April 21, 2009, No. 6-6/134
To Riga city councilor Aleksandrs Kuzmins
Ratslaukums 1, in Riga, LV-1539
Dear Mr Kuzmins,
Your applications (registered with Nos. 27C-26D/1548 and 26D/1549) on possible human rights violations in Paragraph 1 of Section 21 of the Official Language Law, Clause 1.3 of Section 2 of the Citizenship Law and Paragraph 7 of Section 201.35 of the Latvian Administrative Violations Code have been considered in the Ombudsman’s Office.
Having evaluated the casefile, I am giving the following answers:
1. Article 104 of the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia (hereinafter the Constitution) provides that “Everyone has the right to address submissions to State or local government institutions and to receive a materially responsive reply. Everyone has the right to receive a reply in the Latvian language.”. This regulation needs to be interpreted in conjunction with the first sentence of Article 4 of the Consitution, in accordance with which “The Latvian language is the official language in the Republic of Latvia.”. It needs to be noted that the determination of an official language in every country is an issue of internal policy, in the competence of the legislative. Human rights principles and provisions have not been violated by giving to the Latvian language the official language status in the republic of Latvia. The Constitutional Court in its judgment of 21 December, 2001, in the case no. 2001-04-0103 has recognised that “By Article 4 of the Satversme (Constitution) the right of using both forms of Latvian-the oral and the written one -in communication is legally fixed”.
In order to specify the constitutional principles in the field of the official language, the legislative has adopted the Official Language Law. It needs to be noted that the aim of the regulations contained in Articles 4 and 104 of the Constitution and in the Official Language Law is to protect the Latvian language as the official language. A similar practive has been adopted and is not considered discriminatory in other countries of the world as well.
In accordance with Paragraph 1 of Section 21 of the Official Language Law, “Information provided for public information purposes by State and local government institutions, courts and institutions constituting the judicial system, State and local government undertakings, and companies in which the greatest share of capital is owned by the State or a local government, shall be provided only in the official language, except in cases determined in Paragraph five of this Section. This provision is also applicable to private institutions, organisations, undertakings (companies), and self-employed persons, who perform, on the basis of laws or other regulatory enactments, specific public functions, if the provision of information is related to the performance of the relevant functions.” The aim af that provision is to defend Latvian language as the official language and to ensure its constitutional status.
In accordance with Clause 4 of Section 1 of the Official Language Law, one of the law’s purposes is “the integration of members of ethnic minorities into the society of Latvia, while observing their rights to use their native language or other language”. It follows from that provision that along with strengthening the official language, one of the purposes of the Official Language Law is to promote the integration of members of ethnic minorities, respecting and observing their rights to use other languages as well. It is also important to note that the state is entitled to determined a working language of its bodies, however, the statealso has to ensure efficient and practical realisation of human rights. I wish to inform that in 2006, the National Human Rights Office applied to the Cabinet of Ministers with a request to consider possibility of amending Paragraph 3.1. of the Cabinet Regulation No. 130 of February 15, 2005, “Regulations regarding Use of Languages in Information”, removing from the scope of that regulation the institutions whose functions are oriented to promote social integration. After several hearings in a working group, that proposal has not been supported for legally-political reasons.
To summarise the above, I note that the official language is one of necessary conditions of the existence of the independent Republic of Latvia, but also in the same time it is a means of communication of country’s residents, which impacts, in a significant way, the rights provided for in Articles 90 and 100 of the Constitution. The Constitutional Court, in its judgment of 9 May, 2008, in the case no. 2007-24-01, has recognised that “the basic rights established in the Satversme may not be of a declarative nature. It is also necessary to ensure their implementation in practice”. I consider that the law must correspond to the public needs and the specific historical sitation. In the current situation the threats to state sovereignty are not as relevant as, e.g., ten years ago, and therefore, it is justified and proportionate to change the regulatory enactments. The public bodies, one of whose main functions is to promote human rights observance and integration (e.g., the Ombudsman’s Office, Ministry of Welfare, social services of the municipalities) have to be given rights to provide information in a foreign language in the frames of their competence and capacity (without a request by a specific person in the understanding of Paragraph 3.1. of the Cabinet Regulation No. 130 of February 15, 2005).
2. Clause 1.3 of Paragraph 2 of the Citizenship Law establishes that citizens of Latvia are [including] “persons whose permanent residence is in Latvia, who have registered according to the procedures established by law and who have completed a full educational course in a general education school with Latvian language of instruction or have completed a programme in Latvian language in a general education school with programmes in two languages, thereby having acquired a basic primary or a general secondary education in such a school, if these individuals are not citizens of another state or they have received an expatriation permit from the state of their former citizenship, if such permit is provided for by the laws of that state. Simultaneously with such a person citizenship is acquired also by his/her minor children under the age of 15 years who are living permanently within Latvia” (..)
3. In accordance with Paragraph 7 of Section 201.35 of the Latvian Administrative Violations Code, “Provision of printing, signboards, booklets or othernotifications for public in public places in a foreign language and the official language concurrently, when regulatory enactments provide for provision of this information in the official language only – a warning shall be issued or a fine shall be imposed on the responsible persons in the amount from LVL 25 up to LVL 100” (..)
In the case mentioned in your application in respect to Paragraph 7 of Section 201.35 of the LAVC, no human rights violation has been found. (..)
Document data: adopted 21.04.2009. No. 6-6/134.
Publisher’s note: On part 1 of the opinion – the Official Language Law has not been amended, as at 2019. On part 2 of the opinion – there was no clear conclusion in the text. The relevant provisions of the Citizenship Law have been restructured in 2013. The version of the Citizenship Law valid between 1998 and 2013 can be found in English at https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4fbf7e422.pdf or http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/untc/unpan018407.pdf On part 3 of the opinion – the amount of fines has been changed, but the victimless offence remains on the books and sometimes this provision gets applied in practice by the State Language Centre.
The original in Latvian: