< Viewpoints < 2010

Language rights of national minorities must be respected – their denial undermines human rights and causes inter-communal tensions

[25/01/10] Language rights have become an issue of contention within several European countries, and as a consequence also between neighbouring states. While some governments take steps to strengthen the standing of the official language, national minorities are concerned that their linguistic rights are being undermined.

The spelling of personal names on passports, the displaying of street names and other topographical indications, the language used in schools, the language requirements when communicating with the authorities and the possibility to establish minority media – such issues are again being raised by minority representatives in several European countries. 

The redrawing of the political map in Europe over the past twenty years has in some places made these problems more acute. Also, emerging nationalistic tendencies - combined with confusion and insecurity about “national identity” - appear to have encouraged extremists to promote a xenophobic discourse against minority interests.

This is an area in which mature political leadership is particularly needed. Language is an essential tool for social organisation, including for the very functioning of the state. However, language is also a central dimension of individual identity on a personal level, and is often especially important for those in a minority position.

Disputes have arisen in some countries where the status of the state language has been perceived as threatened in regions where minorities are strongly present in number and perhaps also in politics. An argument for the controversial amendments last year to the Law on State Language in Slovakia was the importance of ensuring that Slovak-only speakers would be able to understand all official communications, even when residing in areas primarily populated by the Hungarian minority.   

Minorities, primarily the Hungarian population, found the proposed law changes discriminatory, reacted strongly against the introduction of sanctions for non-respect of the language law and felt that the minority languages needed better legal protection. This discussion also affected Slovak-Hungarian relations.

The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities became engaged in resolving this dispute. Moreover, the government in Bratislava took the wise decision to refer the amended law to the Venice Commission for comment. There are therefore good prospects for a rights-based solution.

Problems related to language issues are certainly not a new phenomenon. Indeed, norms have been developed on how to resolve them in a number of international and European human rights treaties.

  • The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) is a Council of Europe treaty which, inter alia, protects and promotes the language rights of persons belonging to national minorities. It has a monitoring body to assist the implementation by state parties: the Advisory Committee.
  • The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) protects and promotes languages as a threatened element of Europe’s cultural heritage. Implementation is monitored by the Committee of Experts.
  • These standards are further complemented by the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination, for instance, on the ground of language (Article 14). The case law of the European Court of Human Rights (the Strasbourg court) is highly relevant also in this area.
  • The OSCE has developed standards in this area which are promoted by the High Commissioner on National Minorities. One important document is the Oslo Recommendations regarding the Linguistic Rights of National Minorities (with an Explanatory Note).
  • Among the relevant UN documents is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states that persons belonging to minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to use their own language. Less binding but still highly relevant is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

These treaties and recommendations state key principles and define governmental obligations. However, as the nature of the problems differs greatly from one country to another, there is in many cases a need to interpret the agreed framework norms in order to meet the intended purpose and to achieve the appropriate balance.

There has to be a certain “margin of appreciation” – to use the language of the Strasbourg court – when applying the standards. This margin should, however, not be to avoid the obligation to respect the human rights of persons belonging to minorities.

The national discussions should consider the conclusions of the various international monitoring bodies and the case law of the Strasbourg court. They provide important guidance for the political decision-makers.

Personal names

The Strasbourg court has stated that “the name is not only an important element of self-identification; it is a crucial means of personal identification in society at large”. In one case (Guzel Erdagöz v. Turkey, 2008) it decided that the refusal of the government authorities to accept the preferred spelling of a person’s name violated the right to respect for private life as spelled out in the European Convention (Article 8).

These principles are also relevant in situations where the state language and the minority one are based on different alphabets or scripts. When visiting Lithuania recently I learned that the spelling of Polish names on passports and other official documents had became a controversial issue. However, the government in Vilnius has now submitted a proposal to parliament which, if adopted, would be seen as a constructive step towards fuller respect for minority rights.

Local names, street names and other topographical indications

The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention concluded in the case of Lithuania that the absence of bilingual public signs in certain areas was incompatible with the convention. There appeared to be a contradiction between the Law on the State Language and the Law on National Minorities which ought to be addressed.

In my own report on Austria I addressed the controversy around the possibility of displaying topographical signs both in German and in Slovenian in certain municipalities in Carinthia and recommended the implementation without further delay of the judgment of the Constitutional Court on this issue. The judgment protected the principle of bilingual signage in areas where there was a significant number of persons belonging to a national minority.

Such an approach also means that local authorities, when dominated by minority representatives, should accept that the official language should be used in parallel with the minority one when necessary. Persons belonging to the majority in the country should not be discriminated against when they live in a region where they are in the minority.


Minority language education is absolutely essential for protecting language rights and for maintaining languages. Governments should seek to ensure that persons belonging to minorities have adequate opportunities to learn the minority language or even to receive instruction in this language. Bilingualism should be encouraged for all.

The right to adequate opportunities for minority language education should be implemented without prejudice to the learning of the official language or to being taught in that language. In fact, both the Advisory Committee and the High Commissioner on National Minorities have stressed the importance of the right to quality education in the official language, also for minorities.

This is essential in regions where persons belonging to national minorities have poor or no command of the state language(s) and as a result are excluded from essential aspects of community life. The Advisory Committee has discussed this problem in connection with Estonia, Georgia, Latvia and Moldova among others.

A deep problem in most European countries is that the teaching of and in the Romani language is almost totally neglected - even where there is a significant number of Roma inhabitants.

Contacts with authorities

The possibility to communicate with the authorities in one’s own language is another human rights concern voiced by persons belonging to a minority. This right cannot always be fully guaranteed in practice due to limited human and financial resources. However, the Framework Convention and the Charter state that governments should endeavour to enable such communication as far as reasonably possible when there is a real need.

Many states have chosen to regard the numerical size of a minority in a given area as the relevant factor for granting certain language rights and have established minimum thresholds for this purpose. These should however not be too high; the Advisory Committee has deemed a minimum level of 50 per cent to be unreasonable.

In recruitment policies public administrations should not demand proficiency in the state language beyond what is necessary for the post in question. Access to employment for persons belonging to national minorities must not be unduly limited. In parallel, a constructive approach is recommended, for instance, through offering applicants from national minorities an opportunity to be trained in the state language. At the same time, recruitment of civil servants with knowledge of the relevant minority languages will also enable administrations to better serve the whole population.

Such positive measures are especially important when the government decides to take steps to protect and promote the official language. Sanctions to enforce the law on the state language should be avoided. The focus should rather be on the need to harmonise such legislation with the law protecting minority languages – to avoid contradictions and to guarantee that the language rights of all citizens are respected.


The possibility to establish minority language media is another area of interest for persons belonging to national minorities. The media should ideally reflect the plurality and diversity of the population. State regulation of the broadcast media should be based on objective and non-discriminatory criteria and should not be used to restrict enjoyment of minority rights.

Persons belonging to national minorities should have access to national, regional and local broadcast time in their own language on publicly funded media. Quotas for broadcasting time in the official language(s) should not prevent public or private broadcasting in minority languages. The Advisory Committee has found a number of negative examples of this type of quota, for instance in Azerbaijan.

A positive example was the decision in Turkey to open a 24 hour television channel in Kurdish which was seen as a signal of a changed attitude towards a minority whose rights have been repressed for years. I have been informed that there are similar plans for the Armenian language.

The basic lesson we ought to have learned on all these issues is that the human rights concerns could only be effectively addressed through a serious assessment of the genuine needs of the minorities.

Too often authorities have not listened carefully to them when policies have been developed. It is crucial that governments maintain close communication with persons belonging to national minorities and seek a thorough and continuing consultation – a constructive dialogue.

Thomas Hammarberg

This Viewpoint can be re-published in newspapers or on the internet without our prior consent, provided that the text is not modified and the original source is indicated in the following way: "Also available at the Commissioner's website at www.commissioner.coe.int"