Among the fundamental aims of the Council of Europe today are the protection and promotion of the wealth and diversity of Europe’s cultural heritage. Regional or minority languages are very much part of this heritage. Since 1992, Council of Europe’s Member States have been able to confirm their commitment to the protection of this heritage by ratifying the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
The Charter, drawn up on the basis of a text put forward by the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, was adopted as a convention on 25 June 1992 by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, and was opened for signature in Strasbourg on 5 November 1992. It entered into force on 1 March 1998.
At present, the Charter has been ratified by twenty-five states (Armenia, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United Kingdom). Another eight states have signed it, some of which are expected to ratify soon.
Text of the Charter
The Charter is a convention designed on the one hand to protect and promote regional and minority languages as a threatened aspect of Europe’s cultural heritage and on the other hand to enable speakers of a regional or minority language to use it in private and public life. Its overriding purpose is cultural. It covers regional and minority languages, non-territorial languages and less widely used official languages.
First and foremost, the Charter sets out the main objectives and principles that states undertake to apply to all regional or minority languages existing within their national territory.
Secondly, the Charter contains a series of concrete measures designed to facilitate and encourage the use of specific regional or minority languages in public life.
Within its scope are the languages traditionally used within a state’s territory, but it does not cover those connected with recent migratory movements or dialects of the official language.
It is intended to ensure, as far as is reasonably possible, that regional or minority languages are used in education and in the media, to permit and encourage their use in legal and administrative contexts, in economic and social life, for cultural activities and in transfrontier exchanges.
The Charter is based on an approach that fully respects national sovereignty and territorial integrity. It does not conceive the relationship between official languages and regional or minority languages in terms of competition or antagonism. Development of the latter must not obstruct knowledge and promotion of the former. A deliberate decision was taken to adopt an intercultural and multilingual approach in the Charter, with each category of language taking its rightful place. In each state the cultural and social reality must be taken into account.
As defined by the Charter, “regional or minority languages” are languages traditionally used within a given territory of a state by nationals of that state who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the state’s population; they are different from the official language(s) of that state, and they include neither dialects of the official language(s) of the state nor the languages of migrants.
The expression “territory in which the regional or minority language is used” means the geographical area in which the said language is the mode of expression of a number of people justifying the adoption of protective and promotional measures as provided for in the Charter.
The expression “non-territorial languages” means languages used by nationals of the state which differ from the language(s) used by the rest of the state’s population but which, although traditionally used within the state’s territory, cannot be identified with a particular area thereof.
The scope of application of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) is limited to historical/traditional languages (cf. Preamble and Article 1a, c). Languages of recent migrants are explicitly excluded. However, once a language has entered the scope of application of the Charter owing to its historical/traditional presence in the state, the Charter benefits not only the persons belonging to the respective national minority and speaking that language as a mother tongue. The Charter applies to every person, irrespective of her/his ethnicity (i.e. including persons belonging to the majority population and non-nationals/migrants) using the regional or minority language as a mother tongue, vernacular or foreign language.
Furthermore, the Charter does not contain the concept of “speaker” of regional or minority languages, but refers to “users” of such languages, thereby also covering people who employ a regional or minority language in a more passive manner than a speaker (e.g. only in writing) or at a lower level of proficiency than a mother-tongue speaker.
Considering the aforementioned aspects, the linguistic group concerned by the application of the Charter (users of a regional or minority language) may be several times larger than the national minority concerned.
The demographic situation of the languages covered by the Charter differs treatly and they exist in a very wide range of (social, political and economic) contexts. Accordingly, the system of undertakings adopted for the Charter makes it possible to adapt the scope of the protection afforded to suit the particular situation of each language, and also to take account of the costs of application. The Charter is divided into two main parts, a general one containing the principles applicable to all the Parties and all regional or minority languages (Part II), and a second part which lays down specific practical commitments which may vary according to the state and the language (Part III).
Eight fundamental principles applicable to all languages (Part II, Article 7)
Part II sets out the main principles and objectives upon which States must base their policies, legislation and practice, and which are regarded as providing the necessary framework for the preservation of the languages concerned.
The eight fundamental principles and objectives are as follows:
A choice of sixty-eight concrete undertakings in seven areas of public life (Part III, Articles 8 to 14)
Part III lays down detailed rules in a number of fields, some of which develop the basic principles affirmed in Part II. States undertake to apply those provisions of Part III to which they have subscribed. Firstly they have to specify the languages to which they agree to this part being applied, and then they have to select at least thirty-five undertakings in respect of each language. A large number of provisions consist of several options, of varying degrees of stringency, one of which has to be chosen “according to the situation of each language”.
The parties are encouraged subsequently to add to their commitments, as their legal situation develops or as their financial circumstances allow (article 3.2).
The areas of public life, each corresponding to an article of Part III, from which these specific undertakings must be chosen are the following: