Hidden traps in the Constitutional Act on the State Language
On 18 November 2014, the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania held a press conference on ‘The erroneous interpretation of the Constitutional Act on the State Language’, in which the European Foundation of Human Rights (EFHR) asked some fundamental questions.
Back in July this year, the EFHR presented the opinion on the draft law, indicating that it expects the Lithuanian state that when adopting the law, it would not forget about voluntarily adopted international obligations, and that it would also reject the draft laws which put at risk human rights as well as interests of the citizens – national minorities. However, on 13 November the Parliament adopted the law during the first reading.
The question arises whether the constitutional act on the state language is in line with the ratified by Lithuania in 2000, Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Framework Convention).
It should be noted that the Framework Convention guarantees the right of national minorities to the public written and oral use of their language as well as the use of signs and inscriptions in this language. In turn, the duty of the state is to ensure that topographic signs are in the language of the minority.
However, it is clear that after the approval of the primacy of the Lithuanian language by the authority of constitutional law, without granting any exceptions which would ensure the protection of the rights and interests of national minorities, minority rights mentioned earlier will remain unregulated. In Europe it is another example of implementation of the law on the state language restricting the rights of national minorities. The amendments to the law on the Slovak state language implemented in 2009, were subject to the intervention of the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe. Under the guise of improving the language culture, the law limited the possibility of using minority languages and introduced penalties for improper use of the Slovak language. According to the Commissioner, the Slovak law was adopted by the Parliament too quickly, without taking into account the opinion of the Commissioner, what is inconsistent with good practice. Lithuania by adopting similar regulations, exposes itself to the obvious confrontation with the Council of Europe.
Returning to the provisions of national law, it should be borne in mind that since 2010, Lithuania does not have any legal acts in place which would directly regulate rights and freedoms of national minorities. Thus, the opinion of one of the Members of the Parliament that these issues should be resolved by other laws which – EFHR emphasises – do not exist, should be considered at least cynical.
Similarly, as the Department of European Law, EFHR believes that the provisions of Article 10 para. 5 of the Act may be an obstacle to the free movement of goods and services in the European Union (EU).
It is worth mentioning that at the end of the press conference the proposal of the Department of Law was supported, with which also EFHR agrees, stating that under Article 14 para. 1 of the Act it should be explicitly indicated in which cases the exceptions regarding the spelling of names and surnames in identity documents or other documents can be applied. The Department of Law believes that in the present Constitutional Act there should be included spelling rules of the names and surnames in identity documents of Lithuanian citizens of other nationalities.
EFHR welcomes the discussion initiated in the Parliament and hopes that the Draft Constitutional Act on the state language will be further considered, and will take into account the interests of all citizens. The reflections and debates regarding the spelling of the common names, names of the towns, as well as the protection of the rights of national minorities should be considered and discussed together with the draft constitutional law on the state language. Otherwise, the wording of the provisions included in the Act makes it impossible to regulate the aforementioned, what is crucial for the protection of national minority rights issues.
The recording of the conference can be found here: http://www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter/w5_ivairus.sp_konf