MINELRES: Budapest Analyses no. 227: State Language Law in Slovakia

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Sat Sep 5 13:17:03 2009


Original sender: Budapest Analyses <info@budapestanalyses.hu>


No. 227, September 2, 2009
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Contents/Tartalom

1 English version
State Language Law

2 Magyar valtozat
Az allamnyelvrol szolo torveny


_____________________ 

1
Country: Slovakia
Subject: State Language Law


Summary:

Slovak-Hungarian relations have greatly deteriorated between neighboring
Hungary and Slovakia, both member countries of NATO and the EU.  The
source of the deepening tension has been the passage, on June 30, 2009,
of additional restrictive amendments to the Meciar era Slovak State Law
270 of 1995. These restrictive amendments were passed even after the
Hungarian minority in Slovakia and Hungary herself expressed their
concerns.

Analysis:

Nearly every sentence of the State Language Law restricts ethnic
Hungarian citizens of Slovakia in using their native language and in
their freedom of speech; nearly every sentence is aimed directly against
the members of the Hungarian ethnic community of Slovakia.  For this
reason, Hungary views the entire law as problematic.

The most significant problems of the law are:

1. The introduction of a new category of crime, „language crime”, or the
criminalization of the use of the Hungarian language.  Section 3 of the
law prescribes as mandatory the use of Slovak, both written and oral,
for official interactions in many areas of daily life.  What this
amounts to is that, for instance, an ethnic Hungarian bus driver and an
ethnic Hungarian passenger, an ethnic Hungarian postal worker and an
ethnic Hungarian resident, or an ethnic Hungarian fireman and an ethnic
Hungarian victim of a fire are prohibited from communicating with each
other in Hungarian.  According to §9, the language use in these
interactions may be monitored by the Ministry of Culture.  According to
§2, local authorities may do likewise.  Based on this law, then, Slovak
citizens whose native language is Hungarian are liable for prosecution
if, under certain circumstances, they use their common native language
to communicate with each other.  Section §2 and §9 of the law not only
allows for, but essentially mandates that a report be filed for any
infraction. 

2. Fines for using Hungarian within the Hungarian community.  Section
9/a of the law prescribes that fines ranging from 100 to 5,000 EUR be
issued under the jurisdiction of the Slovak Ministry of Culture to legal
persons for perceived shortcomings or violations of the law.  This means
that in many workplaces (transport services, post offices and fire
stations, as well as the police, local governments or any company) fines
may be imposed, if ethnic Hungarian employees providing services to
ethnic Hungarians use Hungarian in their official capacity.  Since,
according to Slovak law, the employee is responsible for fines imposed
upon his/her workplace, fines imposed on the workplace de facto amount
to fines imposed upon ethnic Hungarians for using their native
language.  In addition, §11 and 11/a of the law de facto provide for
retroactive penalties and mandate the replacement of existing monuments,
memorial plaques, and gravestones (!) whose inscriptions are largely or
entirely in Hungarian, and prescribes that the cost of the required
modifications must be borne by the legal or natural persons who erected
or commissioned them.

3. Discrimination.  It follows from the above that certain Slovak
citizens (for instance, those whose native language is Hungarian) are
subject to monitoring, harassment and penalties for using their native
language, while other Slovak citizens (for instance, those whose native
language is Slovak or Czech) are not.  Section §3 of the law is openly
discriminative, since the Czech minority may use their native language
without restrictions, which means that members of other minorities are
prohibited from using theirs.  As in many areas of Europe, including
Slovakia, ethnic identity and the use of the native language are closely
intertwined, which means that discrimination in native language use
amounts to discrimination based on ethnicity.

4. Violations of the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. 
Section 5 of the law provides, as a general rule, that all media outlets
– both public and privately owned media – must use the Slovak language,
with the exception of programs transmitted for national minorities. 
This means that Hungarian-speaking citizens cannot set up a radio or
television station that transmits programs exclusively in Hungarian. 
The law requires that programs broadcast on local public address systems
always be announced in Slovak first, regardless of the ethnic
composition of the locality.  Hungarian inscriptions on monuments,
memorials and gravestones (which must always come second to a
Slovak-language inscription) must be approved in advance by the Ministry
of Culture.  This represents state censorship, and contradicts the
freedom of language use and the freedom of expression.

5. Violation of freedom of association and religion.  Section 5 of the
State Language Law provides that cultural and educational programs
should be in Slovak, with the exception of „educational” programs aimed
at minority audiences.  This means that organizations and associations
are not free to choose the language of their activities and programs. 
For instance, in a settlement populated by ethnic Hungarians, the
Hungarian language may be used in a presentation on Hungarian historical
figures, but if the program involves American history, it cannot be
performed or carried out in Hungarian, because the subject matter is not
Hungarian.  Section 3 of the law is a violation of the freedom of
association and freedom of religion, since it restricts the use of
language in the institutional life of associations and churches.  The
churches can freely choose only the language in which they conduct their
services; they have no choice about the language in which they conduct
administrative process and provide public information.

6. Limitations on existing regulations protecting minorities. Section
1(4) of the amended State Language Law asserts that the separate
regulations governing the use of minority languages are applicable only
if the directives of the State Language Law do not provide otherwise.
This statement completely transforms the existing (already very weak)
legal protections for minority languages and for the speakers of
minority languages, since it gives unmistakable preference to protecting
the State Language over the protection of minority rights.

What will be the effect of enacting this state language law?

1. It will create a climate of fear and humiliation among
Hungarian-speaking citizens.  Regardless of how strictly the law will be
actually enforced, native Hungarian-speakers in Slovakia are humiliated
by being legally prohibited from using their native language with each
other – a prohibition which does not apply to citizens belonging to the
ethnic Slovak majority or to the Czech minority. The possibility of
penalties creates fear: not only when penalties are actually assessed,
but also by virtue of the fact that penalties may be assessed at any
time.

2. Increased ethnic conflict.  Since the law is unambiguous in
differentiating Slovak-speaking citizens from Hungarian-speaking
citizens, and legally entitles the Slovak speakers to harass Hungarian
speakers, the incidence of Slovak-speaking citizens issuing insults,
humiliations and threats against their fellow citizens who speak their
native Hungarian among themselves will increase even before the law
enters into force. After the law enters into force, this situation will
only become worse.

3. Cultural ethnocide.  The climate of fear and humiliation, the
sanctions and penalties will prod many Hungarian-speaking citizens of
Slovakia to stop using their native language, or to not acknowledge
their Hungarian ethnic identity, and to try to spare their children from
their ordeal.  Because of this, the Slovak State Language Law is an
instrument of forcible change in the ethnic composition of settlements
and ethnic regions where the population is either mixed or Hungarian.

4. A sustained crisis in the relations of two allied states.  Given the
serious human rights issues presented by the Slovak State Language Law,
and the Law’s expected consequences, Hungary is compelled to voice her
concerns forcefully, both bilaterally and toward the international
community.  This will result in a sustained communications crisis in the
official relations between the two neighboring states, which are both
members of NATO and the European Union.

Hungary proposed bilateral discussions, a proposal that was ignored by
the Slovak side.  On numerous occasions, members of the Hungarian
government and special committees of the Hungarian Parliament expressed
their concerns and requested that substantial consultations be held
before passage of the law.  The Slovak side, in a serious violation of
the Basic Treaty of 1995 between Slovakia and Hungary, ignored the
concerns and requests of the Hungarian side and proceeded to approve the
law without consultations.

Hungary accepted – unilaterally – the mediation of the High Commissioner
on National Minorities of the OSCE.   The Hungarian government and
Parliament accepted the invitation of the High Commissioner for National
Minorities for a tripartite meeting, and has persisted in promoting this
meeting, despite the fact that Slovak diplomats misinformed the High
Commissioner regarding the date that the law would be passed, and then
proceeded to pass the law in its final form before the tripartite
consultations could occur. Then, the Slovak side visited the office of
the High Commissioner prior to the agreed meeting date, and - prior to
the original date of the tripartite meeting  and without the permission
of the High Commissioner - issued public comments on the opinion of the
High Commissioner, giving a completely false interpretation of his
views.

The Hungarian side has repeatedly communicated to the representatives of
the international community the position, objectives and steps taken by
Hungary in this matter.  In the fall, a joint delegation from the
Hungarian political parties will contact international organizations
with the aim of resolving this issue.

Conclusion: 

The joint position taken by the Hungarian political parties is that the
solution to the problem is the repeal of the amendment of the law.  In
practice, this means that the Slovak side should pass a new amendment to
the law that eliminates all provisions that discriminate against
citizens of the Slovak Republic whose native language is not Slovak. 
Although the Hungarian side views most of the law as problem-ridden, it
is prepared to participate in multilateral discussions (to include
representatives of the Hungarian minority of Slovakia), in which the
participants aim to create a non-discriminatory exemption for the
minority and regional languages used in Slovakia, and for the users of
these languages, from the effects of the State Language
Law.

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