The Austrian Federal Constitution calls for the respect and promotion of ethnic groups resident in Austria. Special rights for Croatian, Slovenian, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak ethnic groups and for Roma are established in the Ethnic Group Act [Volksgruppengesetz] of 1976 and a number of other laws and regulations. The rights of the Croatian and Slovenian ethnic groups are also set forth in the State Treaty of Vienna (1955).
Against the background of this domestic ethnic group policy and the long-term protection offered to the German-speaking ethnic group in South Tyrol, Austria has long supported the strengthening of protection for minorities at the international level, particularly within the United Nations and Council of Europe.
At the international level, increased attention has been paid to protection of minorities particularly since the early 1990s. With the collapse of numerous states, such as former Yugoslavia, as a result of interethnic conflicts, it has been increasingly recognised that the protection of minorities is an important guarantee of political and social stability and the territorial integrity of states.
In 1992 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities proposed by Austria. The Declaration defines the rights of members of minorities for the first time and mentions specifically article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right of persons belonging to ethnic minorities to practise their own language, culture and religion.
In 2005, on the initiative of Austria, the UN established the office of the Independent Expert on Minority Issues, who deals with the concerns of minorities throughout the world and also visits different countries. As part of the reform of the UN, the UN Working Group on Minorities was also transformed in September 2007, again on the basis of an Austrian initiative, into a forum for minorities. One important innovation in the forum is the possibility for representatives of civil society and minorities to participate in the development of strategies and measures for the worldwide protection of national, ethnic, religions and linguistic minorities. In addition, the Independent Expert on Minority Issues can include forum recommendations in her report to the Human Rights Council.
In the OSCE protection of minorities is the task not only of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw but also and above all of the High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek. His main task is to identify and provide early warning of potential conflicts between ethnic groups and to offer strategies and support in conflict settlement. Through this form of quiet diplomacy the High Commissioner makes an important contribution to preventing ethnic conflicts.
The leading organisation protecting national minorities in Europe is the Council of Europe. The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, to which Austria is a party, entered into force in 1998. An advisory committee with recognised expertise monitors the implementation of commitments in the Framework Convention by the states parties and also carries out country visits. Austria was last visited in March 2007. Observance of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, to which Austria is also a party, is also monitored by an independent expert committee which can carry out visits if required.