Ref. :  000032908
Date :  2010-01-25
Language :  English
Home Page / The whole website
fr / es / de / po / en

Language rights of national minorities must be respected - Viewpoint by COE Human Rights Commissioner

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 mentioned 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

Viewpoint also available at the Commissioner's website at

Rate this content
Average of 57 ratings 
Rating 2.30 / 4 MoyenMoyenMoyenMoyen
Same author:
 flecheWorld Forum for Democracy - “Gender Equality: Whose Battle?” from November 19th to 21st 2018
 flecheLaunch of an Internet platform to protect journalism and promote safety of journalists
 flecheSocial rights: 252 violations in 41 countries
 flecheHungary: progress needed on media freedom, anti-discrimination measures and migrants’ rights
 flecheStudy: abuse of prescription drugs
 flecheParliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe: "Annexation of Crimea is illegal"
 flecheWorld Forum for Democracy
 flechePACE Health Committee denounces ‘unjustified scare’ of Swine Flu, waste of public money
 flecheIntercultural cities - Towards a model for intercultural integration / Edited by Phil Wood
 flecheCybercrime lawmakers call for worldwide implementation of the Budapest Convention
 flecheInternational conference " Rethinking cultural policy: implementing a new paradigm" (10-11 June 2010, Brussels)
 flecheGeorge A. Papandreou: ''Humanising and democratising globalisation''
 flecheCopenhagen political declaration lacks ambition, regrets PACE President
 flecheInternational Migrants Day - Recalling the plight of people on the move because of the economic crisis and changes in the environment
 flecheMulticulturalism is an important dimension of our national identities - Viewpoint by COE Human Rights Commissioner
 flecheCouncil of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Local and Regional Government adopts the Utrecht Declaration
 flecheClimate change is causing an unprecedented, global human rights crisis – and must now be countered by co-ordinated, rights-based action
 flecheLudmila Sfirloaga : ''Co-operation between European regions is essential to face future challenges''
 flecheE-democracy as a chance to increase citizens participation in local politics
 flecheRecommendation CM/Rec(2009)7 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on national film policies and the diversity of cultural expressions
 flecheLiving in a healthy environment should become a human right
 flecheEuronews reports on pilot "Intercultural cities"
 flecheViewpoint by Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg: "Serious implementation of human rights standards requires that benchmarking indicators are defined"
 flecheFirst international meeting of the Territories of Co-responsibility (September 25th 2009, Mulhouse - France)
 flecheFirst international meeting of the Territories of Co-responsibility (September 25th 2009, Mulhouse - France)
 flecheEuropean Urban Charter II: the Congress calls for a new urbanity
 flecheThe Council of Europe publishes a book about economic migration
 fleche''The times when governments could regulate territorial development alone are gone"
 fleche"The response to the crisis must include a shift towards more equality" : View point by Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg
 flecheTerry Davis: minority languages ''a source of cultural richness"
 flecheEurope has learned to fight terrorism the hard way
 flecheInternational financial crisis: consequences for European territorial authorties
 fleche''Intercultural dialogue should not be reduced to exchanges of benevolent platitudes at international seminars''
 fleche“Arbitrary procedures for terrorist black-listing must now be changed” - Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg's Viewpoint
 flecheDiscours d'Esther Maurer, membre du Congrès des pouvoirs locaux et régionaux du Conseil de l’Europe à la Conférence sur les Droits de l’homme dans les sociétés culturellement diverses: défis et perspectives
 flecheParliaments active in guaranteeing the right to water
 fleche"The contribution of minority languages to regional development"
 flecheConference of Ministers responsible for Culture on “Intercultural dialogue as a basis for peace and sustainable development in Europe and its neighbouring regions” (2 – 3 December 2008, Baku - Azerbaijan)
 flecheCooperation between cities and regions, an alternative to conflict: Round Table in Brussels
 flechePrime Minister of Sweden - ''Council of Europe has to act when international law has been violated''
 fleche''It is wrong to criminalise migration''
 flecheTerritorial authorities a catalyst for action on climate change and biodiversity, says Gaye Doganoglu
 flecheThematic report of the 8th Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Migration Affairs : "Economic migration, social cohesion and development: towards an integrated approach"
 flecheViewpoint by Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg: "Refugees must be able to reunite with their family members"
 flecheTerry Davis: promote the learning of intercultural competences
 flecheTripartite high level meeting: the promotion of intercultural dialogue
 flecheCherniguiv seminar calls for strengthening efficiency of transfrontier and inter-regional co-operation
 flecheMORE Database: a new tool helping transfrontier co-operation
 flecheThe “White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue” of the Council of Europe
 fleche“Congress has a reinforced political role and unique institutional presence”, says the outgoing President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, in his final activity report
 flecheIan Micallef: ''European construction cannot be achieved without the Mediterranean, and the Arab world''
 flecheIntercultural and inter-religious dialogue: conclusions of 2008 meeting
 flecheEuropean Day of Integration and Intercultural Tolerance
 fleche2008 Council of Europe Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue
 flecheConference to propose landmark cybercrime guidelines to increase co-operation between law enforcement and internet service providers
 flecheDubai Final Declaration
 fleche“At last, Europe has an effective weapon to fight modern slavery”
 flecheYavuz Mildon: ''L'espace rhénan est un véritable laboratoire de la coopération transfrontalière en Europe''
 flecheViewpoint by Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg: “The new European migration policy should be based on human rights principles, not xenophobia”
 flecheCongress creates Ad Hoc Working Group on Interregional Cooperation
 fleche''Our society is a quilt which can only be sewn together through mutual acceptance''
 flecheEuropean Film Awards – the Eurimages Prize
 flecheRecommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the legal status of non-governmental organisations in Europe
 flecheCouncil of Europe ministers promote good democratic governance at local level
 flecheCouncil of Europe member states to meet in Valencia to discuss a common strategy to improve local and regional democracy
 flecheCouncil of Europe member states to meet in Valencia to discuss a common strategy to improve local and regional democracy (October 15-16, 2007, Valencia - Spain)
 flecheInterview with Lluis Maria de Puig: “Regionalisation makes for political stability in Europe”
 flecheImage des femmes dans la publicité
 fleche“Victims of human rights violations deserve more”
 flecheA new Council of Europe Convention to protect children against sexual exploitation and abuse

 flecheYavuz Mildon: ''L'objectif de l'Eurorégion Mer noire est de contribuer à la stabilité et à la sécurité en Europe''
 flecheTerry Davis: Direct cooperation between local and regional authorities is the most effective
 flecheBorders and bridges of the Mediterranean Village: "All Different All Equal" campaign facilitates discussion on migration and inclusion
 flecheInternational conference: "Why terrorism? Addressing the Conditions Conducive to the Spread of Terrorism" (Strasbourg, 25-26 April 2007)
 fleche Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on protecting the role of the media in democracy in the context of media concentration
 flecheSpeech by Halvdan Skard, Congress President at the Conference on the parliamentary dimension of election observation
 flecheDéclaration sur le dialogue interculturel et la prévention des conflits (Opatija - Croatie, 22 octobre 2003)
 flecheDiscussion paper on the Intercultural Dialogue Forum of the Council of Europe INGO Conference (Strasbourg, November 2006)
 flechePreparing the ”White Paper on intercultural dialogue” of the Council of Europe: Introduction to the consultation process - Consultation document
 flecheSite dédié au dialogue interculturel du Conseil de l'Europe
 flecheOn Human Rights Day, PACE President calls for stronger democratic controls over secret services
 flecheVolga Forum Declaration
 flecheFinal Declaration of the International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue (Volga Forum) : in favour of regular dialogue between the Council of Europe and religious communities
 flecheLa coopération transfrontalière est un outil précieux qui permet aux régions de s’ouvrir à de nouvelles idées
 flecheSpeech by Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, at the Launch of the Adriatic Euro-region Conference
 flecheCouncil of Europe Submission to the Internet Governance Forum
 flecheConference ''Inter-regional cooperation in the Black Sea Basin'' (30 March 2006, Constanta - Romania)
 flecheRecommendation Rec(2006)3 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the UNESCO Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions
 flecheReport on Local and Regional Democracy in France
 flecheEuropean Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
 flecheDéclaration finale de la conférence sur « la promotion des produits typiques regionaux face a la globalisation : Eduquer le palais »
 flecheThe impact of globalisation on regions
 flecheEuropean Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation between Territorial Communities or Authorities
 flecheEuropean Charter of Local Self-Government
 flecheDeclaration of the Founding Congress of the New Unified World Organisation of Local Authorities “United Cities and Local Governments”
 flechePACE President warns that ‘Europe could soon be on the road back to egocentric nationalism’
 flecheSpeech by Terry Davis, Secretary General on the occasion of the 60th meeting of the CDDH
 flecheCouncil of Europe: Reports on racism in Albania, Croatia, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom
 flecheSpeech by Giovanni di Stasi, President of the Congress, to the 9th Petersburg International Economic Forum
13-16 June 2005

 flecheThe role of the Council of Europe in the new European institutional architecture
 flecheCouncil of Europe Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime and on the Financing of Terrorism
 flecheCouncil of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism
 flecheCouncil of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Being
 flecheRegional Forum “Cultural Corridors in South East Europe”
(Varna, Bulgaria - 20-21 May 2005)

 flecheEU proposes WTO consultations with China on two textile product categories
 fleche2nd European Youth Summit (Warsaw, 15-16 May 2005)
 flecheWarsaw Declaration