Memorandum to the Latvian Government by CoE Commissioner for Human Rights (excerpts), 2007

IV. Protection of national minorities

29. The 2003 report went in depth into the issues related to citizen/non-citizen status, naturalisation and integration of national minorities. These issues are still being hotly debated in Latvian political circles. It should be recognized that progress has been made during the recent years in the field of naturalisation. However, the core problem does remain: the continued existence of the status of non-citizen, which is mainly held by representatives of the national minorities. This is deeply problematic in terms of real or perceived equality and social cohesion.

1. The naturalisation process

a. Statistics

30. On 1 April 2006 Latvia comprised 1 836 609 citizens and 411 054 non-citizens. The latter figure accounts for almost 18% of the population, and 66.5% of them belong to the Russian minority, according to figures provided by NGOs. The naturalisation process has accelerated considerably since 2004, the year Latvia acceded to the European Union. 16 064 individuals were naturalised in 2004 as compared with 10 046 in 2003. 19 169 non-citizens were naturalised in 2005 and 15 794 in 2006, slightly down on the previous year.

31. The Department responsible for naturalisation, which operates under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, receives between 1 200 and 1 400 applications for naturalisation per month. It has conducted a number of activities to inform non-citizens of the formalities to be fulfilled for naturalisation: Information Days organised in co-operation with voluntary associations and awareness-raising campaigns; a free hotline; on-line information on the Department’s website; and some twenty booklets published over three years. Its budget has been constantly increasing since 2004, and an extra LVL 180 000 will be made available in 2007. This funding should be earmarked for an audit of the language test to be taken by applicants for naturalisation. One of the Commissioner’s recommendations has therefore been partly respected. However, there is still a huge number of non-citizens. The Commissioner invites the Latvian authorities to continue the efforts initiated in 2004 in the naturalisation field.

b. Simplified naturalisation procedures

32. The 2003 report recommended facilitating the naturalisation of such particularly vulnerable groups as the elderly, persons with disabilities and young people.

i. The elderly and persons with disabilities
33. According to official statistics, 38.1% of non-citizens are between the ages of 41 and 60, and 28.9% are over the age of 60. Information and awareness campaigns have been conducted for the elderly, who, as we have seen, account for a large percentage of the non-citizen population. Yet the language and history tests used have not yet been simplified. The fact is that above and beyond the lack of information and the lack of initiative in some circles, these tests are a serious obstacle to persons who speak little or no Latvian. The delegation was informed that the Cabinet of Ministers would shortly be considering a proposal to simplify these tests for the elderly and disabled. This proposal apparently has the backing of several ministries. The Commissioner hopes that it will be adopted and implemented as soon as possible to enable those who wish to become better integrated into Latvian society but consider themselves too old to engage in a new learning process to actually do so6.

Footnote 6 On 8 August 2006 amendments to the regulations of the Cabinet of Ministers concerning examinations for the persons who naturalize came into force. These amendments prescribe facilities for taking the examination of the proficiency in the Latvian language and the examination of the knowledge of the basic principles of the Constitution of Latvia, the text of the national anthem and the history of Latvia. Persons to be exempt from the examinations are:

  • Disabled persons having category I for total aphasia; 
  • Disabled persons with mental illness; 
  • Disabled persons with double deafness or deafness-and-dumbness; 
  • Disabled persons having category I who have no disorders mentioned above as well as disabled persons having sight disabilities shall take the examination of the Language proficiency only orally;
  • Disabled persons having category II and III who have no right hand or right palm (for a left-hander accordingly – a left hand or left palm) shall be exempt from the written examination of the language proficiency;
  • Disabled persons having category II or III for articulation and hearing disabilities shall be exempt from listening and interview examination of the language proficiency.

The Head of the Naturalization Board shall have the right to prescribe a facilitated procedure for the examination of the language proficiency and the examination of the knowledge for persons who have been acknowledged as disabled or exempt them from these examinations taking into account the statement of the Doctors’ State Commission on Health and Labour Examination.

ii. Young people (children born before 21 August 1991)
34. All youngsters must still take the history examination and the test on constitutional principles. However, young people who attend a school in which Latvian is the teaching language and those who study in a minority school (where most lessons are taught in the minority language) and sit the centralised language examination at the end of the 9th year of schooling are exempted from the language tests. Lastly, students at minority schools who do not opt for the centralised examination can be registered after their 12th year of schooling. Although these provisions do facilitate naturalisation and make it more attractive, some of the children interviewed highlighted a problem with training and information for young people, who are unable to fully comprehend the issues at stake in citizenship.

c. Naturalisation of children born after 21 August 1991

35. One of the recommendations in the 2003 report concerned compliance with Article 3.1 of the Law on nationality regarding the naturalisation of children born after 21 August 1991. It recommended that the possibility of modifying the birth registration forms would be considered so as to include the requirement that parents express the desire for their child to acquire Latvian citizenship or, alternatively, specify a different nationality.
36. This legislation has not been amended and the suggested provision has not been adopted, although the debate on the matter is continuing. A working group is still meeting regularly. The Latvian authorities highlight respect for the parents’ choice to justify their approach to the matter. The Latvian politicians and civil servants interviewed consider that some parents do not want their children automatically to acquire Latvian citizenship at birth. It is possible that such a feeling does exist among some of those concerned.

37. On the other hand, action has been taken to provide parents with the requisite information. This has included the campaign conducted in 2004 by the Ministry of Integration and the Ministry of Family Affairs: combined official letters from both Ministries were sent out to all families concerned, explaining the procedures for registering a child born after 21 August 1991. This initiative fell short of the expected results, although it did lead to the registration of 5 000 children. Nevertheless, there has been one welcome development: from 21 August 2006 onwards, all children born after 21 August 1991 who are 15 years old at this date can submit their own naturalisation application, even if their parents have taken no prior decision to this effect. But their applications are reviewed under simplified procedure – as recognition to be a citizen not naturalisation.
38. In fact, over 13 000 children are still non-citizens, and, children are still being born as non-citizens. This is a disturbing figure, and insufficient progress has been made, pointing to a lack of commitment to the issue on the part of the Latvian authorities. The Commissioner is in no way advocating systematic registration regardless of the parents’ wishes. On the other hand, he does consider it vitally necessary to conduct intensive information campaigns, particularly targeting young parents, and to develop dialogue. Legislation should be amended to enable parents to choose the status they want for their children when they register their births.

d. Naturalisation rights

39. The 2003 report advised the Latvian authorities to study the possibility of making the naturalisation procedure free of charge for non-citizens. While this recommendation has not been fully complied with, encouraging adjustments have been made to reduce the fees payable for this procedure. This is a step in the right direction. The fees to be paid for naturalisation applications usually total LVL 20 7. Any applicant who fails the tests will not be charged the fees for retaking them. Also, some population categories qualify for reductions. Retired persons, Group 2 and 3 disabled persons and destitute persons living alone, etc, only pay LVL 3. The procedure is free of charge for recognised victims of political repression under the Soviet regime, Group 1 disabled persons, orphans and children without parental guardianship, etc. The NGOs do not think this charge is an obstacle in itself.

Footnote 7 In 2005 the average wage was approximately LVL 244, and the old-age pension about LVL 81, according to the figures provided by the Government.

2. Integration issues

a. Signature of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities

40. One of the Commissioner’s recommendations in the 2003 report invited the Latvian authorities to ratify the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. They did so on 26 May 2005, and the instrument came into force in October 2005. However, this ratification was accompanied by three declarations: the first defining the personal scope of the application of the Convention, but the second and the third clarifying the scope attributed to Articles 10 (2) and 11 (3) of the Convention. The first declaration defines that notion “national minorities” as applying to citizens of Latvia who differ from Latvians in terms of their culture, religion or language, who have traditionally lived in Latvia for generations and consider themselves to belong to the state and society of Latvia, who wish to preserve and develop their culture, religion or language. Moreover, persons who are not citizens of Latvia or another state, but who permanently and legally reside in Latvia and who identify themselves with a national minority that meets the definition contained in this declaration, shall enjoy the rights prescribed in the Convention.
41. The second and the third declarations stipulate that Latvia will apply the provisions set out in Article 10 (2) (use of the minority language in areas inhabited by persons belonging to national minorities traditionally or in substantial numbers) and Article 11 (3) (right to display traditional local names, street names and other topographical indications intended for the public also in the minority language) without prejudice to the Satversme (Constitution) of the Republic of Latvia and legislative acts governing the use of the state language that are currently in force. This declaration appears to confirm a position that Latvian is the only language that can be used for official documents. The declaration has been strongly criticised by the representatives of the Russian minority and NGOs.

42. Some NGO representatives consider that the ratification of the Convention has not yet had any positive effect. Moreover, some feel that nothing is being done to support the Russian minority (who account for 28.4% of the total population) in the cultural, political and economic fields. Some even go so far as to describe the Latvian authorities’ policy vis-à-vis Russians as discriminatory. There may be political reasons for these statements, but the reality itself does cause some serious human rights concerns. Though the declarations entered by Latvia on ratifying the Framework Convention are to be seen as interpretations rather than reservations, they have obviously perpetuated an impression of institutionalised marginalisation among representatives of the minorities.

b. Participation of non-citizens in local political life

43. The exclusion of non-citizens from political life does nothing to encourage their integration. The Commissioner stressed this point in the previous report, recommending that Latvia examine the possibility of granting them, among other things, the right to vote in local elections. It should be highlighted that the overwhelming majority of non-citizens belong to minorities, and that this status debars them from participating in the political life of their country. They can neither vote nor be elected, even at the local level. Although a bill has been drafted granting non-citizens the right to vote at the local level, the text has not yet been examined by Parliament. The Commissioner hopes that Parliament will soon adopt a law improving the participation of non-citizens in political and social life.

c. Use of minority languages in the administration

44. The 2003 report recommended facilitating the use of minority languages in the administration, particularly in written correspondence between persons belonging to the national minorities and administrative staff. Not only has there been no change to the relevant legislation, but it would appear that all discussion of this topic has been dropped. Officially, only the Latvian language can be used in communications with the authorities or administrative departments. This rigid legal provision is an obstacle to the integration of minorities. Fortunately, there is some flexibility in practice. Some local administrations and institutions agree to consider applications in minority languages. For instance, more than half of all complaints submitted to the National Human Rights Office are in the Russian language. Other departments, e.g. in Daugavpils, provide translators for such communications. The Commissioner renews the previous recommendation and invites the Latvian authorities to devote particular attention to it.

d. Training programmes in Latvian

45. Learning the Latvian language is one of the most effective instruments for integration, although it should never be used to the detriment of the so-called minority languages. On the contrary, the official state language and minority languages should be able to coexist harmoniously. With an eye to promoting the integration of minorities, the 2003 report considered it necessary to increase the available financial resources in order to provide Latvian language courses for all persons interested in learning the language or improving their linguistic knowledge free of charge.

46. Undeniable progress has been made in this field, mainly thanks to the work of the National Agency for Latvian Language Training. Several programmes run by the Agency have been financed by the European Social Fund and the Phare Programme. In addition to the courses run for specific professions (doctors, police officers, etc), programmes have been established for three main categories, for instance non-Latvian primary school teachers, parents of children attending minority schools, and elderly persons.

47. In 2005 the Agency developed a training programme for secondary school teachers. The aim is to allow non-Latvian teachers to perfect their knowledge of Latvian, help them organise a tutorial system for pupils in difficulty, provide support in preparing for examinations, and lastly to help them establish co-operation processes between minority and Latvian schools. Still in the educational field, the Agency is conducting a campaign for parents of children attending minority schools. In 2005 it ran almost 100 courses for such parents on school premises. This action would appear to be achieving positive results: parents have not only improved their command of Latvian but also changed their attitude to the Latvian language and school in general.  Concurrently, a pilot project was initiated under the Phare Programme: after a series of language and history courses, the participants’ children joined a summer camp which included courses on the requirements for the naturalisation process.

48. Elderly persons are entitled to one-year Latvian courses. The most interesting initiative is the new bilingual magazine entitled “Atslegas” or “Ключи” (“Keys”), which is published twice a month and is distributed at post offices. This publication explains the new laws and European directives having an impact on people’s daily lives. It includes interviews with government officials and explains the terminology used.

49. Unfortunately, all these projects are under the short- to medium-term threat of underfunding. The money provided by the Latvian State and the European Union is not sufficient. The money left on the Agency’s budget will only suffice for 70 more courses for parents and teachers. Similarly, the summer camp for parents and children is unlikely to be repeated in 2007 for lack of funds. Lastly, there are sufficient funds for publishing the “Atslegas” magazine until July 2007, but after that the future is uncertain. The fact is that all these activities are impacting very positively on the various target groups. Again, non-Latvian teachers need ongoing training in the Latvian language. The Commissioner therefore urges the Latvian authorities to make sufficient funds available for the Agency to continue working.

50. Other programmes are funded by the Department responsible for naturalisation and other institutions, further supported by third States or international organisations (e.g. UNDP). They also suffer from a lack of funds. This points to the need for an overhaul of the whole system for financing the teaching of the Latvian language. The Commissioner also thinks it would be useful and desirable to extend European Union aid to support training programmes in Latvian.

3. Educational reform

a. Initial assessments of the reform

51. Implementation of the educational reform that was decided in 1998 began in September 2004. This reform is geared to making Latvian the main teaching language in secondary schools. 60% of all secondary school lessons must now be given in Latvian. The reform primarily affects the minority secondary schools. It was launched against a tense background. The representatives of the minorities, particularly the Russian minority, protested about the lack of consultation during both the drafting and the implementation of the law.

52. The 2003 report recommended establishing dialogue and stepping up the means of consultation between representatives of the Ministry of Education, teachers and the parents’ associations in order to identify the best model and time scales for implementing the reform. This does not seem to have happened, or at least not in such a way as to involve those most directly concerned. In fact, the reform was implemented as scheduled without any genuine dialogue.

53. Almost 280 secondary schools now provide bilingual teaching. There are several bilingual teaching models from the primary level onwards8. However, this reform has encountered a number of problems, especially the lack of textbooks in some subjects, the quality of these materials, and the lack of training for non-Latvian teachers in the Latvian language. Several teachers admitted to us that they used the children’s mother tongue to explain aspects of a lesson taught in Latvian that they had not understood. Others taught their lessons in Latvian only if an inspector was visiting, reverting to the usual minority language as soon as the inspector left. Teacher training in Latvian is still inadequate. This raises a problem with teaching quality, as highlighted by representatives of the national minorities in September 2004.

Footnote 8 Model 1: bilingual teaching with an increasing number of subjects taught in Latvian; Model 2: bilingual teaching with mother-tongue course in specified subjects; Model 3: one subject is taught in Latvian, gradually joined by other subjects; Model 4: levels 1 to 3 are taught in the minority language (mother tongue) and then bilingual teaching is introduced, and finally some subjects are taught exclusively in Latvian.

b. The Agency for the Quality of Education

54. The two appeals lodged with the Constitutional Court in 2005 against the Law on educational reform were rejected. Nevertheless, in its judgment the Court considered that the lack of a mechanism for checking the quality of education was liable to cause problems. In October 2005, in the light of this judgment, the Latvian authorities set up the Agency for the Quality of Education. This Agency is mainly responsible for accrediting schools, assessing the quality of the education, providing and evaluating school textbooks from this angle.
55. In its few months of existence the Agency has inspected 165 schools, concentrating mainly on four fields: the administrative field; the assistance provided by schools to their pupils; the quality of the teachers’ work; and the learning process. It also supervises the availability of textbooks, an issue which came to the fore when a number of pupils complained of having to buy some schoolbooks themselves. The Agency’s preliminary conclusions show that the quality of education is higher in schools teaching in minority languages than in Latvian schools. Russian minority schools achieve better overall results, especially in such subjects as history and geography.
56. However, pupils attending minority schools face the recurrent problem of the quality of the textbooks. Some books in Latvian are translations of works originally published in Russian or other languages. This applies mainly to such scientific subjects as biology, chemistry and physics. Several teachers and pupils informed the delegation of serious inaccuracies in some translations. The Latvian translations of textbooks require prior approval from the Ministry of Education, but apparently the translations are not sufficiently checked. Similar types of errors have allegedly also crept into the exercise books designed for non-Latvian schoolchildren. While it is understandable that for the first few years there are different schoolbooks for pupils with Latvian as their mother tongue and those who speak Russian, Ukrainian or Tatar, it is vital to ensure that such books contain no errors or approximations. Children belonging to minorities must enjoy the same quality of education as Latvian children.
57. Yet this is one of the tasks of the Agency for the Quality of Education. According to the persons we spoke to in the Agency, its function is to check the textbooks in Latvian, which are all standardised, but not those in minority languages, most of which are published outside Latvia. There is a co-operation agreement between Latvia and Poland under which the books used in the Polish minority schools can be assessed. However, such agreements would seem to be the exception. There is no mechanism for checking textbooks published in Russian, because they are considered as “additional documentation” rather than actual textbooks. It is scarcely logical to classify as “additional resources” books which serve as learning tools in 40% of the courses run in Russian minority schools. This approach would suggest that a two-tier supervisory system is creeping in.

58. The Commissioner welcomes the setting up of this Agency, but invites it to reconsider its strategy and to devote the same attention to all schools and all textbooks which it is mandated to supervise. It should be remembered that the educational reform concerns issues linked to the integration of national minorities. The Commissioner deplores the lack of consultation in this field too.

c. Minority language training for teachers

59. The Commissioner invited the Latvian authorities to establish tertiary education programmes for the preparation of teachers of minority languages and curricula for the teaching of other subjects in minority languages. According to the various persons interviewed by members of my Office, this recommendation has not been implemented. The problems broadly persist. Moreover, there is a desperate shortage of teachers in minority nursery schools.
60. Broadly speaking, it is difficult to recruit new teachers specialised in certain subjects such as minority languages. University education is mainly provided in Latvian. In fact, those who opt for teaching in the minority language have to specialise in the first year or else opt right from the outset for teaching in a minority school. The former option does not guarantee adequate training for teaching in both languages, and the latter, according to some Latvian NGO representatives, is liable to confine candidates to teaching exclusively in minority schools.
61. The Commissioner recalls that State protection and support for the functioning of secondary schools teaching in minority languages, as advocated in the previous report, necessitates a policy of training teachers in the minority languages.

(..)

VII. Other concerns expressed during the visit

84. The Commissioner has chosen to deal with two subjects repeatedly mentioned during the visit, even though they were not referred to in the first report. These two issues are being addressed because they are currently the subject of lively debate in Latvian society and because they concern human rights.

1. Increasing discrimination and racism

85. The first of these issues is discrimination. The National Human Rights Office has reported an increase in registered cases of discrimination10. There are, however, no detailed statistics, and very few cases are actually submitted to the Office or brought before the courts. Furthermore, racist incidents are not always classified as such. For instance, many perpetrators of racist violence are prosecuted for hooliganism. Few open investigations are conducted into this type of violence, and convictions are few and far between.

Footnote 10 85 cases were registered in 2004, as compared with 58 in 2003. Most complaints concern discrimination based on sex, age, disability and ethnic belonging.
86. Latvia has reinforced its legislation by amending existing laws, but anti-discrimination provisions remain fragmented and scarce. Moreover, some groups are specifically targeted for discrimination not only in the population at large but also by certain politicians. Sexual minorities and Roma are hardest hit. The Commissioner considers this situation very disturbing.

(..)

b. Discrimination against Roma

90. According to the Latvian authorities, some 8 000 Roma live in Latvia; the NGO estimate is over 15 000. Although most of them are citizens, they suffer from discrimination, especially in the employment and service sectors. Unemployment is very common in the Roma population, and their economic situation is worrying. Several initiatives have been launched to combat an insidious kind of “Romophobia”. Similarly, programmes have been established to inform Roma of their rights and provide them with the education and training which they still sorely lack. A three-year Government strategy is prioritising education. Special classes have been introduced for Roma children, and Roma social workers visit their places of residence to help socialise the children and prepare them for school.
91. Roma also face difficulties with the Latvian administration, with some departments ignoring their requests. The Commissioner’s team was informed of the case of a disabled Roma woman who was refused access to the simplified naturalisation procedure. Another Roma woman who had lost her birth certificate and whose children had no status despite having been born in Latvian territory, was placed in a retention camp for illegal immigrants. The State must take action to put an end to all types of discrimination in the administration against this extremely vulnerable population. Recently, the Commissioner’s Office was informed by the Latvian authorities that a national programme “Roma in Latvia” was created for 2007-2009.

(..)

Summary of Recommendations

The Commissioner recommends the Latvian authorities:
(..)
6) To continue efforts in the naturalization process. The naturalization should be simplified for the elderly. The registration forms for children born after the 21 August 1991 should contain a question allowing parents to request Latvian citizenship. In this context, campaigns targeting young parents should be intensified.
7) To facilitate the use of minority languages in written correspondence between people belonging to the national minorities and the administration.
8) To ensure that the Agency in charge of assessing the quality of education given the same attention to Latvian language and minority language schools and textbooks.
9) To ensure education of teachers in minority languages in order to support the functioning of secondary schools teaching in these languages.

(..)

16) To carry out the national action plan for the Roma to put an end to all types of discrimination against them.


Document data: CommDH(2007)9, 16.05.2007 Link: https://rm.coe.int/16806db753

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