The piece challenges readers to consider the ways in which historical and social contexts shape the experiences of national minorities, and to move towards a more nuanced and context-sensitive approach to human rights that takes these factors into account.

The article begins by tracing the historical development of human rights discourse, from its origins in Enlightenment thought to its unacknowledged importance in international law and politics. Castellanos-Jankiewicz notes that while human rights discourse has expanded over time to include a wider range of rights and actors, it has also tended to prioritise individual rights over collective rights and to downplay the role of groups in shaping rights claims.

Neglecting substantive issues
The author then turns to the case of national minorities, arguing that the dominant approach to their rights is based on a "timeless" conception of human rights that ignores the historical and social context of their struggles. Castellanos-Jankiewicz notes that this approach often focuses on formal equality and non-discrimination, while neglecting substantive issues related to the recognition of minority identities and the redistribution of resources and power.

The article goes on to explore some of the limitations of the dominant approach to national minority rights. The author argues that this approach can obscure the ways in which national minorities have been subject to historical and structural forms of discrimination, and can neglect the importance of collective rights to cultural and linguistic identity. Furthermore, the author contends that the emphasis on formal equality can obscure the ways in which social and economic structures contribute to ongoing patterns of inequality.

A new approach
To address these limitations, Castellanos-Jankiewicz proposes a new approach to national minority rights that emphasises the importance of historical and social context in shaping rights claims. The author suggests that this approach should prioritise collective rights to language, culture, and identity, as well as the redistribution of resources and power to address structural forms of inequality. The article concludes by noting that this new approach would require a shift in the dominant discourse on human rights, towards a more nuanced and context-sensitive understanding of rights that considers the historical and social realities of those who are struggling for them.

Recent book
The chapter appeared in a new book co-edited by Castellanos-Jankiewicz titled International Law and Time: Narratives and Techniques (Springer: 2022). The book grapples with the inter-temporal aspects of international law through its substance and form. The volume addresses historical and other themes under the headings of change and stability, continuity and discontinuity, the construction of meaning, international lawmaking, and the operation of the law across twenty-one chapters.

Read the full book chapter.

The article was published in the edited volume ‘International Law and Time, Narratives and Techniques’ (Springer), by editors Klara Polackova Van der Ploeg, Luca Pasquet and León Castellanos-Jankiewicz.

Read more
Decolonization and Human Rights—The Dutch Case: An Introduction’, Verfassungsblog (2022), León Castellanos Jankiewicz with Wiebe Hommes.

Minority Rights Petitions: League of Nations’, Max Planck Encyclopedia of International Procedural Law (EiPro), Oxford, Oxford University Press (2020), León Castellanos-Jankiewicz. 

Negotiating Equality: Minority Protection in the Versailles Settlement’ in Michel Erpelding, Burkhard Hess and Hélène Ruiz Fabri (eds), Peace Through Law: The Versailles Peace Treaty and Dispute Settlement after World War I (2019), León Castellanos-Jankiewicz (open access)

Human Rights and the End of Status’, Humanity Journal Blog (2016), León Castellanos-Jankiewicz.

Dr León Castellanos-Jankiewicz is researcher in international law at the Asser Institute and academic coordinator of the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research (NNHRR). His work focuses on international human rights law, the history of international law and minority protection. León is part of the research strand In the public interest: accountability of the state and the prosecution of crimes which examines i) the accountability of states in the context of counter-terrorism; and ii) the prosecution of individuals for international and transnational crimes in the public interest. The strand also investigates iii) the role of journalists, the (new) media, human rights NGOs and academics in protecting and promoting public interest standards.

Dr León Castellanos-Jankiewicz