Defining each of these parts, or social groups, as a majority or a minority depends solely upon their quantitative character, that is upon their different numerical status. This does not necessarily translate into a relationship of supremacy and inferiority for the groups living together. The relationship between majority and minority is not just quantitative. It becomes qualitative if it corresponds to a predominance of one group, usually the numerical majority, over another. But sometimes this relationship of dominance and subordination is turned upside down: sometimes the numerical minority is dominant, to the detriment of the majority, which is placed in an inferior position. In both cases there is a situation of privilege for one group and unjustified repression for the other. The different situations of each social group may require that different norms be applied to each one, in order to respect its identity and needs. But when they are not justified rationally and not proportionate to the different situations of each group, different norms often become disparity of treatment, which is damaging to equality. Diversity of discipline is easily transformed into discrimination.
The distinction between a majority and a minority, in the first sense, can be considered within a collegial decision-making procedure. This procedure is well-adapted to the formation of a group will for a pluralistic organ which must express itself in a unified manner.
An assembly or a college deliberates with the participation of its members, who contribute their own evaluations and make a common decision by voting. Plurality is expressed in the distinct positions and votes of each component. Unity is found in the common decision, which is made with the approval of the majority, but recognised and accepted by the minority which was opposed to it. If the composition of the majority and minority depend upon the occasion, each single question forms and dissolves them, they are manifest at the moment of the vote. Nonetheless, and especially in elected assemblies, the majority and the minority often represent stable political poles. They are formed into groups which tend to act in a unified manner and contribute in an organised way to the assembly's activities. But at times, some of these groups may represent a permanent social minority, with its own specific identity which characterises and distinguishes it within the general community. These are usually ethnic-linguistic, national or religious minorities.
However, majority rule, which characterises democracy, is not the rule of injustice. The majority and the minority both consider the other one legitimate. They participate in the common decision and dedicate themselves to recognising it as binding for everyone if approved by the majority. The importance of the object of common decision may require that approval be expressed by a majority consensus which is larger than the simple prevalence of one part of the voters. Rules that require a qualified majority, larger than a simple majority, and voting systems which assure the presence of minorities in legislative bodies which would otherwise be made up entirely of the majority, tend to limit the predominance of the majority and guarantee the participation and influence of the minority in common decisions.
The majority-minority duality is reassembled in a superior unity through these instruments of representation and voting. The unity is so manifest that the majority and the minority, though distinct and sometimes opposing one another, are always, and intend to remain, united as parts of one whole.
The majority and minorities may make up an element which differentiates itself in a permanent, structural manner within a single state. This happens when stable communities characterised by a strong, diversified identity (often based on ethnic-linguistic or religious differences) live together within the same state.
In these cases one finds several different situations, which can usually be distinguished and classified: a) "voluntary minorities", which do not want to assimilate, defend their own identity and sometimes oppose the majority group in order to preserve and give value to their own characteristics, proposing secession in extreme cases; b) the "minorities despite themselves", when the majority discriminates against the minority and tries to block integration, which the minority lays claim to, in extreme cases resulting in segregation.
The presence of minorities, especially ethnic-linguistic ones, in border zones can create conflict between states, when a minority group in one state is linked to a community in another state, which it thinks of as its own homeland for ethnic, cultural, and linguistic reasons, and intends to unite itself with the other state, or affirm national ties beyond citizenship, thus creating conflicts of loyalty.
Problems of national and international law come together in the minority condition, in the protection of minorities. The two types of norms, national and international, contribute to guaranteeing the right of a minority social group to preserve, maintain and transmit that which identifies and characterises it as a distinct community, and to enjoy the common liberty without discrimination. Minority rights, considered in the unitary, collective dimension, are integrated and enmeshed with the rights of freedom and equality for each individual. From the collective point of view, the guarantees must concern the official use of one's language, the reservation of seats for the minority in legislative bodies and public institutions, and an environment of recognised territorial or personal autonomy for the minority community. Sometimes the protection of minorities can be carried out only by the adoption of positive measures of protection and promotion. Such measures create the support necessary to guarantee the permanence of the minority social group with its specific identity: these communities have the right to preserve and express their own culture, their own religious faith, everything that identifies and characterises them.
The protection of minorities in democratic states is usually ensured through constitutional norms, which guarantee individual and collective rights as well as equality regardless of racial, religious, linguistic and social conditions. Sometimes constitutions provide for minority social groups as a whole, giving them a more or less large amount of autonomy.
The protection of minorities is also assured by international law. Some treaties deal with the protection of specific linguistic or ethnic minorities in border zones, with whom the surrounding states are directly involved. But there are also general conventions which protect minorities, by imposing, for example, the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. Other conventions guarantee minority rights within the field of human rights. The International Pact on Civil and Political Rights (approved by the UN General Assembly in 1996) states that in those countries where ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, the individuals belonging to those minorities cannot be deprived of the right to have their own cultural life, to profess and practice their own religion or use their own language, together with other members of their group (cf. art. 27). With a more generic formulation, the European Convention for the Safeguarding of the Rights of Man and Fundamental Liberties, states that the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognised by the Convention must be ensured without distinction of any type, including those who belong to a national minority (cf. art. 14).
As for religious minorities, they must be guaranteed all the rights included in religious freedom: the right to practise their religion in public and private, both individually and collectively; the right to build, maintain and use religious buildings; the right of churches and religious communities to organise themselves according to their own institutional structures; to train, choose and nominate their own clergy, to collect and freely use the financial contributions necessary for their activities. Naturally, everyone must be guaranteed the right to individual religious freedom, which includes the right of each person to have and profess a religion or to have no religion, to change religion or convictions, without suffering any harmful consequences.
It is evident that the conditions of minorities make manifest whether fundamental human rights are being respected in the social and community dimension. The elements involved include: the freedom and equality of individuals, the group's right to an identity in a context of peaceful cohabitation, integration which does not refuse legitimate diversity, respect for fundamental rights, not as a pretext but in practise, by the majority as well as the minority, as happens within the respective groups.