Ref. :  000031538
Date :  2009-04-21
Language :  English
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Terry Davis: minority languages ''a source of cultural richness"

Opening Address by The Rt Hon Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, at the
Conference "The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages: Achievements and Challenges"
(Bilbao - Spain, 20 April 2009)


(check against delivery)

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the Spanish authorities, both the Ministry of Public Administration and the authorities of the Basque Country, for their strong support in organising this Conference.

Spain has an outstanding track record in the protection and promotion of regional or minority languages. This is illustrated by the fact that some of the regional or minority languages have co-official status. The autonomous communities, notably the Basque Country, have done very well in the implementation of the Charter.

The Conference tomorrow will help us to exchange information about good practices in the implementation of the Charter. We will also look at the future prospects of the Charter in the light of the valuable experience gained during the first eleven years of its existence.

Europe is an area where numerous language groups have traditionally been in direct contact with each other. They enrich each other all the time.

Nevertheless, we must not close our eyes to the fact that any contact between languages represents a challenge.

Let me explain.

Wherever language groups live together, they find themselves in an asymmetrical relation. Nowhere in Europe do we find a situation where two – or more – language groups have the same number of speakers, use languages at the same level and practice them in the same legal, cultural or economic conditions.

In some countries, the tensions which can arise may be negligible, but in others they are open and serious and can even lead to conflict.

At the Council of Europe, our response has been to develop specific policy initiatives and Conventions to contribute to stability and linguistic diversity. In this respect, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages has been designed to manage the multiplicity of asymmetrical language situations in Europe. As the only binding legal instrument worldwide devoted to the protection and promotion of regional or minority languages, the Charter is clearly among our key Conventions.

During the eleven years since its entry into force, the Charter has helped to promote the use of regional or minority languages in public life without prejudice to the official State language or restricting the integration of ethnic groups into society by discouraging them from learning the State language.

Diversity and stability underpin the philosophy of the Charter. Its Preamble stresses “the value of interculturalism and multilingualism” and considers that “the protection and encouragement of regional or minority languages should not be to the detriment of the official languages and the need to learn them.” Furthermore, the Preamble leaves no doubt that the protection and promotion of regional or minority languages should take place “within the framework of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

I believe that this is an important message. While the Charter is concerned with strengthening regional or minority languages, it does not treat majority-language speakers and minority-language speakers as necessarily opposed to each other. On the contrary, the Charter treats minority languages as elements of the national cultural heritage of the whole population and of the whole State territory. It seeks to develop a society in which institutions encourage local or regional bilingualism rather than the eradication of minority languages from the public sphere.

In other words, the Charter reassures the speakers of regional or minority languages that the State recognises their languages and cultures and does not insist on their assimilation. At the same time, the Charter expects speakers of regional or minority languages to learn the official language and thereby integrate and take an active part in the social, economic and political life of the State. This approach renders the majority sufficiently confident of its own identity so that it can take a positive attitude towards the cultural identities of regional or minority language speakers.

The belief which is at the basis of the Charter - that the recognition of linguistic diversity will ultimately reduce tensions arising from majority-minority relations - is internationally recognised. For example, in the context of their enhanced co-operation in the field of national minorities, the Council of Europe and the OSCE promote the Charter as a contribution to the maintenance of peace and stability everywhere in Europe.

At the same time, we need to be aware that many European languages face a steady decline in the number of speakers. If it is not reversed, this trend will inevitably lead to the extinction of languages in regions where they have been traditionally used for centuries, and where they represent an integral part of regional and national identity. As the number of speakers of regional or minority languages is declining everywhere, I can only reiterate the call to those member states which have not yet done so to ratify the Charter as a matter of priority.

The fact is that regional or minority languages are an expression of our cultural wealth and diversity. They are a source of cultural richness - not a threat. Diversity is something to be enjoyed - not simply tolerated. This is the thinking behind the Charter, and that is why I call on all member states who have not yet done so, to sign the Charter, ratify it and put it into practice, in the name of our shared European values of dialogue, tolerance and understanding, between peoples – and between people.

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To know more about:

- the conference; the programme;

- the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.


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