FCNM Advisory Committee 4th opinion on Lithuania (excerpts on personal names, streetsigns, placenames), 2018

Summary

[..] The absence of a comprehensive legislative framework, however, continues to impede the implementation of a number of important language rights contained within the Framework Convention. These concern in particular the spelling of names in official documents and the use of minority languages on topographic indications. Public debates on these issues continue to be highly politicised, which appears disproportionate and not conducive to finding pragmatic solutions.

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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), the display of minority languages on topographical signs and the spelling of names in minority languages in official documents (see Article 11). [..]

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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.

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II. Article-by-article findings

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Article 11 of the Framework Convention

Personal names in minority languages

70. The Advisory Committee regrets to note the lack of progress in resolving the longstanding issue regarding the spelling of surnames and first names of persons belonging to minorities in official documents.66 A decision of the Constitutional Court of 27 February 2014 provided a wider interpretation of the possibility to spell names and surnames in identity documents in non-Lithuanian characters, saying that “‘in Lithuanian characters’ can be interpreted as allowing in certain cases to spell non-Lithuanian names and surnames (…) using not only the letters of the Lithuanian alphabet but also other letters of Latin origin to the extent they comply with the tradition of the Lithuanian language and violate neither the system nor the uniqueness of the Lithuanian language.”67 However, despite a number of draft laws to regulate the issue, 68 the matter has not been resolved.

66 See the Advisory Committee’s fourth opinion on Lithuania, paras. 71-72 for a description of the issue.

67 Clause 7 of the statement of reasons of the decision of the constitutional court of Lithuania, quoted in state report, p. 66-67.

68 See state report, p. 66-67.

71. The Advisory Committee notes that at the moment the discussion focuses on the spelling of surnames and first names of persons who acquired citizenship through marriage to a Lithuanian, as well as the children from these ‘mixed marriages’. In 2016, the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania handed down a judgement based on which the surname and first name of a child issuing from a Polish-Lithuanian marriage can be written in both Polish and Lithuanian versions.69 Furthermore, the Advisory Committee notes a number of cases which the European Foundation for Human Rights litigated for persons of that category, with partial success. 70 The Advisory Committee regrets that all draft laws currently in Parliament would only apply to citizens with origins in another country, not to other persons belonging to minorities. In this context, the Advisory Committee recalls that “the right to use one’s personal name in a minority language and have it officially recognised is a core linguistic right, linked closely to personal identity and dignity.” 71 In its thematic commentary on language rights, the Advisory Committee states that “authorities may, in line with Article 11, require that personal identity documents contain a phonetic transcription of the personal name into the official alphabet, if it contains foreign characters. However, the transcription should be as accurate as possible and should not be disconnected from the essential elements of the minority language, such as its alphabet and grammar.” 72 In this light, the Advisory Committee maintains its view that this situation is not in line with Article 11(1) and the overall principle of inclusive interpretation of the Framework Convention. It nonetheless underlines that in the meantime, nothing prevents States Parties from applying the provisions of the Framework Convention directly.

69 See European Foundation of Human Rights (2018), Alternative report on Department of National Minorities’ fourth report on the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, pp. 23.

70 See European Foundation of Human Rights, available at http://en.efhr.eu/spelling-of-names-and-surnames

71 See Thematic Commentary No. 3 “The Language Rights of Persons belonging to National Minorities under the Framework Convention” (May 2012), para. 61.

72 See Thematic Commentary No. 3 “The Language Rights of Persons belonging to National Minorities under the Framework Convention” (May 2012), para. 63.

Recommendation

72. The Advisory Committee strongly urges the authorities to implement without delay the right of persons belonging to national minorities to have their personal names recognised in the minority language as stated by the Supreme Administrative Court, including in official documents, and in particular to take urgent steps to amend the legislation governing the use of names in minority languages in a way that brings it fully in line with the provision of Article 11(1) of the Framework Convention.

Use of minority languages in topographical indications and private signs

73. The Advisory Committee regrets that there has also been no substantive progress regarding the use of minority languages in topographical indications and private signs. According to articles 17 and 18 of the Law on the State Language, all public indications must be displayed in Lithuanian, with an exception made only for the names of organisations of national minority communities.73 The legislation governing both topographical indications and private signs has not changed during the reporting period.74

73 See also the Advisory Committee’s third opinion on Lithuania, paras. 75-76.

74 State report, p. 67.

74. A number of events in recent years, however, demonstrate that there remains a strong demand among minority communities to display topographical indications and private signs in their languages and that some municipalities decide to satisfy these demands even at the expense of entering a legal grey zone. In the case of Šalčininkai district, which was described in the third opinion,75 the director of the administration received a fine of 43 000 litas76 for allowing street signs in Polish. 77 A similar situation arose in Vilnius after the municipality had started installing decorative street signs in foreign languages such as English and Icelandic78 as well as in national minority languages such as Polish and Ukrainian.79 The Advisory Committee reiterates that denying the possibility of having local topographical indications in areas inhabited traditionally or in substantial numbers by persons belonging to minorities in a minority language alongside Lithuanian violates the obligation of the State Party under Article 11(3). Furthermore, it creates legal uncertainty for municipalities and unnecessary grievance for persons belonging to national minorities. The Advisory Committee is convinced that bilingual topographical indications and private signs constitute an affirmation that the presence of national minorities is appreciated and thus carry an important symbolic value for integration of society. The Advisory Committee underlines in this context the importance of promoting bilingual signs, as this conveys the message that a given territory is shared in harmony by various population groups. 80

75 Third Advisory Committee Opinion on Lithuania, adopted on 28 November 2013, para. 75.

76 Approximately 9 844 EUR at the time of the judgement.

77 European Foundation of Human Rights (10 April 2014), Lithuanian courts are still assigning financial penalties for bilingual street names, available at http://en.efhr.eu/2014/04/10/lithuanian-courts-are-still-assigning-financialpenalties-for-bilingual-street-names

78 Iceland, for example, was symbolically honoured with an Icelandic language street sign as it was the first country to have recognised Lithuania’s restored independence

79 LRT (31 January 2017), Court opens case of bilingual street plaques in Vilnius, available at www.lrt.lt/en/newsin-english/29/161966/court-opens-case-of-bilingual-street-plaques-in-vilnius

80 See Thematic Commentary No. 3 “The Language Rights of Persons belonging to National Minorities under the Framework Convention” (May 2012), para. 67.

Recommendation

75. The Advisory Committee urges the authorities to bring without delay their legislative framework regarding the use of minority languages in private signs and topographical indications in line with Articles 11(2) and 11(3) of the Framework Convention.

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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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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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