Report on the visit to Latvia by the Rapporteur on racism (excerpt on language), 2008

II. POLITICAL AND LEGAL STRATEGY OF THE PUBLIC AUTHORITIES

A. The legal and institutional framework to combat racism and racial discrimination

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4. Language legislation

34. The Official Language Law approved in 1999 defines the status of languages spoken in Latvian territory. The Law aims to ensure “the maintenance, protection and development of the Latvian language” and “of the cultural and historic heritage of the Latvian nation”. Although the law recognizes the right of different communities to use their native language, it sets language policy as a means to ensure the integration of members of ethnic minorities into the society of Latvia and the increased influence of the Latvian language in the cultural environment of Latvia.

35. The Law recognizes Latvian as the official state language and no specific provisions for minority languages are contained in the Law. It establishes that the exclusive use of Latvian is compulsory in any public institution as well as in private institutions performing activities of legitimate public interest. Communications with public institutions are normally required to be carried out in Latvian. The Law also establishes that the names of all persons living in Latvia, including non-citizens, need to be presented in identification documents according to Latvian language norms.

36. The monitoring of the Official Language Law and implementation of the language policy is conducted by the State Language Center, which operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Justice. Particular violations of the Law are also established in the Administrative Violations Code, including cases of private institutions with a legitimate public interest.

B. Policies and programmes to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance

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41. The Special Rapporteur also enquired as to the impact of educational policies on minority communities, their integration into society and on the promotion of respect for their cultural identity. Latvia’s educational system is mainly based on two types of schools: Latvian-language and minority-language (mostly Russian) schools. In application of the Law on Education, which establishes that a certain proportion of the courses need to be taught in Latvian, minority-language schools are gradually introducing bilingual education. A major educational reform was passed in 2004, establishing that in public secondary schools at least 60 per cent of the courses in secondary education need to be taught in Latvian or bilingually.

42. The Minister of Education emphasized that the language policy in the educational system is an important means of promoting linguistic integration into Latvia of students of all ethnic and racial minorities. The central principle followed during the reform was to progressively improve the quality of education for all students and to allow for access to higher education, which is exclusively taught in Latvian. According to data of the Ministry’s Examination Centre, 61 per cent of minority students finishing secondary education choose to undertake the maturity exam in Latvian, which according to Ministry officials shows that the educational system is managing to promote linguistic integration. Examination data also show that minority schools have the best results in terms of quality of education in Latvia. The subject where minorities have a poorer performance is history, which according to Ministry officials is evidence of Latvia’s complex historical legacy.

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III. VIEWS OF CIVIL SOCIETY AND COMMUNITIES CONCERNED

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B. Views of the Russian-speaking communities

55. The Russian-speaking communities in Latvia are composed mostly of ethnic Russians, but also of smaller groups of ethnic Belorussians and other minorities. Ethnic Russians arrived in Latvia during different waves of migration that extended from the sixteenth century to the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution; only a part – albeit a large one – of the Russian community arrived during the Soviet occupation. Therefore, it is inaccurate to speak of a unified ethnic Russian minority, since different members of this group have different legal status in Latvia. The Special Rapporteur speaks of the Russian-speaking communities to refer to those former USSR citizens that immigrated to Latvia during the Soviet occupation.

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58. Apart from the problem of citizenship, the Russian-speaking communities highlighted concerns over language policy in Latvia, in terms of language requirements for naturalization, regulations on the use of non-official languages in public and private life and the role of language in education. One of the main reasons that was raised as an explanation for the decline in the rate of naturalization was the language requirement in the naturalization exam, which is seen as strict by representatives of the Russian-speaking communities. In particular, although the Government has sponsored some language instruction courses for non-citizens, free-of-charge Latvian language classes in preparation for the naturalization exam are seen as a fundamental step to positively encourage more applications for citizenship, particularly of marginalized members of the Russian-speaking communities.

59. Regulations for the use of non-official languages are believed to have drastically curtailed the use of Russian even in community affairs, permission only being granted to use Russian in police and hospital emergencies. These restrictions have especially affected vulnerable groups. NGOs highlighted the situation of Russian-speaking persons in Latvian prisons, who have limited access to legal counsel and formal communication with wardens and the judicial system. Concerns have been expressed that the existing regulations are sometimes used to restrict usage of Russian even in private affairs, by claims of a “legitimate public interest”. The Russian-speaking communities highlighted the importance of  establishing clear limits to the regulations prohibiting use of non-official languages in order to guarantee that private affairs, including business, is not affected. Moreover, the Special Rapporteur’s interlocutors called for authorization of the use of Russian in local affairs in areas densely populated by Russian-speaking citizens.

60. Another area of concern in terms of language policy regards the educational reforms introduced in 2004, which introduced bilingual education in minority schools by establishing a minimum share of 60 per cent of courses that need to be taught in Latvian, or bilingually, in public secondary schools. In its concluding observations on Latvia, CERD called for closer dialogue between the Government, schools, parents and pupils in order to ensure that a high quality of education is maintained and that the educational needs of minorities are met.7

Footnote 7 Ibid. [Publisher’s note – CERD/C/63/CO/7], para. 15.

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IV. ANALYSIS AND ASSESSMENT OF THE SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR

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80. The Special Rapporteur has noted that Latvia, like the other Baltic countries, is currently at a turning point in history. Its society is profoundly marked by the legacy of the Soviet domination and occupation, which has left scars that have yet to be healed, as the Special Rapporteur noted in his visit to the Occupation Museum. The central challenge it thus faces is to build a democratic, egalitarian and interactive multicultural society by taking into account both the need to reassert the continuity of its national identity – shaken and eroded by occupation but deeply rooted in a long memory – and the recognition and respect of the rights of minorities that arrived during the occupation. This new identity tension, with its political and cultural expressions, requires political vision, legal vigilance and cultural creativity to foster among communities a long-lasting sense of belonging and living together. Two principles should guide this process: respect for the historical truth and non-discrimination against minorities. To fully implement this strategy, national and regional factors will be of key relevance as far as the Russian communities are concerned. The full respect of their rights – in terms of citizenship, language, culture and the eradication of any form of discrimination – is closely linked to their involvement and participation in the process of a new multicultural nation that is fully respected by all countries in the region.

V. RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR

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88. Insofar as citizenship regulations are concerned, the Government should revisit the existing requirements for naturalization with the objective of facilitating the granting of citizenship to non-citizens and implementing the commitments established by the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. In particular, the Government should consider appropriate measures to tackle the problem of the low level of registration as citizens of children born in Latvia after 21 August 1991 to non-citizen parents. These measures could include granting automatic citizenship at birth, without a requirement of registration by the parents, to those children born to non-citizen parents who do not acquire any other nationality. The Government should also relax naturalization requirements, in particular language proficiency exams, for elderly persons. Additionally, the granting of voting rights in local elections for non-citizens who are long-term residents of Latvia should be considered by the Government and the subject of broad discussion within Latvian society.

89. The Special Rapporteur recommends that Latvia’s language policy be revisited, aiming to better reflect the multilingual character of its society. This process should aim to promote the cohabitation of all the communities in Latvia on the basis of two principles: first, the legitimate right of the Latvian Government to disseminate Latvian language among all residents; second, the respect for the existence of minority languages spoken by sizeable communities, in particular Russian, in full compliance with the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, in particular, article 2.1 which states that “Persons belonging to national … minorities have the right to … use their own language, in private and in public, freely and without  interference or any form of discrimination”; article 4.2 which states that “States shall take measures where required to create favourable conditions to enable persons belonging to minorities to […] develop their culture, language, religion, traditions and customs” and article 4.3 which states that “States should take appropriate measures so that, wherever possible, persons belonging to minorities may have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue.” Specific measures that could be taken to improve the situation of linguistic minorities include extending free-of-charge Latvian language courses for all residents in Latvian territory.

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Document data: 05.03.2008, A/HRC/7/19/Add.3 Link: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Racism/SRRacism/Pages/CountryVisits.aspx

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