MINELRES: Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights: Language rights of national minorities must be respected
Sat Jan 30 18:44:22 2010
Original sender: CoE Commissioner for Human Rights
Language rights of national minorities must be respected – their denial
undermines human rights and causes inter-communal tensions
[25/01/10] Language rights have become an issue of contention within
several European countries, and as a consequence also between
neighbouring states. While some governments take steps to strengthen the
standing of the official language, national minorities are concerned
that their linguistic rights are being undermined.
The spelling of personal names on passports, the displaying of street
names and other topographical indications, the language used in schools,
the language requirements when communicating with the authorities and
the possibility to establish minority media – such issues are again
being raised by minority representatives in several European countries.
The redrawing of the political map in Europe over the past twenty years
has in some places made these problems more acute. Also, emerging
nationalistic tendencies - combined with confusion and insecurity about
“national identity” - appear to have encouraged extremists to promote a
xenophobic discourse against minority interests.
This is an area in which mature political leadership is particularly
needed. Language is an essential tool for social organisation, including
for the very functioning of the state. However, language is also a
central dimension of individual identity on a personal level, and is
often especially important for those in a minority position.
Disputes have arisen in some countries where the status of the state
language has been perceived as threatened in regions where minorities
are strongly present in number and perhaps also in politics. An argument
for the controversial amendments last year to the Law on State Language
in Slovakia was the importance of ensuring that Slovak-only speakers
would be able to understand all official communications, even when
residing in areas primarily populated by the Hungarian minority.
Minorities, primarily the Hungarian population, found the proposed law
changes discriminatory, reacted strongly against the introduction of
sanctions for non-respect of the language law and felt that the minority
languages needed better legal protection. This discussion also affected
The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities became engaged in
resolving this dispute. Moreover, the government in Bratislava took the
wise decision to refer the amended law to the Venice Commission for
comment. There are therefore good prospects for a rights-based solution.
Problems related to language issues are certainly not a new phenomenon.
Indeed, norms have been developed on how to resolve them in a number of
international and European human rights treaties.
- The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
(FCNM) is a Council of Europe treaty which, inter alia, protects and
promotes the language rights of persons belonging to national
minorities. It has a monitoring body to assist the implementation by
state parties: the Advisory Committee.
- The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML)
protects and promotes languages as a threatened element of Europe’s
cultural heritage. Implementation is monitored by the Committee of
- These standards are further complemented by the European Convention on
Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination, for instance, on the
ground of language (Article 14). The case law of the European Court of
Human Rights (the Strasbourg court) is highly relevant also in this
- The OSCE has developed standards in this area which are promoted by
the High Commissioner on National Minorities. One important document is
the Oslo Recommendations regarding the Linguistic Rights of National
Minorities (with an Explanatory Note).
- Among the relevant UN documents is the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights which states that persons belonging to minorities
shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of
their group, to use their own language. Less binding but still highly
relevant is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to
National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
These treaties and recommendations state key principles and define
governmental obligations. However, as the nature of the problems differs
greatly from one country to another, there is in many cases a need to
interpret the agreed framework norms in order to meet the intended
purpose and to achieve the appropriate balance.
There has to be a certain “margin of appreciation” – to use the language
of the Strasbourg court – when applying the standards. This margin
should, however, not be to avoid the obligation to respect the human
rights of persons belonging to minorities.
The national discussions should consider the conclusions of the various
international monitoring bodies and the case law of the Strasbourg
court. They provide important guidance for the political
The Strasbourg court has stated that “the name is not only an important
element of self-identification; it is a crucial means of personal
identification in society at large”. In one case (Guzel Erdagoz v.
Turkey, 2008) it decided that the refusal of the government authorities
to accept the preferred spelling of a person’s name violated the right
to respect for private life as spelled out in the European Convention
These principles are also relevant in situations where the state
language and the minority one are based on different alphabets or
scripts. When visiting Lithuania recently I learned that the spelling of
Polish names on passports and other official documents had became a
controversial issue. However, the government in Vilnius has now
submitted a proposal to parliament which, if adopted, would be seen as a
constructive step towards fuller respect for minority rights.
Local names, street names and other topographical indications
The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention concluded in the case
of Lithuania that the absence of bilingual public signs in certain areas
was incompatible with the convention. There appeared to be a
contradiction between the Law on the State Language and the Law on
National Minorities which ought to be addressed.
In my own report on Austria I addressed the controversy around the
possibility of displaying topographical signs both in German and in
Slovenian in certain municipalities in Carinthia and recommended the
implementation without further delay of the judgment of the
Constitutional Court on this issue. The judgment protected the principle
of bilingual signage in areas where there was a significant number of
persons belonging to a national minority.
Such an approach also means that local authorities, when dominated by
minority representatives, should accept that the official language
should be used in parallel with the minority one when necessary. Persons
belonging to the majority in the country should not be discriminated
against when they live in a region where they are in the minority.
Minority language education is absolutely essential for protecting
language rights and for maintaining languages. Governments should seek
to ensure that persons belonging to minorities have adequate
opportunities to learn the minority language or even to receive
instruction in this language. Bilingualism should be encouraged for all.
The right to adequate opportunities for minority language education
should be implemented without prejudice to the learning of the official
language or to being taught in that language. In fact, both the Advisory
Committee and the High Commissioner on National Minorities have stressed
the importance of the right to quality education in the official
language, also for minorities.
This is essential in regions where persons belonging to national
minorities have poor or no command of the state language(s) and as a
result are excluded from essential aspects of community life. The
Advisory Committee has discussed this problem in connection with
Estonia, Georgia, Latvia and Moldova among others.
A deep problem in most European countries is that the teaching of and in
the Romani language is almost totally neglected - even where there is a
significant number of Roma inhabitants.
Contacts with authorities
The possibility to communicate with the authorities in one’s own
language is another human rights concern voiced by persons belonging to
a minority. This right cannot always be fully guaranteed in practice due
to limited human and financial resources. However, the Framework
Convention and the Charter state that governments should endeavour to
enable such communication as far as reasonably possible when there is a
Many states have chosen to regard the numerical size of a minority in a
given area as the relevant factor for granting certain language rights
and have established minimum thresholds for this purpose. These should
however not be too high; the Advisory Committee has deemed a minimum
level of 50 per cent to be unreasonable.
In recruitment policies public administrations should not demand
proficiency in the state language beyond what is necessary for the post
in question. Access to employment for persons belonging to national
minorities must not be unduly limited. In parallel, a constructive
approach is recommended, for instance, through offering applicants from
national minorities an opportunity to be trained in the state language.
At the same time, recruitment of civil servants with knowledge of the
relevant minority languages will also enable administrations to better
serve the whole population.
Such positive measures are especially important when the government
decides to take steps to protect and promote the official language.
Sanctions to enforce the law on the state language should be avoided.
The focus should rather be on the need to harmonise such legislation
with the law protecting minority languages – to avoid contradictions and
to guarantee that the language rights of all citizens are respected.
The possibility to establish minority language media is another area of
interest for persons belonging to national minorities. The media should
ideally reflect the plurality and diversity of the population. State
regulation of the broadcast media should be based on objective and
non-discriminatory criteria and should not be used to restrict enjoyment
of minority rights.
Persons belonging to national minorities should have access to national,
regional and local broadcast time in their own language on publicly
funded media. Quotas for broadcasting time in the official language(s)
should not prevent public or private broadcasting in minority languages.
The Advisory Committee has found a number of negative examples of this
type of quota, for instance in Azerbaijan.
A positive example was the decision in Turkey to open a 24 hour
television channel in Kurdish which was seen as a signal of a changed
attitude towards a minority whose rights have been repressed for years.
I have been informed that there are similar plans for the Armenian
The basic lesson we ought to have learned on all these issues is that
the human rights concerns could only be effectively addressed through a
serious assessment of the genuine needs of the minorities.
Too often authorities have not listened carefully to them when policies
have been developed. It is crucial that governments maintain close
communication with persons belonging to national minorities and seek a
thorough and continuing consultation – a constructive dialogue.
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