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Francesco Palermo

The Bolzano/Bozen Recommendations
on National Minorities
in Inter-State Relations

1. What is at Stake?

Do States have the right to support “their” minorities abroad? Based on which criteria­? And within which limits? These questions are at the heart of the Re­commendations on National Minorities in Inter-State Relations, launched by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) in Bolzano/Bozen in October 2008.

The Recommendations are the latest set of guidelines issued by the HCNM over the last 15 years in several delicate fields of minority rights, including education, use of language, participation in public life, media and policing (Farahat 2008).1 The HCNM is an instrument of conflict prevention at the earliest possible stage, focusing on issues involving national minorities and majority-minority relations (Kemp 2001). In fulfilling his mandate, the HCNM has devoted particular attention to the question of national minorities in the context of inter-State relations, since it is precisely in this context that minority issues tend to become excessively politicized and give rise to tensions, if not outright confrontation. Indeed such tensions have defined much of contemporary history, playing out in several regions of the world. Situations that involve persons belonging to ethnic groups who constitute the numerical majority in one State but the numerical minority in another, often neighbouring, State can become a source of conflict unless they are addressed in a constructive manner. The recent events in Georgia, just to mention the last and more visible conflict, were shaped precisely by this type of tensions.

Of course, minorities may not, and ideally should not, be the cause of conflict. On the contrary, minority communities that transcend State frontiers often serve as a bridge between States, contributing to prosperity and friendly relations, and fostering a culture of pluralism and tolerance, particularly in the border regions. Sometimes, however, things do not develop as smoothly as one may wish, and potential tensions should be addressed before they degenerate into a conflict.

The Recommendations try to offer guidance to States and minorities on how to properly deal with this sensitive issue by bringing some clarity as to the international standards applicable in cases involving national minorities in inter-State relations.

2. The Main Contents of the Recommendations

As a starting point, the Recommendations acknowledge that while the protection of human, including minority rights is primarily the responsibility of the States where minorities reside, States may provide benefits to national minorities abroad. The aim of the document is precisely that of clarifying the relevant international norms and best practices on how to balance these two potentially contradictory principles.

In fact, most of the States have legislation, administrative practice and policies in place in order to confer special benefits to national minorities abroad: which of them are legal and which are not? What are the criteria to evaluate this “kin-State” activism? At the same time, while States are often quite supportive of minorities abroad, they feel unease when another State interferes in their own “internal affairs”: the assistance by kin-States is often associated with threats of irredentism, justified or not, and with fears of potential political and even military intervention from often neighbouring States claiming protection of “their people” abroad. Through the Bolzano/Bozen Recommendations, the HCNM tackles this sensitive issue and tries to show States how they can support minorities abroad in a way that benefits minorities and at the same time respects friendly, good neighbourly relations.

The first part of the Recommendations deals with general principles, recalling the foundations of international law applicable to the matter.

The second part summarises the States’ obligations regarding persons belonging to national minorities living on their territory. In other words, the Recommendations sum up the minimum the States should do under current international law to fulfil their obligation to protect the rights of national minorities: if these rights are granted, benefits accorded by foreign States become far less relevant as the minorities will not have particular interest in seceding or not integrating in the national society. Moreover, if States want to be credible on the international scene, they should show consistency in their minority policy. As Recommendation 15 clearly affirms, “should States demonstrate greater interest in minorities abroad than at home or actively support a particular minority in one country while neglecting it elsewhere, the motives and credibility of their actions may be put into question”.

The third part deals with the concrete benefits that can be granted to minorities abroad. It covers inter alia cultural and educational opportunities, travel benefits, work permits, facilitated access to visa and the most contentious issue: granting citizenship. According to established international law, the Recommendations make clear that as a rule benefits can be provided only with consent of the State of residence. Only in some exceptional case, such as in education, benefits can be accorded without seeking prior consent of the State of residence. For example, providing facilitated working permits or issuing passports to persons belonging to national minorities abroad is not admissible if the State where the minority resides does not agree. Conversely, a State can unilaterally decide to grant scholarship to meritorious foreign students if this is done in a non-discriminatory way; this means, for instance, that the benefits must be accorded on the basis of objective criteria such as linguistic proficiency rather than on a merely ethnic basis.

The fourth part sets the procedural framework for granting benefits to minorities abroad, making sure that the principles and rules of international law are respected. In particular, the Recommendations encourage the States to conclude bilateral agreements in order to develop their “kin-State” support within a negotiated, clear and transparent legal framework.

3. Bolzano/Bozen and the Recommendations

It is not by chance that the Recommendations on National Minorities in Inter-State Relations have been launched in Bolzano/Bozen. For the first time, an international document takes the name of a bilingual town. The very name of the Recommendations reminds of the complexity of minority issues, of the linguistic and cultural pluralism inherently attached to them, and of the important role that best practices can provide in this regard.

South Tyrol is one of the most suitable places in the world for giving its name to an important document on how to manage “kin-State” issues, given the long and controversial history of kin-State involvement by Austria (and, to a lesser extent, Germany) in providing benefits to the German-speaking minority particularly in the 1960ies and 1970ies (Hilpold/Perathoner 2006). In fact, had the Recommendations existed at that time, the “kin-State” relations over South Tyrol in the 1960ies and 1970ies could have benefitted from such a document; and certainly the Recommendations benefitted from the positive experience of South Tyrol in resolving a potentially extremely controversial “kin-State” conflict. The Recommendations aim at helping particularly the areas that have been less fortunate than South Tyrol and are facing inter-ethnic and inter-State tensions due to the support to some national minority by foreign countries. As the High Commissioner reminded in his speech, the choice of Bolzano/Bozen as the place after which the Recommendations are named stands as a symbol of “how national minorities can become a source of amity and good neighbourliness rather than the subject of contention in relations between countries”.2

The history of South Tyrol has demonstrated that it is normal for “kin-States” to have an interest in the well being of minority groups abroad and to take action in this respect. What really matters are the means through which States pursue such an interest: even in recent times, there has been a huge variety of examples, ranging from open warfare (Balkans in the 1990s) to negotiation and mediation (Hungary and its neighbours, especially after the amendments to the Law on Hungarians in neighbouring countries in 2003), from establishment of formal links (e.g. the recent creation of the Polish Charter for ethnic Poles abroad and of the Russian Law on Compatriots, both in 2007) to military intervention to protect citizens and compatriots abroad (like in the case of the military intervention by Russia in South Ossetia in summer 2008).

By launching naming the Recommendations after Bolzano/Bozen, the HCNM trusted that the positive outcome of the “kin-State” issue over South Tyrol may give hope to other, more conflictive contexts that a friendly solution is eventually possible. This is even more true as the constructive settlement of the South Tyrol issue was achieved notwithstanding a potentially worrying situation, created by both Italy’s initial resistance to fully implement autonomy and minority rights in South Tyrol and by Austria and Germany providing secret assistance which was certainly not conducive to peaceful integration between the groups residing in South Tyrol nor to friendly inter-State relations.

4. Concluding Remarks

The Recommendations have a dual ambition. On the one hand, they take stock of the current state of the art, in international law and in comparative practice, as to the opportunities and limits of “kin-State” involvement. On the other hand, they offer an important contribution to the further development of international standards on the matter, being the most recent and most complete document on this subject ever produced by the international community.

The wide range of forms that “kin-State” intervention might take proves the necessity of such a set of Recommendations, in order to better clarify what type of support can or cannot be considered as legitimate. They are particularly relevant today as the number of States actively demonstrating interest in kin groups abroad is growing, because the absence of clearly defined legal instruments in this regard has been one of the reasons that made prevention of several conflicts more difficult in the past.

History will tell to what extent the Bozano/Bozen Recommendations will contribute to the preservation of peace and to the enhancement of friendly relations between States. As with every international norm, however, they won’t be able to effectively work without the necessary god will of the States (Jackson Preece 1998). If the Recommendations will help prevent conflicts, the credit will always be shared, as conflict prevention is the more successful, the less visible it is. As it has been effectively put, “[t]hose involved in the prevention of conflict must be seen in the same light as we look at airline mechanics. If the mechanic does his or her job the plane arrives at its destination safely and the passengers leave the plane never once thinking about the mechanic or being aware of how much work went into keeping the plane in the air. Conversely, if the mechanic fails to properly prepare the plane, disaster results […]” (Johns 2007:1). Mechanics need handbooks to prepare themselves: the Recommendations should serve as a visible instrument for invisible conflict prevention.


1 All Recommendations are available online at (documents/thematic recommendations). The website also contains additional information on the activity and the mandate of the HCNM.

2 The full text of the HCNM speech at the launching conference can be read at:

List of literature

Farahat, Anuschech (2008). Regulating Minority Issues through Standard-Setting and Mediation: The Case of the High Commissioner on National Minorities, in: 9 German Law Journal No. 11, 1453 – 1480

Hilpold, Peter/Perathoner, Christoph (2006). Die Schutzfunktion des Mutterstaates im Minderheitenrecht, Berlin et al.: Neuer Wissenschaftlicher Verlag

Jackson Preece, Jennifer (1998). National Minority Rights Enforcement in Europe: A Difficult Balancing Act, in: 3 International Journal of Peace Studies, vol. 2, 35 – 54

Johns, Michael (2007). Learning to be Quiet: A Blueprint for Conflict Prevention in the European Union, manuscript presented at the Canadian Political Science Association Annual Conference, June 2007

Kemp, Walter A. (ed.) (2001). Quiet Diplomacy in Action. The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, The Hague et al.: Kluwer


Raccomandazioni di Bolzano/Bozen sulle minoranze nazionali nei
rapporti internazionali

Con le “Raccomandazioni di Bolzano/Bozen” l’Alto Commissario OSCE per le minoranze nazionali indica cosa gli Stati possono e cosa non possono fare, in base al diritto internazionale, per sostenere determinate minoranze che risiedono in un altro Paese.

Molti Paesi hanno leggi per i propri “connazionali” all’estero e il recente conflitto in Georgia ha visto la Russia intervenire militarmente per “proteggere i propri cittadini”. Se la tutela delle minoranze spetta allo Stato in cui queste risiedono, la comunità internazionale e altri Stati hanno il diritto e talvolta persino il dovere di intervenire. Ma il “come” è spesso oggetto di contestazioni e talvolta di conflitti.

Non è un caso che le Raccomandazioni siano state lanciate a Bolzano/Bozen. In Alto Adige/Südtirol si sono realizzate in passato politiche di sostegno alla minoranza di lingua tedesca da parte dell’Austria e della Germania. Fortunatamente le potenziali tensioni internazionali, dovute alla scarsa volontà dell’Italia di promuovere compiutamente le minoranze e ad un sostegno non compiutamente legittimo da parte di Austria e Germania, sono state risolte in maniera positiva.

Empfehlungen von Bozen/Bolzano zu nationalen
Minderheiten in zwischenstaatlichen Beziehungen

Mit den „Empfehlungen von Bozen/Bolzano“ weist der Hohe Kommissar der OSZE für die nationalen Minderheiten darauf hin, was die Staaten auf der Grundlage des Völkerrechts zur Unterstützung von Minderheiten, die in einem anderen Staat leben, tun oder nicht tun können. Viele Länder haben Gesetze für ihre „MitbürgerInnen“ im Ausland erlassen. Der unlängst in Georgien entfachte Konflikt hat dazu geführt, dass Russland militärisch interveniert ist, „um seine BürgerInnen“ zu beschützen. Wenn der Schutz der Minderheiten in die Zuständigkeit des Staates fällt, in dem diese leben, haben die internationale Gemeinschaft und andere Staaten das Recht und mitunter sogar die Pflicht zu intervenieren. Aber das Wie führt oft zu Beanstandungen und mitunter zu Konflikten.

Es ist kein Zufall, dass die Empfehlungen von Bozen/Bolzano ausgehen. In Südtirol/Alto Adige haben in der Vergangenheit Österreich und Deutschland die deutschsprachige Minderheit unterstützt. Zum Glück sind die potenziellen internationalen Spannungen, die auf den mangelnden Willen Italiens zurückzuführen sind, die Minderheit entsprechend zu fördern, sowie die nicht immer völlig legitime Unterstützung der Minderheit durch Österreich und Deutschland auf positive Weise gelöst worden.

Racomanaziuns de Bozen/Bolzano söles mendranzes nazionales
ti raporc´ internazionai

Cun les „Racomaziuns de Bozen/Bolzano“ mostra sö l’Alt Comissêr dl OSZE por les mendranzes nazionales c´i che i stac´ po fà o nia fà söla basa dl dërt di popui por sostignì y daidé les mendranzes. Tröc paîsc à dè fora leges­ por sü conzitadins/sües conzitadines al èster. Le conflit rot fora da püch tla Georgia é jü tan inant che la Ruscia é intergnüda militarmënter „por defëne sü zitadins/sües zitadines“. Sce la sconanza dles mendranzes toma ite tla competënza dl stat, te chël che chëstes vir, à la comunité internazionala y d’atri stac´ le dërt y datrai c´inamai le dovëi da intergnì. Mo le „co intergnì“ condüj gonot a contestaziuns y val’iade a conflic´.

Al n’é nia por caje che les racomanaziuns va fora da Bozen/Bolzano. Te Südtirol/Alto Adige à tl tëmp passè l’Austria y la Germania sostignì la mendranza de lingaz todësch. Por fortüna é les tenjiuns internazionales potenziales, che é da condüje zoruch ala manc´ianza de orentè da pert dla Talia da promöie aladô la mendranza, sciöche inc´e al sostëgn dla mendranza da pert dl’Austria y dla Germania nia dagnora daldöt legitim, gnüdes desgropades te na manira positiva.