Political and economic upheavals and wars in the last centuries have spurred migrations to and within Europe which have created societies that are rich in ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. As a result, many minorities have been confronted with discrimination and even denial of citizenship. They have often been and are excluded from employment, housing, education and access to health services or justice. Many of them are under-represented in European governments and institutions which makes it difficult for them to find political redress to violations of their rights.
Protection of national minorities has always been on the Council of Europe’s agenda, but the issue acquired even more importance with the collapse of European communist regimes, extreme nationalism and conflicts in certain parts of Europe.
Questions and Answers
How does the Council of Europe protect national minorities?
The Council of Europe’s action in this field is based on the principle that the protection of minorities is part of the universal protection of human rights. Its action includes standard setting, intergovernmental co-operation, activities for the development and consolidation of democratic stability and confidence building measures in civil society. It extends to many related policy fields and involves co-operation with many different bodies within and outside of the Council of Europe.
The Council of Europe’s most comprehensive text for protecting the rights of persons belonging to national minorities is the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM). It is the first legally binding multilateral instrument devoted to the protection of national minorities worldwide. It was adopted on 10 November 1994 by the Committee of Ministers and it entered into force on 1 February 1998. It has 39 member states to date.
Other important Council of Europe documents in this field are:
- The European Convention on Human Rights, because its universally applicable individual rights can also be claimed by persons belonging to national minorities;
- The European Social Charter, which protects minorities in social and economic fields;
- The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which focuses on protection and promotion of minority languages.
In addition to these documents, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) makes an important contribution to the fight against discrimination of persons belonging to minorities.
What is a national minority?
The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) does not contain a definition of "national minority" as there is no general definition agreed upon by all Council of Europe member states. Each party of the Framework Convention is therefore left with a margin of appreciation to assess which groups are to be covered by the Convention within their territory. This decision must be made in good faith and in accordance with general principles of international law, including the principle of free self-identification, set out in Article 3 of the Framework Convention. Individuals may decide themselves whether they wish to be treated as belonging to a national minority. However, their decision must be based on objective criteria connected with their identity, such as their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.
How does a definition of a national minority differ among different countries?
States party to the Convention have varied approaches with regard to the definition of a national minority: from a restrictive approach with, for example, a set list of traditional groups that are to benefit from the Framework Convention’s protection to an open approach, including even non-citizens. The Advisory Committee, a group of independent experts assisting in monitoring the implementation of the Convention, will assess whether states parties are not arbitrarily excluding certain groups that wish to be covered under the Convention.
For further information, please refer to Thematic commentary No. 4: The scope of application of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, adopted on 27 May 2016
How many people in European states belong to national minorities?
Obtaining accurate statistics on the size of minority populations in European states is very difficult. This is partly because many states do not disaggregate data on ethnic grounds for a variety of historical and political reasons and partly because states do not have reliable or up-to-date census figures. Virtually all European states have some population belonging to national minorities.
What has the Council of Europe done to improve the situation of the Roma?
The Roma are present in virtually all member states of the Council of Europe. They are said to comprise approximately ten million people. Widely dispersed Roma communities remain the most marginalised groups across Europe.
The Council of Europe has developed many activities on the specific problems faced by the Roma. Its coordinator of activities concerning Roma/Gypsies and the Specialist Group on Roma/Gypsies and Travellers have provided important advice, for example in the elaboration of national strategies towards Roma in member states. It also supported the establishment of the European Roma and Travellers Forum in 2005. Run by the Roma and Travellers themselves, it aims to give them a common voice in European politics. 2011 saw a renewed focus on issues concerning Roma issues in the Council of Europe with the creation of a dedicated transversal team led by the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Roma issues.
Which countries have ratified the Framework Convention?
The Framework Convention has been ratified by 39 states: Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Georgia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Malta, the Republic of Moldova, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, San Marino, Serbia, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Belgium, Greece, Iceland and Luxembourg have signed it, but not ratified it. Andorra, France, Monaco and Turkey have neither signed nor ratified it.
A special monitoring agreement exists with regards to Kosovo*.
Why is it called a “Framework” Convention?
Whilst the Convention is a legally binding instrument under international law, the word “Framework” highlights the scope for member states to translate the Convention’s provisions to their specific country situation through national legislation and appropriate governmental policies.
What commitments do states undertake when they ratify the FCNM?
The Framework Convention sets out principles to be respected as well as goals to be achieved by the states, in order to ensure the protection of national minorities. Parties to the Framework Convention undertake to promote full and effective equality of persons belonging to minorities in all areas of economic, social, political, public and cultural life together with conditions that will allow them to express, preserve and develop their culture, religion, language and traditions. They have to ensure their freedom of assembly, association, expression, thought, conscience, religion and their access to and use of media. The Convention also provides guidelines for their linguistic freedom and rights regarding education.
Which linguistic freedom does the Framework Convention include?
The provisions of the Framework Convention cover the use of the minority language in private and in public as well as, under certain conditions, in contacts with administrative authorities. It also includes the use of one’s personal name, display of information of a private nature and topographical names in the minority language.
Who is responsible for monitoring of the Framework Convention?
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and the Advisory Committee are both involved in the monitoring of the Framework Convention.
What is the Advisory Committee (ACFC)?
The Advisory Committee, set up in 1998, has a key role in monitoring the implementation of the Framework Convention by states. Its task is to ensure that the standards of the Convention are applied by all the concerned countries, in the various fields of interest for persons belonging to national minorities. It is composed of 18 independent experts appointed by the Committee of Ministers.
How is states’ compliance with the Framework Convention monitored?
The evaluation of the implementation of the Framework Convention by the parties is carried out by the Committee of Ministers, assisted by the Advisory Committee. States are required to submit a report containing full information on legislative and other measures taken to comply with the principles of the Framework Convention within one year of the entry into force. Further reports have to be made on a periodical basis and whenever the Committee of Ministers requests so. If the states fail to present their reports, the Committee of Ministers can authorise the Advisory Committee to start the monitoring process nevertheless.
The Advisory Committee examines State Reports and usually carries out country visits in order to have a constructive dialogue with both authorities and civil society. Following its close examination of the situation in the country, the Advisory Committee adopts an Opinion, which is transmitted to the authorities concerned. States parties have an opportunity to submit comments on this Opinion within four months after which time the comments and the Opinion are made public. Based on the ACFC Opinion, the Committee of Ministers adopts a Resolution with conclusions and recommendations in respect of the state concerned. The implementation of the recommendations is promoted through follow-up activities in
What have the FCNM and its monitoring mechanism achieved?
The monitoring mechanism of the FCNM has contributed to improving dialogue between governmental agencies and national minorities. It has also prompted the adoption of new laws devoted to the protection of national minorities and encouraged states to improve their non-discrimination legislation and practice.
The Advisory Committee has become a recognised and highly respected body in the international sphere of minority protection. The Advisory Committee’s Opinions have emerged as a central reference in the work of other international bodies, such as the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).
Updated: October 2016
*All reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.