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You must move away from the idea that the only way to protect the Latvian language is to exclude the use of other languages. Learn from the positive examples and do not use restrictions like Turkey or Algeria.
Interviews Dr. Fernand de Varennes, senior lecturer at Murdoch University, one of the world’s leading legal experts on language rights
In your working papers dealing with international law on linguistic minorities, you stress that in private sphere freedom to use minority language equals freedom of expression. How then do you view the provision in Latvian legislation that allows only 25% of daily programs be broadcasted in minority languages?
Freedom of expression means that in the areas of private activities governments can not stop or obstruct your liberty to express yourself, which includes the language. 25% requirement seems to be an obstruction. You can use, for example, Russian or Ukrainian to a certain degree, but actually it is an obstacle that you cannot use the language to the full extent that you would like to in private activities. So, when I consider decisions coming from the international organizations like the UN Human Rights Committee, it would seem to me that this requirement might be a violation of freedom of expression.
Let’s look at this question from the other point of view. Latvia is a very multinational country. There are about 58% of Latvians, 29% of Russians, then 4% of Belorussians and others, including Ukrainians, Poles and so on. There is a view that if there were no restrictions on language use in broadcasting, intensive use of Russian language would endanger Latvian as a state language.
You have to be very careful. You have to distinguish state use of language and private use of language. The basic human right in all democratic societies is freedom – freedom of expression, freedom of religion. You can not force people in their private activities to speak a language which is not theirs or which they do not want to speak. Just as you are free to practice the religion you want to in private. It is not for the government to say – you should be a Catholic or you should be a Baptist. That is your choice what you do in your private activities. Here that is the same issue. It is free choice of people to be able to decide, which language they want to use.
The issue that maybe this would mean a threat to the state use of the Latvian language is a different one. You can protect the state use of the Latvian language in many other ways without violating freedom of expression. If you tell me that the reason the regulation exists is to ensure that the state can guarantee the use of the Latvian language, I would say that is not acceptable in international law. We can only restrict freedom of expression under certain types of recognized grounds. What you just described to me is not one of them.
Do you know of any cases somewhere else in the world where similar legistalive restrictions exist?
Latvia is one of a very, very few countries to have that kind of restriction on private broadcasting activities. And that I think is also a signal. If you are almost alone in the world using these kinds of requirements, maybe that means that what you are doing is not quite right. Turkey had some similar regulations, but now it is actually changing.
Do you mean restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language?
Yes, for the Kurdish language. They now permit a greater use of the Kurdish language. Why? Because Turkey wants to be admitted to the European Union (EU) and the EU gave the signal that, in order to respect human rights, Turkey has to be more flexible in the area of languages.
During the conference on Electronic Mass Media and Social Integration you talked about the conditions when state can impose restrictions on the use of language. It can happen when there are threats to national security, threats to territorial integrity, and threats to public safety and health. But who determines that now it is time to impose restrictions because of any of these factors or who determines that now it is time to lift these restrictions. How can we know that the time has come?
Only with law you can impose any restrictions on freedom of expression. So, it means the government does it. It is quite clear from the international human rights. But you have to be careful. It is not enough to say like in Turkey – oh, territorial integrity requires us to ban the Kurdish language. There is no connection between using a language and a territory, because in international human rights law situations to threaten territorial integrity means an armed rebellion, using guns and bombs trying to break away from the country. Using a language, I am sorry, that is nonsense.
Take for example another reason – public safety. You have to show the link between the necessity to protect public safety and the restriction that you are imposing. There has to be a direct, solid and real link between the two.
But the use of language is also connected with politics.
Yes, of course.
There is an interesting case in a neighboring country. The Russian Parliament has adopted an amendment to the Law on Languages of Nations Living in Russian Federation. It bans the use of Latin alphabet in Russia. So, it means that all nations living in Russia now will be forced to use Cyrillic. How would you view such a situation? I would like to add that the initiators of those amendments do not deny this was because of Tatarstan, who wanted to shift from Cyrillic to Latin writing.
If it means that individuals can no longer use the alphabet of their choice in private activities, such as commercial signs, then – yes, it would be a violation of freedom of expression. Alphabet is also linked to language; language is protected by freedom of expression in private activities, therefore that would be a violation of freedom of expression in international law.
But you also said that the Russian authorities adopted this change because Tatarstan decided to use the Latin alphabet. Those are actually authorities of Tatarstan who wanted to use the Latin alphabet. And this is not private, those are actually public authorities, public officials. Then it is not an issue of freedom of expression, but it is an issue whether or not that requirement would be discriminatory.
So, would it be discrimination if we know that everyone in any territory would always have some business with public services?
To my opinion, it would be discrimination, probably. When you can say that a language or an alphabet requirement creates disadvantages that are not justified in the given circumstances, that means that is discrimination based on international law.
In the second biggest city of Latvia, Daugavpils, Russian language is predominant, but all communication with public institutions must be held in Latvian. There can be people who do not know Latvian, but still they must communicate with state or local authorities in Latvian. Officials can respond in Russian, but they can choose not to. Do you think some formal changes should be introduced or should it remain as it is until everyone knows Latvian?
When you have a large number of people, who use a minority language in a territory, and public authorities, even if they can, refuse to permit the use of this minority language with government officials and government documents, there is a danger of discrimination.
In fact, recently there was a case in the UN Human Rights Committee involving an Afrikaans-speaking minority in Namibia. It was a minority of Afrikaans concentrated in one small region of the country, who said – we wanted to call government employees and ask for certain information; we tried to call and ask in Afrikaans, but the government employees refused to answer us in Afrikaans. But they could – almost all government employees can speak Afrikaans in this country. The Committee said that it was discrimination in that situation, because it would have been very easy to offer some public services in the minority language.
So, the Committee said you have to permit the use of the Afrikaans language; you have to have public officials use it to the degree that is reasonable in the given circumstances. The Committee did not say that you have to make Afrikaans an official language. Absolutely not! But in situations where it is easy to use a minority language by public officials, you must do it!
So, if there are no complaints from Daugavpils that somebody does not answer in Russian, then there is no reason to change anything?
That is true. There must be a demand. In circumstances where you have a large number of people asking for that it can be appropriate, justified, reasonable to use the minority language to the degree required by the demand.
So there must be a need for political demand?
I would say not necessarily. This is a human right. I think you have to get away from the idea of politics here a little bit. Those are individuals, not a political program.
There is a feeling among many people that the Latvian language is endangered. And if conditions for the use of Latvian get eased, existence of Latvian culture and the language would be endangered. What do you think about such concerns?
This situation is not unique. There are other countries that actually have something similar. The French speaking community in Quebec wants to protect the French language and culture in the continent, which is all Anglo-Saxon. Another group is the Catalan minority in Spain.
What you have to understand is that respecting freedom of expression does not mean that you can not take measures to protect the Latvian language. It is permissible and possible to protect or to strengthen the official language, but not in a way which violates freedom of expression or non-discrimination.
In the case of Quebec and the freedom of expression, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said – you cannot ban the use of minority languages on private commercial signs, but the government can demand that the official language is used in addition to the language that you want to use.
That is the difference here. Considering the 25% requirement in broadcasting, you see that this requirement is actually stopping people from using the language they want in their private activities.
In Catalonia, Spain, the government has also been taking a number of steps trying to make sure that the official language is stronger. The government supports a lot of television programs, not only public, but also private: private radio, television programs in the official Catalan language. It is done in a non-discriminatory way. It is not discrimination because in that context it is justified and reasonable to help the official Catalan language more than the Spanish language. The government can take these measures to protect the language today because of the need to address historical realities, legacies of the past, which were unjust at that time.
What would be your advice in order to overcome fears about the disappearance of the Latvian language?
You must move away from the idea that the only way to protect the Latvian language is to exclude, to stop the use of other languages. Taking various measures and programs to ensure that the Latvian language is protected you should use the good examples that exist in many, many countries in Europe. And do not use restrictions like Turkey or Algeria. If you are keeping a bad company, maybe it is because something that you are doing is not quite right yet. And you are in a company of Turkey and Algeria. I don’t think you want stay in that company.