Report on the visit to Latvia by CoE Commissioner for Human Rights (excerpts on language), 2004

IV. PROTECTION OF MINORITIES

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2. Protection of the rights of minorities

66. As already stated, Latvia is a country whose population is to a great extent made up of minorities – Russian, Polish, Bielorussian, Ukrainian and other. Most persons belonging to these minorities speak Russian as their native language. This is of course largely the result of the history of the last 60 years, a legacy of the Soviet Union.
67. Because of the large number of minorities in Europe, the Council of Europe drew up a special instrument to give greater protection to minorities present in member states’ territories. The instrument in question is the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Regrettably, Latvia has not yet ratified the framework convention, which affords genuine protection to minorities. I would therefore urge the Latvian authorities to ratify that instrument, protecting as it does minorities’ rights.
68. In my many conversations at Riga and Daugavpils, it was apparent to me that Latvia is making great efforts to enable its national minorities to preserve their identities and cultures. For instance there are large numbers of schools for children from minorities. These schools teach some of the curriculum in Russian, Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, Belorussian or Hebrew, or provide special classes for Roma. I also had the opportunity to meet representatives of minorities’ cultural associations at Daugavpils. Here, too, I was pleased to see the municipal authorities’ sensitivity and open-mindedness in making arrangements for minority cultural life, including provision of grant aid.
69. At the same time it was clear from my conversations with representatives of civil society and with members of minorities that solutions were still awaited to many problems.

a) Use of minority languages in dealings with administrative authorities

70. One of the general principles of Latvia’s Official Language Act is that the language spoken in public institutions and organisations is Latvian. The act stipulates that the official language should be used in private enterprises where there is legitimate public interest, and in particular in a number of matters including public security, health, public policy, medical treatment, employment protection and consumer affairs.
71. The Official Language Act expressly prohibits municipal authorities and courts from accepting documents from individuals that are written in a language other than Latvian, except in certain specific cases (such as statements to the police). Documents in other languages are not accepted unless accompanied by translations into Latvian, which must be certified as accurate by a notary. At the same time, the Law stipulates that even though Latvian is compulsory in all dealings with the authorities, and in the public sector generally, in emergencies (in the event of fire or if medical help has to be summoned) other languages are allowed – as is only sensible. Indeed it would be rather extraordinary if they were not.

72. The question of language use loomed large in our conversations with representatives of civil society at Riga and Daugavpils. We were told that, in some parts of the country where Russian-speaking minorities are present in particularly large numbers (chiefly the Latgale area and Riga), not being allowed to correspond with the authorities in the minority language posed a real problem. This of course is a situation that mainly affects older people unable to achieve sufficient Latvian proficiency for official correspondence.
73. When we visited Daugavpils town hall, the mayor told me that use of Russian was sometimes an issue but that the town hall did everything it could to assist anyone who needed help. We were informed, for instance, that, in accordance with the legislation, the town hall had Latvian/Russian translators to translate people’s letters to the town hall and the town hall’s replies. This is undoubtedly extremely constructive. Apparently, however, there are far too few translators to meet the needs of a city with a population of more than 100,000 85% of whom are Russian speakers.
74. In addition, in small, mainly rural municipalities inhabited for the most part by members of minorities, there do not seem to be any translators to help non-Latvian-speakers correspond with the authorities. This was reported to us by the head of the Human Rights Office. In my view a solution must be found as a matter of priority.

75. In general I believe the Latvian authorities should endeavour to provide more support to members of language minorities, and allow them to use their mother tongues for official business, as suggested in Article 10 of the framework convention. A gesture of support and magnanimity on the part of the state would certainly be very beneficial in terms of strengthening national cohesion. In addition, it might well motivate members of minorities with inadequate command of the official language to improve their knowledge of Latvian.

b) Use of minority languages in the media

76. Another question we heard a great deal about was use of minority languages on radio and television. The background to the issue is a little fraught because, for a time, minorities’ representatives complained of a degree of discrimination against broadcasting in Russian or other non-official languages in that the Law on Radio and Television laid down a system of quotas setting output percentages for minority languages and the official language.
77. However, the problem seems to have been solved by a decision of the Latvian Constitutional Court of 6 June 2003. In my meeting with NGOs, it was clear to me that they were pleased with what they saw as a brave decision by the Constitutional Court, and correspondingly proud of the country and democratic operation of its institutions. The decision is certainly undoubted evidence of the separation of powers within the Latvian state, and of total observance of the rule of law in a still developing democracy.
78. My conversation with the President of the Constitutional Court gave me a better grasp of the decision and its actual impact. The decision found Article 19.3 of the Radio and Television Broadcasting Act to be contrary to Article 100 of the Constitution. The court held that the desire to increase the influence of Latvian was certainly acceptable but that the means adopted by the legislation, namely the system of language quotas, was inappropriate. The National Broadcasting Council has had to weigh the implications of the decision and take action accordingly.

79. During my visit to Latvia I was informed that the Broadcasting Council was meeting shortly to amend the system of language quotas and the requirements governing radio and television broadcasting in minority languages. I accordingly hope that this problem has since been definitively resolved.

c) Learning of Latvian

80. While it must be possible for minority languages to be used in daily life, and for there to be radio and television programmes in minority languages, it is also important and necessary for everyone in Latvia to learn Latvian and aim for proficiency in it. That is a fairly basic and indeed, I would suggest, obvious point.

81. How can anyone live in a country they regard as their own and not want to master its official language? It is a question not only of respect for the country and one’s fellow citizens but also of self-respect and respect for one’s children. Refusal to learn the official language is to some extent to turn one’s back on a future for oneself and one’s children.
82. In my meetings at Daugavpils I heard a great deal about the city’s history, which has always been multicultural, multi-ethnic and multilinguistic. I was told that in the past the vast majority of the population had spoken two languages, and sometimes three or more. That had been part of a tradition of day-to-day neighbourly relations, one of the sensible, basic rules of communal life which were observed for centuries in that part of our continent.
83. It therefore seems to me that it would at the very least be politic for minorities to learn Latvian, just as Latvians apparently continue to learn and master Russian. This is simply a question of the elementary rules of respectful coexistence and I would hope that it will be observed in future, as it was in the past.
84. However I would urge the authorities to give utmost assistance to those who wish to learn Latvian or improve their knowledge of it. I am aware that there are special programmes, some of them financed by international funds. I was told of this when I visited the office of the National Latvian-Learning Programme.
85. In my conversations with representatives of civil society, however, I was several times told that there were too few Latvian courses or too few Latvian-learning opportunities for people unable to pay. According to information received, the state budget for the learning of the Latvian language has been reduced, whilst additional funding had been provided by the EU for this purpose. If, however, the state has set itself the objective of improved population-wide command of Latvian, then it has to be prepared to provide the necessary resources.

86. I, therefore, hope that the authorities will pay special attention to financial support for voluntary learning of Latvian. I in fact received assurances on this from the social-integration minister, Mr Muižneks, in the two very instructive meetings I had with him which brought home to me the importance the Latvian Government attaches to matters of social integration. The very introduction of the post of integration minister in late 2002 is evidence of the authorities’ determination to do whatever is necessary to achieve the objectives they have set themselves in this area.

3. The functioning of the education system

87. One of the main subjects of the discussions we had in Latvia was the secondary school system and the various reforms that have been introduced or are planned. This is currently the focus of much debate in Latvian society, both in government circles and in civil society.

88. I was made very aware of the concerns both of parents and the authorities as to the future of the school system, and I made a particular point of visiting schools myself so as to see the situation at first hand and discuss with teachers and pupils the questions of most concern to them.
89. By questioning the people immediately affected by this or that burning issue, you often gain a better, more dispassionate picture of the situation than from more theoretical discussions. During my three days in Latvia I visited four secondary schools: Secondary School No.1, in Riga, which teaches through the medium of Latvian; the Polish school in Riga, where I was much impressed with the quality of the facilities; and two schools at Daugavpils, No.3 and No.15, which teach some subjects in Latvian and others in Russian, though they differ as to the breakdown between the two languages. The very open and frank conversations which I had with staff and pupils gave me a clearer picture of the situation, and I would like to thank them for their willingness to discuss with me. I apologise to both for interrupting classes and dragging pupils away from the arcana of algebra and chemistry, though some pupils seemed not unhappy to have to make do with a free-ranging discussion in which the only formulae had to do with the proportion of minority-language instruction to Latvian instruction.
90. I would acknowledge at the outset that although Latvian civil society is passionate about educational reform, the climate in the schools I visited was much more serene and highly constructive. In those schools there is a very straightforward and very logical consensus which, in my view, everyone would do well to adopt – everything that takes place is done in the children’s interests. That elementary wisdom should be basic to all change and all reform, and I said as much in my talk with the education and science minister.

91. At present secondary education in Latvia is given in Latvian, Russian and another seven languages. A programme was launched in 1999 to introduce bilingual education in primary schools. It requires that minority-language schools switch to teaching subjects in both languages and devote more teaching time to Latvian.
92. In state secondary education, the 1998 Education Act provides for a transition to instruction delivered mainly through the medium of Latvian. At present there are four models for the switch to the new system. I shall not describe them here on account of the extreme technicalities of the matter. At all events it would seem that, as from September 2004, all schools will change to a system in which 60% of subjects are taught in Latvian and 40% in the minority language. At the time of my visit, it was foreseen that state final examinations were to be taken solely in Latvian. However, the Latvian authorities have since informed me that, as of 2007, the content of final state examinations will, indeed, be written in Latvian, but that pupils will be able to choose which language they wish to answer in.

93. Many parents are worried about the situation. Many of the people I talked to said that the ground had not been properly prepared for the switch. They said that at present minority schools did not have enough teachers able to teach their subjects in Latvian as from next year. The imposed change is likely to result in a lower standard of teaching, and this would be damaging for the pupils.
94. I listened carefully to representatives of parents, teachers and the pupils themselves, as well as to the explanations which the officials accompanying me on my visits gave me. I also heard the views of the education minister.
95. Our conversation was extremely open and frank. I appreciated the minister’s firm promise not to rush the transition and to step up consultations. Some NGOs had complained, when we met, that the authorities had been unreceptive in their discussions with parents’ associations, and the NGOs had also regretted, among other things, that no meeting with the minister had been possible. In my conversation with him the minister said that he was amenable to such a meeting and promised to receive parents so as to explain his views to them face to face. The question is one which needs to be discussed dispassionately, and this is something the pupils very badly require: they need protecting from all the political animosity by which the reform is currently beset.
96. The minister assured me that the pupils’ interests came first, and that the government did not plan any further change to the language-use ratio in schools, undertaking to keep to 60/40. He also explained to me the government’s reasons for switching to the new system. The reform is being carried through with the aim of ensuring that, at the end of secondary school, each pupil has a command of the official language that guarantees him or her a proper place in society. Command of the language is in any case necessary to go on to higher education in state institutions, where the courses are taught in Latvian only.

97. I agree that it is extremely important that all young people leave secondary school with a good command of the official language. But learning the official language must not lower the standard of teaching in other subjects. From that standpoint one of the points made by parents’ representatives struck me as of great interest. The proposal was that at each school the parent-teacher association be able to decide, in the particular case, whether the school was ready to switch to the new system. Some schools might need a slightly longer transitional period, but that would undoubtedly allow the reform to be introduced in a more consensual manner and in keeping with everyone’s interests.
98. In addition, NGO representatives expressed fears about future standards of minority mother-tongue teaching in minority schools. Apparently there are too few young teachers coming through because the state higher-education institutions do not train teachers for teaching in minority languages. A similar problem was reported to exist regarding textbooks, whether for language courses or subject courses taught through the medium of minority languages. The Ministry of Education has insisted, however, that all relevant textbooks on the curriculum are translated from Latvian into Russian.

99. The authorities need to take great care here, for no member of a national minority can feel comfortable in a country where there is no evidence of respect from officialdom or the majority population. The fact is that mutual respect is essential to collectively building a prosperous future for Latvia.

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VII. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

131. Latvia has taken significant strides in the construction of a democratic society. The completion of this process depends on its being perceived by the large majority of Latvians as a collective challenge leading to democratic development and European integration. This requires that Latvia close a chapter on the past, however painful it may have been, and fixes its attention firmly on the future.
132. In the light of the preceding findings, and with the aim of assisting Latvia in the promotion of the respect for human rights, the Commissioner makes the following recommendations in conformity with article 8 of Resolution (99)50:

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6. Strengthen the protection of minorities by ratifying the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities;
7. Facilitate the use of minority languages, including in written correspondence with the administration;
8. Increase the financial resources of Latvian language training programmes, so as to enable all members of national minorities desiring to improve their knowledge of the official language to do so without charge;
9. Provide the support and protection of the State to the functioning of secondary schools teaching in minority languages :
– ensure that the reform of the education system maintains the current high quality of teaching,
– strengthen the cooperation between the Ministry of Education, teachers and parents in the process of defining the best model and time-scales in the implementation of the reforms,
– establish tertiary education programmes for the preparation of teachers of minority languages and syllabi for the teaching of other subjects in minority languages, ensure the publication of textbooks in minority languages;


Document data: CommDH(2004)3, 12.02.2004 Link: https://rm.coe.int/16806db6c1

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