FCNM Advisory Committee 3rd opinion on Latvia (excerpt on public services), 2018

II. ARTICLE-BY-ARTICLE FINDINGS

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Article 10 of the Framework Convention

Use of minority languages in relations with administrative authorities

Recommendations from the two previous cycles of monitoring

118. The Advisory Committee noted that persons belonging to national minorities could not benefit, except in a few cases, from the right to use their languages in dealings with administrative authorities as provided for by the Framework Convention, and expressed its serious concern about legislative provisions and implementation modalities that imposed the exclusive use of the state language in the public sphere and in an increasing number of occupations in the private sector. It urged the authorities to review their legislative and policy framework with a view to finding a balance between the goal of promoting the official language and the language rights of persons belonging to national minorities.

119. In addition, the Advisory Committee asked the authorities to modify the existing methods of monitoring implementation of the state language policy to favour a more constructive and incentive-based approach over the applied system of inspections and sanctions. It also invited the authorities to devote more efforts to adequately raise awareness among officials and the public at large of the conditions under which minority languages may be used to reduce the level of tension in society surrounding language issues.

Present situation

120. The Advisory Committee regrets that the situation with regard to the use of minority languages in dealings with the administrative authorities has not changed during the current monitoring cycle. The Advisory Committee recalls that in accordance with the Official Language Law, languages other than Latvian can only be used in very limited circumstances: in relations with public administration institutions, such as submissions to police and medical institutions, rescue services and other institutions; in cases of urgent calls for medical aid, where crimes are being committed or other violations of law; or calls for emergency assistance in cases of fire, accident or other emergencies.

121. Notwithstanding that many local authorities, including in Riga, provide free interpretation services, Latvian continues to be the sole language authorised in the work of municipal authorities and councils and in their contacts with inhabitants, irrespective of the proportion of the population affiliated with a national minority. This provision of the law creates difficulties for some elderly residents, in particular those who have not studied the Latvian language at school. The Advisory Committee recalls in this context that according to the last census results 40.2 % of residents of Riga declared Russian ethnic affiliation and the Russian language is, according to the same source, spoken at home by 55.8% of inhabitants of Riga and 60.3 % of inhabitants of the Latgale region. Regardless of this linguistic reality, all submissions to public administration institutions must be in the Latvian language.82 In this context, the Advisory Committee recalls its earlier observations “that the current approach of restricting the use of other languages is incompatible with the Framework Convention and considers moreover that it may be counterproductive. It wishes to reiterate that Article 10 of the Framework Convention does not foresee the use of minority languages – under specific circumstances – instead of the official language but in addition to it. The Advisory Committee finds that clear legal guarantees for the use of minority languages under conditions in line with Article 10 of the Framework Convention would reduce the current level of agitation surrounding the issue and would ultimately benefit society.”83

Footnote 82 See Section 10, para. 2 of the Official Language Law.
Footnote 83 See 2nd Opinion, para. 87.

122. Officials who do not respect the obligation to use exclusively the Latvian language in their communication with their constituents risk being fined by the State Language Centre, a governmental authority established in 1992 under supervision of the Ministry of Justice, whose primary function is to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Official Language Law and relevant Cabinet of Ministers regulations. The Advisory Committee regrets to note, for example, that the mayor of Riga Mr Nils Ušakovs was fined 140 EUR for using the Russian language alongside Latvian on Riga City Council’s Twitter account. An appeal from Mr Ušakovs to the Riga Regional Court was dismissed in March 2017.84 Other examples of the State Language Centre issuing prohibitions to provide information in languages other than Latvian (usually Russian, but also in English), include booklets about adoption of the Euro as the new currency in Latvia, 85 reading aloud the names of stops in trams in Daugavpils, 86 or information leaflets with invitations to women to undergo oncological examinations.87

Footnote 84 Mixnews.lv, “Without appeal: Ushakov was finally forbidden to communicate in social networks in Russian” (Без апелляции: Ушакову окончательно запретили общаться в соцсетях на русском), 13 March 2017, available (in Russian) at http://www.mixnews.lv/ru/politics/news/218190_bez-apellyacii-ushakovu-okon4atelno-zapretili-obs4atsya-vsocsetyax-na-russkom/.
Footnote 85 Delfi.lv, “State Language Centre forbids distributing information about euros in Russian“ (Центр госязыка запретил распространять информацию о евро по-русски), 15 November 15 2013, available (in Russian) at http://www.delfi.lv/biznes/finances/centr-gosyazyka-zapretil-rasprostranyat-informaciyu-o-evro-porusski.d?id=43818986.
Footnote 86 Ruvr.ru, “Daugavpils trams left without Russian” (Трамваи Даугавпилса остались без русского языка), 2 August 2013, available (in Russian) at http://windowrussia.ruvr.ru/2013_08_02/Tramvai-Daugavpilsa-ostalis-bezrusskogo-jazika-8709/.
Footnote 87 Mixnews;lv, “State Language Centre forbids to invite women to a cancer check in Russian“ (Центр госязыка запретил приглашать женщин на проверку рака на русском), 17 October 2013, available at http://www.mixnews.lv/ru/society/news/2013-10-17/135108.

Recommendation

123. The Advisory Committee urges the authorities to review the legislative and policy framework related to the use of languages in dealings with administrative authorities to ensure an adequate balance between the promotion of the official language and access to language rights of persons belonging to national minorities, in line with Article 10 of the Framework Convention. They should take steps to raise awareness among officials and the public at large of the conditions and terms under which minority languages may be used.


Document data: ACFC/OP/III(2018)001; adopted 23.02.2018, published 15.10.2018 Link: https://rm.coe.int/revised-version-of-the-english-language-version-of-the-opinion/1680901e79 Also available in Latvian: https://rm.coe.int/3rd-op-latvia-latvian/16808d91ab

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