ECRI 3rd report on Latvia (excerpts on language), 2007

I. FOLLOW-UP TO ECRI’S SECOND REPORT ON LATVIA

International legal instruments

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Recommendations:

7. ECRI reiterates its recommendation that Latvia ratify the following international instruments as soon as possible: Protocol N° 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter (Revised), the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the European Convention on Nationality, the Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level, and the European Convention on the Legal Status of Migrant Workers.

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Constitutional provisions and other basic provisions

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Official identification documents

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15. In its second report, ECRI urged the authorities to ensure that the public was made aware of the possibility of adding one’s original name to the Latvian version on identification documents, and that this possibility be thoroughly respected. On 2 March 2004, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted Regulation No. 114 “On the spelling and use in the Latvian language of persons’ names, as well as their identification”, with an aim to clarify the rules applying in this field. Despite this measure, ECRI notes that some persons have still expressed dissatisfaction at the way their names of non-Latvian origin are written on identification documents

Recommendations

16. ECRI encourages the Latvian authorities to reinforce their efforts to inform and explain to the persons concerned the language rules applying to names in official documents and to guarantee the right to reproduction of the original form of a name in addition to the Latvian version.

II. SPECIFIC ISSUES

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The situation of the Russian-speaking population

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The issue of citizenship

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111. The authorities have pointed out many legislative and other steps which have been taken to increase the number of persons being granted Latvian citizenship, either by naturalisation or by registration of their citizenship (mainly for children of non-citizens). The Latvian Naturalisation Board has multiplied the number of initiatives aimed at encouraging non-citizens to apply for naturalisation for themselves or for registration of their children born after 1991 as Latvian citizens. The naturalisation process has been facilitated on several occasions, either by reducing the fee for some social groups or by facilitating the exam procedure for some people, including disabled and elderly persons. In co-operation with
international partners, the Latvian government provides Latvian language
courses free of charge for naturalisation applicants who have to pass the Latvian language proficiency exam.

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The issues relating to the State language

119. In its second report, ECRI addressed a number of issues relating to language law in Latvia. In particular, it asked that the 1999 State Language Law, which provides that Latvian is the State language, be kept under review as concerns the mandatory use of Latvian by public institutions on the one hand, and private organisations where there is a legitimate public interest on the other hand. ECRI considers that the State should encourage and help all persons living in Latvia, including the Russian-speaking population, to learn and speak Latvian so as to be able to integrate into society and enjoy genuine equality of opportunities. At the same time it should avoid any assimilation which would deprive ethnic minorities of the possibility or capability of using their own language. In Latvia, language has become an emotional and sometimes controversial issue, particularly between those who wish to defend Latvian as the only official language and as a tool for integration of the Latvian society, and those who fear that such a position is detrimental to minority languages and particularly to Russian. Therefore, solving the language issue is of key importance if Latvia is to avoid it becoming a cause of interethnic tensions and achieve a society where the different communities interact and live harmoniously47.

Footnote 47 See also above, Use of racist expressions in the public discourse.

120. The inspectors of the State Language Centre are responsible for supervising the implementation of the provisions of the State Language Law and for imposing fines under the Administration Violation Code in cases of violation of this Law. ECRI notes the existence of some criticism about State language inspectors who reportedly act sometimes in a “over-zealous” manner when imposing fines. Furthermore some representatives of the Russian-speaking population have alleged that in some cases, the publication in Russian of useful official information (for instance a municipal booklet on social benefits) has been prevented by the authorities, possibly under pressure from nationalist elements, despite the fact that such information would be of great use to those who speak only Russian. The Latvian authorities have assured ECRI that the State language inspectors intervene only where it is strictly necessary (for instance when there is a legitimate public interest in private organisations, as required by the Law). The authorities have not heard of cases of unlawful prohibition to publish a document in Russian. ECRI notes with interest that the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities published a “Practical Guide for the State Language Inspectors on the Implementation of the Latvian State Language Law” which gives all necessary guidelines ensuring that international human rights standards are respected in this field.

121. All studies on discrimination in employment in Latvia show that language is the main factor of discrimination in the workplace. Language skills play a significant role in access to employment and have an impact on the level of wages. It means that those who do not have a sufficient command of Latvian suffer from this disadvantage. This is partly due to the fact that the State Language Law requires that people should have a sufficient level of knowledge of the Latvian language, which varies according to the type of occupation of the person in question. It is for the employer, under the control of the State Language Centre, to check whether the employee has a sufficient command of Latvian with respect to his/her function. In this context, it is therefore essential that non-Latvian native speakers be given all opportunities to learn Latvian.

122. The lack of Latvian language proficiency also hinders communication with public bodies. The State Language Law requires that, with the exception of emergency situations, all documents issued in Latvia and submitted to public bodies in another language than Latvian shall be accepted if they are accompanied by a certified or authenticated translation. Reportedly, some detainees have complained about problems in fulfilling this requirement, which makes it difficult for them to enter into contact with public bodies. More generally, many representatives of the Russian-speaking population have asked for the possibility for members of this population to communicate with the authorities in Russian in places where they live compactly.

123. ECRI notes with satisfaction that the Latvian authorities have continued to implement and develop the National Programme for Latvian Language Training. In particular, in September 2004, the Government transformed the Unit implementing the National Programme into a permanent state institution, the National Agency for Latvian Language Training. This body is competent for developing teaching material to learn Latvian as a second language; to train Latvian language teachers; to organise courses of Latvian as a second language for a variety of target audiences including persons who try to increase their job opportunities by improving their Latvian or who wish to apply for naturalisation48. This agency is also responsible for creating teaching material for schools. ECRI finds the initiative by this institution to publish from 2005 onwards a bilingual newspaper called “Keys” in Latvian and Russian particularly positive. This magazine appears to be an interesting project which should contribute to bridging the gap between the Latvian and Russian communities49. In general, it is encouraging to note an overall improvement in Latvian language skills among the Russian-speaking population. It seems that while 22% of the total population in Latvia did not speak Latvian at all in 1996, only 12% were in this situation in 2003, and hopefully even fewer now.

Footnote 48 See above, The issue of citizenship.

Footnote 49 Concerning the last point, see also below, the participation of the Russian-speaking population in the public and political life

124. As Latvian plays a crucial role in the integration of the labour market, it is all the more important that the level of knowledge of Latvian among non-native speakers and particularly Russian-speakers improve rapidly. However, encouragement to learn Latvian should not result in neglect of the minority languages and cultures that need preserving in the interests of basic cohesiveness of Latvian society. In this regard, ECRI believes that the ratification by Latvia of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages would be a step in the right direction.

Recommendations:

125. ECRI urges the Latvian authorities to take all necessary measures to ensure a balanced implementation of the State Language Law by the State language inspectors, particularly by giving due regard to human rights principles as indicated in the OSCE “Practical Guide for the State Language Inspectors on the Implementation of the Latvian State Language Law”.

126. ECRI strongly encourages the Latvian authorities to give priority to constructive and non-obligatory measures, inciting the Russian-speaking population to learn and use Latvian in all cases where it should be used according to the law. Accessible and quality language training should remain a key element of such measures. In particular, the National Agency for Latvian Language Training should be given all the necessary human and financial resources to maintain and develop its activities.

127. ECRI recommends that the Latvian authorities take care to preserve and encourage the use of minority languages without infringing on the status and teaching of the official language. Ways should be found to reassure ethnic minorities that learning Latvian is not tantamount to an attack on the use of their native languages.

The participation of the Russian-speaking population in public and political life

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130. As concerns the participation in political life of those members belonging to ethnic minorities who are Latvian citizens, ECRI expressed its concern in its second report on Latvia that the linguistic requirement for elected representatives might prove to be an additional barrier to the participation of non-ethnic Latvians in public life in Latvia. ECRI is pleased to learn that on 9 May 2002, the Saeima (Parliament) Election Law and the Law on Municipal, Regional and Local Elections were amended in order to remove the requirement for a candidate to those elections to attest his/her fluency in Latvian. However, even with the removal of this requirement, the representation of non-ethnic Latvians in political life remains weak. In its second report, ECRI noted that out of 100 Members of Parliament, only 16 where non-ethnic Latvians. The Latvian authorities have indicated that now there are 18 Members of Parliament who belong to ethnic minorities and four who have not indicated their ethnicity. It seems that ethnic minorities are seriously under-represented in public life. Another issue which was brought to the attention of ECRI is the lack of consultation of ethnic minorities, and in particular the Russian-speaking population, in the political decision-making process, even for those decisions which are of direct relevance to them. The authorities have stressed that they always try to consult ethnic minorities but it seems that this is not yet done in a satisfactory way.


Document data: CRI(2008)2 adopted 29.06.2007, published 12.02.2008 Link: https://rm.coe.int/third-report-on-latvia/16808b58b3

Publisher’s note: on language-related issues, please also see the excerpt on education

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