Ukraine’s new language law is ‘walking fine line’
Determining minority language rights is a delicate matter.
Our mother tongue reflects multiple aspects of our individual, community and national identities. As such, it often has profound implications for our education and employment and our interactions with state authorities.
In signing Ukraine’s new education law, apparently making Ukrainian the first language in all public secondary and high schools – and providing less favourable conditions for minority language teaching – Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, is therefore walking a fine line.
He has indicated that he wants all Ukrainian students to speak the state’s language fluently, but has also pledged to continue the development of various national minorities’ language within the country.
As secretary general, I welcome the fact that the president has now shared the law with the Council of Europe. This is an opportunity to work together towards its compliance with the legal rights of European citizens, including their right to be taught in their first language.
Today, around 400,000 Ukrainian students are taught in a minority language. These include Hungarian, Polish, Romanian and Russian, so it is little wonder that governments across Europe are concerned by the prospect of the new law.
I have no doubt that the issue will be at the forefront of parliamentarians’ minds when president Poroshenko addresses our Parliamentary Assembly next week.
This is of course just an example of a wider issue that lives on in Europe today.
Scores of minority communities across Europe are anxious to ensure that the state facilitates their linguistic culture. These concerns are especially potent in the current context.
The re-emergence of populist, nationalist ideas in parts of Europe can result both in challenges to minority rights per se, and to a heightened perception or sensitivity to that possibility.
Small sparks can start fires
It would be reckless to ignore the threat to peace and stability posed by the politicisation of inter-ethnic relations and lack of compliance with internationally-agreed standards on minority protection. Language learning is but one critical example of this that cannot go unchallenged. After all, fire spreads.
The international community has a responsibility to act and assist. The good news is that by learning from past experience, and deploying the legal instruments forged in light of it, we can help others to take the heat out of emerging disputes.
Between them, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities provide a clear legal framework for respecting minority rights. These have widespread buy-in from across our member states.
Where this body of law is applied, it works. Armenia, Poland, Montenegro and Romania are among member states that have worked with the Council of Europe to improve access to minority language education.
Armenia, for example, has made it possible to learn Assyrian, Kurdish and Yezidi in schools that include large concentration of these minorities. Although some of these states may be outstanding issues to address, each has made significant strides, often in the face of political and financial constraints.
By contrast, the wars in former Yugoslavia were the most horrifying illustration of how destructive political manipulation of ethnic and religious divisions may be. Europe witnessed a nationalist folly which killed more than 200,000 people and left wounds which are still to be healed. Minorities did not start these wars, but they were used, targeted and sacrificed as pawns in a bloody power-grab game in which linguistic divisions were a feature.
Recently liberated from communist repression but still outside democratic structures including the Council of Europe, Yugoslavia had neither the old means to suppress its divisions nor the new norms through which to negotiate them.
Today, at least one-in-seven Europeans belongs to a national or linguistic minority, many are located in political hotspots, and the post-Second World War and Cold War certainties are under strain. There is always the potential for the abuse of minority rights, and there is always the moral imperative to prevent it.
Governments must demonstrate the political will to live up to their legal obligations. Open questions regarding the use of minority languages and rights in European countries, whether in the Balkans or the Baltic states, in Moldova, Romania, Ukraine or elsewhere, should be resolved quickly and in line with the international legally binding obligations of the countries concerned.
Minorities in Europe must of course be fluent in their state’s official language. This is vital for their full participation in society, and the state should deploy all means required to ensure that they can learn it.
At the same time, the state must also provide the right and the ability to use their mother tongue both culturally and in official exchanges. This, in turn, allows minority cultures to thrive and communities to be respected.
Thorbjorn Jagland is secretary general of the Council of Europe.