FCNM Advisory Committee 4th opinion on Lithuania (excerpts on other language issues), 2018

Summary

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Recommendations for immediate action:

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Bring the legislative framework on the use of minority languages in dealings with administrative authorities, in private signs and topographical indications, and pertaining to the spelling of surnames and first names in official documents in line with Articles 10 and 11 of the Framework Convention.

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I. Key findings

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General overview of the current situation

4. [..] the issue of minority rights has long been characterised by a high degree of politicisation, which continues and notably contrasts with the relatively small number of minorities and their small numerical size. Since the annulment in 2010 of the 1989 Law on National Minorities, all efforts to agree on new comprehensive legislation regarding minority protection have failed (see Article 4). The reestablishment of the Department can be assessed as a first step to de-politicise the overall discourse and search for pragmatic solutions, but the efforts have been insufficient to resolve the issues concerning the use of minority languages in dealings with administrative authorities (see Article 10) [..]

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Assessment of measures taken to implement the recommendations for immediate action

9. Despite a wide national debate and a total of five draft laws on national minorities registered and two of them considered by the Parliament (Seimas) since 2012, no comprehensive legislation governing the protection of persons belonging to minorities has been adopted so far (see Article 4). Moreover, only minimal progress has been made to bring the situation regarding the use of language rights in line with Articles 10 and 11 of the Framework Convention. As a consequence, everyday administrative decisions on the use of languages in dealings with administrative authorities, the spelling of names in minority languages in identity documents and the use of minority languages in topographical signs are situated in a legal grey zone. This lack of legal certainty leads to a situation where decisions by local authorities such as on the placing of decorative street signs by Vilnius municipality,4 or individual administrative decisions about spelling of a name in a passport,5 can become the subject of heated political debates. These debates continually feed the perceived cleavages in society and thus create ever-new obstacles for finally agreeing on comprehensive legislation. The Advisory Committee finds that almost ten years after the suspension of the old Law on National Minorities, a concerted effort by both the authorities and minority communities is long overdue to end this vicious circle.

4 Lithuanian National Radio and Television LRT (31 January 2017), Court opens case of bilingual street plaques in Vilnius, available at https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/29/161966/court-opens-case-of-bilingual-streetplaques-in-vilnius

5 For an overview of individual cases, see the website the European Foundation of Human Rights, available at http://en.efhr.eu/spelling-of-names-and-surnames

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II. Article-by-article findings

Article 3 of the Framework Convention

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Census

21. The next population census in Lithuania is scheduled for 2021. The census data will be compiled from administrative registers in combination with other sources, such as sample surveys.14 The variables for this census published by Lithuania’s Official Statistics Portal include ethnicity.15 Language, however, is not included among them. The Advisory Committee considers comprehensive data on ethnic affiliation, including of numerically small minorities, as well as information on first and further languages spoken by the population, a fundamental element for devising evidence-based and effective policies to implement the rights enshrined in the Framework Convention. As regards data on ethnic affiliations, it recalls the principle of free and voluntary self-identification as elaborated in Article 3 of the Framework Convention and that the methodology chosen should provide for multiple affiliations in line with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Recommendations for the 2020 Censuses of Population and Housing. 16

14 See website of the UN Statistics Division (UNSTAT), available at https://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/sources/census/censusdates.htm

15 See website of the Official Statistics Portal, available at https://osp.stat.gov.lt/gyventoju-ir-bustu-surasymai1

16 See ACFC Thematic Commentary No. 4 “The Framework Convention: a key tool to managing diversity through minority rights. The Scope of Application of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities” (May 2016), paras. 13 and 16 and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (2015), Conference of European Statisticians Recommendations for the 2020 Censuses of Population and Housing, para. 708

Recommendation

22. The Advisory Committee calls on the authorities to ensure that the 2021 population census is prepared in consultation with national minority representatives, safeguards the right to free and voluntary self-identification, and provides for the possibility to declare more than one ethnic affiliation. To ensure a sound basis for evidence-based policy making, including of language policies, the authorities should complement the register-based census with information gathered through independent research on the use of minority languages among the population.

Article 4 of the Framework Convention

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Protection against discrimination

27. The Law on Equal Treatment establishes 14 grounds of unlawful discrimination, which include race, nationality (tautybė) 19 , ethnic affiliation (kilmė), and language. Citizenship was added as a prohibited ground of discrimination through an amendment passed in July 2017. An earlier amendment on Article 5 obliges State and municipal institutions to provide for measures in strategic planning documents to ensure equal treatment.20 Lithuania has three ombudsperson institutions dealing with national minority rights: the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, the Seimas Ombudsmen’s Office and the Ombudsperson for Children’s Rights. All three bodies have the right to investigate cases ex officio and issue recommendations. The Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson has, furthermore, the right to impose legally binding decisions and sanctions.

19 The term tautybė refers to belonging to a national minority and is not used in the meaning of ‘citizenship’.

20 For a detailed assessment of the criminal, civil and administrative law provisions as regards discrimination, see 5th ECRI report on Lithuania, adopted on 18 March 2016, CRI(2016)20, paras. 3-16.

28. The Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson accepts complaints on discrimination by both public and private institutions based on the above-mentioned grounds. Complaints are accepted in minority languages as well. Amendments to the Law on Equal Treatment that entered into force in January 2017 further strengthened the independence of the ombudsperson and increased the requirements for experience in legal work.21 The Advisory Committee welcomes in particular that the new legislation also formally adds awareness raising, preventive and educational work to the competence of the ombudsperson. Approximately 15 complaints per year are based on nationality, language or a combination of the two.22

21 European network of legal experts in gender equality and non-discrimination, news report, Lithuania, available at www.equalitylaw.eu/downloads/3969-lithuania-amendments-to-the-national-anti-discrimination-legislationadopted-by-the-parliament-pdf-143-kb

22 The latest data available in English dates from 2015. See Summary of the Annual Report, available at http://lygybe.lt/data/public/uploads/2017/02/annual-report-2015_general-statistics.pdf

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30. Overall, representatives of all three institutions stressed in their conversations with the Advisory Committee that only few of the rights violations they received concerned persons belonging to national minorities. Out of 260 complaints and inquiries received by the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson in 2016, for example, 22 were about discrimination based on nationality, 16 on language, 9 on ethnic affiliation, and 5 on race.24 At the same time, interlocutors implied considerable underreporting, despite their awareness-raising efforts. [..]

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Article 6 of the Framework Convention

Tolerance and intercultural dialogue

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48. The Advisory Committee notes that the current geopolitical situation and events such as the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine have repercussions on public discourse around minority issues in Lithuania.46 This was notable in particular in conversations with representatives of the Russian, but also the Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian national minorities. Representatives of the Russian minority reported, for instance, that the events in 2014 led to tensions within the community and even within families. Some reported a certain anti-Russian atmosphere and that the Lithuanian media do not always clearly differentiate “between Russia as a country and us as a minority”. Public perception of Russian speakers appears to vary depending on the region. While some interlocutors in Kaunas said they would avoid speaking Russian on the street or in public transport, this does not seem to be the case in Vilnius. Representatives of several minorities mentioned the influence of Russian state TV not only on persons belonging to the Russian, but also to the Polish community. Young people belonging to Russian-speaking minorities said they were confused about the contradicting information spread on Russian and Lithuanian TV. During its visit in March 2018, the Advisory Committee felt that, in the meantime, both the authorities and most representatives of national minorities were making efforts to disconnect domestic minority policy issues from bilateral relations.47 Representatives in particular of the Russian minority stressed the fact that they perceive themselves as Lithuanian citizens in the first place and were mainly interested in promotion of culture and language.

46 See for example Delfi (16 August 2016), Loyalties and opinions of Lithuania’s ethnic minorities, available at https://en.delfi.lt/corporate/loyalties-and-opinions-of-lithuanias-ethnic-minorities.d?id= 72056456

47 On the visit of Polish President Andrzey Duda to Lithuania in February 2018, see The Baltic Times (19 February 2018), Grybauskaite to propose reviving Lithuania-Poland education commission, available at www.baltictimes.com/grybauskaite_to_propose_reviving_lithuania-poland_education_commission

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Article 10 of the Framework Convention

Use of minority languages in relations with administrative authorities

67. The use of minority languages in relations with administrative authorities is based on the one hand on the 1995 Law on the State Language, which demands the use of the state language in all communication within and between public institutions and private enterprises. On the other hand, the Law on Public Administration (1999) establishes the right for natural persons to apply to administrative authorities and institutions at both municipal and state levels in their native language.61 The Advisory Committee welcomes that an amendment to the regulations governing the implementation of the latter law in August 2015 clarified the situation by explicitly allowing public authorities to accept oral and written requests in languages other than Lithuanian.62

61 State report, p. 64.

62 Regulations for the examination of requests of persons and for their servicing at public administration authorities, institutions and other entities of public administration of 22 August 2007. See state report, p. 65.

68. The Advisory Committee is pleased to note that some municipalities and public authorities make use of the possibility of accepting oral and written requests in national minority languages. Šalčininkai municipality accepts requests in Polish and Russian, and Vilnius municipality in English, Polish and Russian.63 In Visaginas municipality, requests can be made in Russian or any language other than the state language which “the civil servant providing services understands”.64 The Seimas Ombudsmen’s Office, the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson and the Ombudsperson for Children’s Rights all accept oral and written requests in minority languages and told the Advisory Committee that the most frequently used minority language was Russian. While noting this progress, the Advisory Committee wishes to remind the authorities of the need to introduce clear conditions and legal criteria as to when to introduce the right of persons belonging to national minorities to use their languages in contacts with administrative authorities in line with Article 10(2) of the Framework Convention. In this context, the Advisory Committee draws the attention of the authorities to its thematic commentary on language rights where it noted that “States should carefully study the demand and assess existing needs in the geographical areas where there is substantial or traditional settlement of persons belonging to minorities, taking also into account the specific local situation. ‘Need’ in this context does not imply the inability of persons belonging to national minorities to speak the official language and their consequent dependence on services in their minority language. A threat to the functionality of the minority language as a communication tool in a given region is sufficient to constitute a ‘need’ in terms of Article 10.2 of the Framework Convention.” 65

65 See Thematic Commentary No. 3 “The Language Rights of Persons belonging to National Minorities under the Framework Convention” (May 2012), paras. 56-58

Recommendation

69. The Advisory Committee urges the authorities to review the legislative and policy framework related to the use of languages in dealings with administrative authorities to ensure an adequate balance between the promotion of the state language and access to the language rights of persons belonging to national minorities.

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III. Conclusions

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Recommendations for immediate action

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  • Bring the legislative framework on the use of minority languages in dealings with administrative authorities, in private signs and topographical indications, and pertaining to the spelling of surnames and first names in official documents in line with Articles 10 and 11 of the Framework Convention.

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Further recommendations

  • Ensure that the 2021 population census provides a sound basis for policymaking on minority rights through guaranteeing the right to free and voluntary selfidentification, the possibility of declaring more than one ethnic affiliation and the collection of data on first and other languages.

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Document data: ACFC/OP/IV(2018)004 ; adopted 30.05.2018, published 08.01.2019 Link: https://rm.coe.int/4th-advisory-commitee-opinion-on-lithuania-english-language-version/1680906d97 Also available in French

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