MINELRES: Latvia: Statement of minority MPs on ratification of FCNM

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Thu Jun 16 20:15:35 2005

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Statement of Latvia's oppositional MPs on ratification of FCNM

Dear Madam/Sir, 

We, members of Latvian national parliament of different ethnic origins,
are writing to you to express our concerns about the restrictive
declarations formulated by our country, Latvia, upon ratification of the
Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM).
Although two of them are formulated as declarations, they are de facto
reservations under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (Article
2 para.1(d)), as they purport to exclude the legal effect of certain
provisions of the treaty in their application to that State.

As you are aware, the controversies over the observation of the rights
of minorities in Latvia caused heated debates in a number of
international fora, including the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the
European Parliament and others. All international organisations urged
Latvia to ratify the FCNM without delay and to refrain from formulating
reservations and restrictive declarations. Nevertheless, several
consecutive Latvian governments have been delaying ratification for more
than ten years (the FCNM was signed by Latvia on 11 May 1995). Thus,
Latvia remained the only new EU member state that had not ratified the
FCNM before accession. 

Finally, this year the government has declared its intention to proceed
with ratification. Unfortunately, following the conclusions of the
governmental working group (we should mention that no lawyers or persons
belonging to minorities were included into this group), the government
decided not only to resort to restrictive declaration severely limiting
the scope of application of the FCNM to only part of Latvian citizens
belonging to minorities, but also to accompany ratification with two
reservations (named declarations). These reservations relate to Art. 10
(2) (use of minority languages in relations with administrative
authorities) and Art. 11 (3) (displaying topographical indications in
minority languages) of the FCNM.   

Regrettably, no consultations or dialogue have been conducted with both
minority NGOs or parliamentary opposition representing citizens
belonging to minorities, what is clearly contrary to the spirit of this
convention. Moreover, articulate protests voiced by minority
associations against reservations and restrictive declaration have been
flatly ignored. 

Although we are aware of the fact that a number of state parties to the
FCNM have formulated similar declarations defining the groups to which
the FCNM is applied, we would like to stress that the situation in
Latvia is different than in most of these states. Indeed, the share of
minorities, particularly of Slavic origin, has greatly increased during
the period when Latvia was de facto part of the USSR. In the meantime,
we strongly reject the allegations of the government that the high share
of persons belonging to minorities in the population of Latvia is "a
legacy of occupation". In fact, Latvia has always been ethnically,
linguistically and culturally diverse country, in particular, its ethnic
composition on the eve of the World War I, before the establishment of
independent state, was very close to the current situation - out of its
2,5 mln strong population, ethnic Latvians made up slightly over 60%.
Indeed, upheavals of the two world wars, large-scale evacuation of
predominantly urban population during WWI, "repatriation" of sizeable
German minority before WWII, almost total extermination of numerous
Jewish population by Nazis, Nazist and Stalin's repressions and
deportations, as well as large-scale influx of people from other Soviet
republics after 1945, substantially changed its ethnic composition.

Nevertheless, a big share of virtually all main minority groups are
persons whose ancestors resided in Latvia for centuries. According to
the "restored citizenship" concept, which recognised the citizenship
rights for only those residents who can trace their family roots back to
the citizens of the pre-war Republic of Latvia, 38% of ethnic Russians,
61% of Poles, 45% of Jews, etc. have been registered as citizens. As of
1 January 2005, 25,6% of citizens and 41,2% of all permanent residents
belong to minorities; ethnic non-Latvians historically constitute a
majority in many towns and districts, particularly in Latgale - eastern
part of Latvia. Thus, reference to occupation cannot be used as an
excuse for the denial of the rights envisaged by the FCNM to a large
number of persons belonging to minorities.

As you know, so far none of the 36 Council of Europe member states that
have ratified the FCNM, formulated any reservations to its substantive
articles (except for really insignificant reservation adopted by Malta).
Since the FCNM is "a document of principles", and these principles can
be implemented in a very different ways depending on the particular
circumstances in each state party, reservation to any substantive
article means in fact the denial of the very principle. 

In particular, rejection of the basic minority right - the right to use
minority language, along with the state's official language, before
public authorities in areas, inhabited by minorities traditionally or in
substantial numbers - undermines one of the key provisions of this
convention. In our view, in this respect one has good reasons to
conclude that such a reservation defeats the purpose of the FCNM and
thus contradicts the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

The Venice Commission and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of
Europe have already applied this approach in the case of the reservation
formulated by Belgium upon signing the FCNM, which is quite similar to
the Latvian reservations, and we believe that similar attitude is to be
taken also towards Latvia. 

We fully realise how sensitive the issues related to minority rights are
in our country, but we strongly reject any attempts to use these issues
for "historical revenge" or as a playing card in difficult relations
with some neighbouring states. We do not demand more than the FCNM
envisages, but we cannot agree with the attempts to abridge the rights
of minorities in Latvia as a means of retaliation for the crimes
committed by the Stalin's regime.

Moreover, the circumscribed ratification of the FCNM will have a
detrimental impact on the whole European system of minority protection.
If some state parties are allowed to make two reservations, why other
states cannot introduce three, five or ten reservations? This practice
might undermine the whole FCNM's mechanism. We believe that the FCNM,
the first ever legally binding instrument on minority protection, is an
indispensable tool to tackle the minority issues in Europe, and we
cannot agree that behaviour of one member state, even if our own one,
threatens to destroy this most valuable instrument. 

Therefore, we are seeking your assistance and expressing our hope that
your engagement in constructive dialogue with the Latvian authorities
will facilitate finding of reasonable solution which, on one hand, will
ensure protection of minorities in Latvia in accordance with the modern
European principles, and, on the other, will preserve the FCNM as a
universal and effective pan-European instrument of minority protection. 

Yours sincerely, 

Members of Parliament of the Republic of Latvia

Valerijs Agesins (People's Harmony Party - PHP)
Andrejs Aleksejevs ("For Human Rights in United Latvia" - FHRUL)
Aleksandrs Bartasevics (PHP)
Martijans Bekasovs (Latvian Socialist Party - LSP)
Vladimirs Buzajevs (FHRUL)
Boriss Cilevics (PHP)
Olegs Denisovs (LSP)
Sergejs Fjodorovs (LSP)
Aleksandrs Golubovs (LSP)
Janis Jurkans (PHP)
Nikolajs Kabanovs (FHRUL)
Andrejs Klementjevs (PHP)
Vitalijs Orlovs (PHP)
Jakovs Pliners (FHRUL)
Ivans Ribakovs (PHP)
Juris Sokolovskis (FHRUL)
Igors Solovjovs (LSP)
Andris Tolmacovs (FHRUL)
Janis Urbanovics (PHP)
Aleksejs Vidavskis

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