MINELRES: The Baltic Times: UN delivers human rights verdict on Baltics

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Wed Mar 26 12:42:20 2008

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UN delivers human rights verdict on Baltics

Mar 23, 2008

By Mike Collier

NEW YORK – The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) has delivered
a shopping list of recommendations to the Baltic states to address what
it believes are serious problems of discrimination and racism. 

On 19 March during the 7th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, the
snappily-titled UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism,
racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Doudou Diene,
submitted reports on all three countries. 

The Senegalese bureaucrat visited the Baltic states from 16 to 28
September 2007, and has managed to produce well over 60 pages of
problems, analysis and recommendations as a result, though large chunks
of text are reproduced verbatim in the ‘individual’ reports about each
country. A line about each nation being “at a turning point in its
history” seems to be a particular favourite and some of the
recommendations are state-the-obvious iterations that discrimination
should not be encouraged but inclusiveness should. 

However, Diene does also identify things individual to each country,
particularly concerned with language, citizenship issues among ethnic
Russians and serious job and educational discrimination against Roma

Some of his recommendations will be controversial – particularly in
Latvia, where he hints at the use of Russian in an official capacity in
parts of the country with a Russian majority. 

The Baltic Times has read all three reports and summarises the main
points below:

Though praising Estonia’s legal framework, the report states: “The
Special Rapporteur also found a number of areas of concern, primarily
concerning three distinct communities in Estonia: the Russian-speaking
minority, the Roma community and non-European migrants. The main
concerns of the Russian-speaking community are directly related to
statelessness, which predominantly affects this group, and the country’s
language policy, which is seen as an attempt to suppress the usage of
Russian. Despite its small size, the Roma community in Estonia, as
elsewhere in Europe, suffers mostly from structural discrimination,
precarious education and marginalization. Lastly, non-European
minorities have experienced a surge in racist violence, particularly by
extremist groups and intolerance by some individuals concerning their
ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. Although each of these
communities faces different types of problems, a truly long-term
solution can only be achieved by focusing on the promotion of
multiculturalism and respect of diversity.” 

Russian groups Diene spoke with told him that “statelessness remains a
central problem that mostly affects the Russian-speaking community. They
highlighted that although the overall citizenship application procedures
have been facilitated, they still pose problems to a number of
vulnerable groups. The cost of language courses in Estonian was seen as
a major obstacle for the economically marginalized segments of the
population. The reimbursement of the expenses with language courses was
not seen as helpful, since it only applies after the exam and covers
exclusively candidates that are successful in the language examinations.
The Special Rapporteur was informed that many candidates need to take
the exam more than once, which entails an even higher cost. The
situation of Russian-speaking elders was also considered as vulnerable,
since the majority of people within this group have difficulties in
terms of language instruction.” 

Diene said he was “particularly impressed” by a roundtable meeting he
had with community groups in the Russian-majority Ida Virumaa region. 

“The members of the Roundtable demonstrate a profound understanding of
intercommunity relations, making a deliberate – and appropriate – choice
for a process of multicultural integration… The fact that this
experience takes place in a region largely inhabited by the
Russian-speaking community shows the potential of inter-community
relations as a means to foster tolerance and understanding.” the report

His recommendations for Estonia include a demand that “The Government
should establish a broad process of consultation with a view to reducing
the gap in historical perceptions between the Estonian and
Russian-speaking communities,” and a belief that “The language policy in
Estonia should be subject to an open and inclusive debate, in close
consultation with ethnic minorities, aimed at finding strategies that
better reflect the multilingual character of Estonian society.”

Latvia gets an even more serious examination from Diene, who expresses
concern that “A grave indicator of the increase in racism and
discrimination mentioned by civil society interlocutors was the mounting
number of racially motivated crimes committed in the past years. This
included a surge in incitement to racial, ethnic and religious hatred,
often fuelled by politicians from extremist parties.” 

Latvian legislation is described as “severely deficient in terms of
responding to hate speech and racially motivated crimes,” and an
amendment approved by the Saeima in 2006 to include racism as an
aggravating factor in criminal acts is considered “incomplete and overly

The report continues to say that: “Members of the Russian-speaking
communities expressed the view that the most important form of
discrimination in Latvia originates not in society, but rather in State
institutions, in the form of the existing citizenship policy. The large
number of stateless persons - 392,000 at present - was pointed out as
evidence of discrimination on the basis of denial of citizenship

“Apart from the problem of citizenship, the Russian-speaking communities
highlighted concerns over language policy in Latvia, in terms of
language requirements for naturalization, regulations on the use of
non-official languages in public and private life and the role of
language in education. One of the main reasons that was raised as an
explanation for the decline in the rate of naturalization was the
language requirement in the naturalization exam, which is seen as strict
by representatives of the Russian-speaking communities. In particular,
although the Government has sponsored some language instruction courses
for non-citizens, free-of-charge Latvian language classes in preparation
for the naturalization exam are seen as a fundamental step to positively
encourage more applications for citizenship, particularly of
marginalized members of the Russian-speaking communities.” 

Diene wades even further into the controversial question of the use of
the Russian language and ends up backing changes in Latvian law that
would see Russian used in an official capacity and grant passports to
ethnic Russians automatically. 

“Insofar as citizenship regulations are concerned, the Government should
revisit the existing requirements for naturalization with the objective
of facilitating the granting of citizenship to non-citizens and
implementing the commitments established by the 1961 Convention on the
Reduction of Statelessness. In particular, the Government should
consider appropriate measures to tackle the problem of the low level of
registration as citizens of children born in Latvia after 21 August 1991
to non-citizen parents. These measures could include granting automatic
citizenship at birth, without a requirement of registration by the
parents, to those children born to non-citizen parents who do not
acquire any other nationality. The Government should also relax
naturalization requirements, in particular language proficiency exams,
for elderly persons. Additionally, the granting of voting rights in
local elections for non-citizens who are long-term residents of Latvia
should be considered by the Government and the subject of broad
discussion within Latvian society,” Diene recommends. 

However, he also notes that “Latvian society has a history of tolerance,
muticulturalism and openness to distinct cultures,” that should be a
major element in tackling modern-day discrimination.

Though he includes many common concerns in his coverage of Lithuania,
the UN man’s main focus shifts to Roma people living in the country. 

During his visit, he reports that “he noted with concern the profound
discrimination faced by the Roma community, particularly in the fields
of employment, education and housing.” Non-European minorities have also
faced growing problems in terms of racist violence as well as hate

“The Special Rapporteur visited the largest Roma settlement in Lithuania
(Kirtimai), in the outskirts of Vilnius, to receive first-hand
information concerning the situation of the Roma community. During his
visit to the Roma settlement, the Special Rapporteur noted the precarity
of living conditions, especially housing, to which the community is
exposed. In particular, he noted the lack of electricity and heating as
well as drinking water and sanitation in many houses, reportedly due to
an inability of some families to pay the fees for public utilities.
These families often have to rely on firewood as a source of heating,
which is subsidized by the municipal authorities. Some of the dwellings
are also overcrowded, with several families living together.” 

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom, as “The Special Rapporteur noted with
interest that one of the most popular singers in Lithuania today is a
Roma. Although Roma communities in Europe have historically found in
music one of the few avenues for expression and broad participation in
society, which has not had a meaningful impact on the reversal of their
marginalization and exclusion, the Special Rapporteur expressed his
conviction that the success of a Roma musician as a national symbol in
mainstream popular music in Lithuania could be an opportunity for
authorities, society at large and the Roma community to deepen this
expression of acceptance of diversity and engage in a profound
discussion aimed at fostering new opportunities for educational,
cultural and professional inclusion of Roma within Lithuanian society.” 

In non-UN speak, the fact that people like gypsy music suggests that
they can also like gypsies. 

However, Diene believes that “The Roma community in Lithuania, as in
many European countries, is a particularly vulnerable group, and subject
to profound discrimination - not sanctioned by laws, but deeply rooted
in the minds of many citizens.” 

His Lithuanian recommendations include strengthening the Criminal Code
to include making “committing an offence with a racist motivation or aim
an aggravating circumstance” and the strengthening of the Office of the
Ombudsperson on Equal Opportunities. 

In a somewhat unexpected sudden jump he also recommends that “As an
integral part of the focus on new minorities, the Government should
engage in efforts to prevent the emergence of Islamophobia as well as
discrimination and prejudice against other religions, particularly those
that were not historically present in

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