Meeting to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) & European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML)
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Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to open this conference on what remains an important and sensitive subject.
So while we are here to mark and celebrate the twentieth anniversary of two ground-breaking treaties –
The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages –
More importantly we are here to discuss the way in which these instruments cope with challenges in Europe today – and to consider how we might strengthen their operation – a point that was addressed in our discussions at the recent Ministerial Session in Elsinore.
Certainly, those challenges exist.
European societies are not static: they evolve and respond to events, trends and realities.
Political upheaval, economic crises and the horrors of war have altered the outlook and composition of European states over the centuries.
This has created societies with rich ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities.
But it has also created minorities whose background and heritage can be subject to disregard or discrimination.
In contemporary Europe, the legacy of the past lives on – sometimes dormant, but always with us.
And in light of the range of recent challenges that Europe has faced, and the rise of extreme nationalism and xenophobia that we have witnessed, the protection of European minorities’ rights must remain a priority today.
Otherwise, we put at risk the benefits for everyone that come from living and working together in a spirit of unity where the minority is valued as part of the whole.
We are fortunate at the Council of Europe that so many member states recognise that need.
And the current Croatian chairmanship has made clear that the protection of national minorities and vulnerable groups is a priority for them.
This conference, co-organised with the Council of Europe, is testament to that.
So I am grateful to them for doing so and to Philippe Boillat for his hard work as rapporteur of this conference.
But before we look at what more we must do today, it is worth reminding ourselves of how far we have come.
The 1993 Vienna Summit was clear-eyed about the challenge at hand when it stated that “the protection of national minorities is an essential element of stability and democratic security in our continent”.
Rightly, it asked our Organisation to create appropriate legal instruments to protect those minorities.
The Framework Convention and the Language Charter are the direct result of that call.
Alongside the European Convention on Human Rights, these provide a framework for respecting minority rights in a Europe where every individual should enjoy freedom, safety and respect.
Where this body of law is applied, it works.
Take the central issue of minority languages.
The treaties have confirmed circumstances in which individuals have the right to education in their national language, rather than the language of the nation state in which they live.
And Armenia, Poland, and Montenegro are among those that have worked with our Organisation to improve access to minority language education in line with our legal instruments.
Armenia, for example, has made it possible to learn Assyrian, Kurdish and Yezidi in schools where large numbers of these minorities are being taught.
While these states may have more work to do, they have taken valuable steps forward, sometimes despite political pressure and financial constraints.
Minority languages are also a good example because they provide a window through which to see how much work might yet lie ahead.
Difficulties to address, and difficulties to prevent.
Today, around one in seven Europeans self-identifies as part of a national or linguistic minority.
Many of these are located in political hot spots where old hostilities or new disagreements can stir up tension.
In these situations there is always the potential for the abuse of minorities’ rights, or the fear, perception or allegation that it is taking place.
One example is Ukraine’s recent education law which some fear will provide less favourable conditions for minority language teaching.
I am glad that the Ukrainian authorities referred that law to our Venice Commission, which did raise concerns.
Efforts must continue to implement the Commission’s recommendations on the Law on Education and the draft Law on General Secondary Education.
This should be done through an inclusive and politically neutral process involving representatives of national minorities.
So that we have an outcome that complies with our legal standards.
Certainly, applying those standards across member states is the way to provide certainty, stability and justice for every family and individual.
Minorities in Europe should of course be fluent in their state’s official language.
This is central to their participation in society, and their government should facilitate their learning.
But, equally, the state should provide the right and ability for people to use their first language widely, including in certain official exchanges.
In this way minority cultures can thrive, their communities will be respected, and their human rights upheld.
This rule of law principle applies not just to the issue of minority languages of course.
Rather it is relevant to all national minority issues within the scope of the European Convention, the Framework Convention and the Language Charter.
I say this mindful of a new and damaging trend in recent years.
Too often member states have come to view national minorities’ protection more as a bilateral, rather than a multilateral, issue.
This threatens to undermine the strength of international treaties and the organisations that underpin their implementation.
In turn, countries may be more inclined to redefine their identity at the expense of cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity.
And national minorities may feel pushed to identify more closely with their kin state.
This is a vicious circle in which, ultimately, everyone loses.
The answer is for governments to demonstrate the political will to live up to their existing legal obligations.
To reaffirm their commitment to multilateralism, enforceable standards and the monitoring mechanisms that build trust both within states, and between them.
The third of these is a live issue with regard to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
Currently, we are looking at ways in which our monitoring mechanism might be strengthened.
With the intention that we can better support member states to live up to the obligations that they have undertaken.
National delegations in the relevant Committee of Ministers rapporteur group are already assisting in that work and I hope that in due course we will have proposals that member states can agree.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have come a long way over the last twenty years.
States concerned about the treatment of their national minorities living in other states now formulate their complaints in language derived from our treaties.
And others have taken proactive steps to meet the terms of those treaties in the interests of their societies as a whole.
There is more to do.
But this requires the political will to reform, strengthen and comply.
In an environment where concerns and complaints about minority rights have gone up, we cannot afford the alternative.
Just twenty five years ago wars in the former Yugoslavia resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 people.
National minorities were abused, targeted and scapegoated during unspeakable violence.
Yugoslavia and its immediate successor states were outside the Council of Europe and the two legal instruments that we are celebrating today were not yet in force.
We should not fool ourselves that a return to the violence of those years is impossible in Europe.
The threat looms, perhaps now more than ever.
But we have the means to counter it.
So I hope that this conference serves as an opportunity to redouble our commitment to that.