The foundation was established in 2010 as a response to the violations and abuse of human rights and the rights of national minorities in Lithuania. Today, the European Foundation of Human Rights (“Foundation”) is celebrating its 10th year anniversary. Since its inception, the organisation has been providing free legal aid, educating and informing the public on human rights, organising trips to districts located far from the capital, and monitoring hate comments online. This celebration gives us a chance to look back at the organisation‘s performance in the recent years and to appreciate our achievements.
Protecting the rights of national minorities
In 2000, Lithuania unreservedly ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and declared its determination to implement the principles of the Framework Convention in its national legislation and the corresponding Government policy. The principal and often overlooked Article 1 of the Convention consolidates the fact that protecting the rights and freedoms of national minorities and people belonging to them is integral to the international protection of human rights as it lies within the scope of international cooperation. The National Minority Law enacted in 1989 reached its term in 2010 despite there being a ratified and directly applicable Convention of National Minorities. The Law provided for certain rights of national minorities despite its rather declarative nature. For example, the heads of institutions in regular contact with the residents were required to establish the conditions under which people would be served in Lithuanian as well as in the language of the majority population in the area, where and when it was required.
At the beginning of 2019, the Department of National Minorities under the Government of the Republic of Lithuania initiated discussions with public organisations with the view to find a unified notion and a concept of national minorities. The Foundation also had the opportunity to participate and share its knowledge of foreign practices and the recommendations from international organisations. In the same year, the task of drafting a new National Minorities Law was assigned to a newly established action group. 16 July 2020 marked the day when the action group that was led by a representative from the European Foundation of Human Rights approved the draft of the National Minorities Law.
It should be noted that protecting the rights of national minorities is not limited to the adoption of the National Minorities Law. The Foundation regularly provides alternative reports on the execution of the rights of national minorities to international organisations. For example, in the Alternative Report for 2018 on the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in Lithuania, the Foundation identified the following challenges affecting national minorities:
- Funding the media of national minorities. On 27 March 2019, the Committee of Ministers adopted the Resolution CM/ResCMN(2019)4 following the recommendations of the Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which urged Lithuania to implement international observations and recommendations. These included the call to stabilise the funding for minority media by utilising the Press, Radio and Television Support Fund of Lithuania, which would provide for, inter alia, a separate funding section of national minority media. Before 2020, the national minorities media shared the competition space of the Press, Radio and Television Support Fund together with other projects proposed by public information producers. As a result, the Foundation has called on the competent authorities to review the terms of next year’s competition. The Press, Radio and Television Support Fund has agreed to fund the national minority media projects under a separate funding line.
- Discrepant broadcast duration of national minorities’ TV programmes. The Foundation noted that Polish TV programmes are shorter than Russian ones. This is unfavourable for the Polish minority, which stands as the largest one in Lithuania. Consequently, the Polish minority is made to watch Russian media, which does not correspond with the international commitments of the Republic of Lithuania.
- Lack of means and support for national minority schools. The Foundation noted that the national minority schools in Lithuania do not receive sufficient funding, which results in the decreasing number of pupils in such schools. It is necessary to take action that would encourage and support the inclusion of national minorities with regards to education and science.
- Poor implementation of the voting rights of national minorities. National minorities must be provided with better means that ensure their right to vote in elections and referendums. There is a lack of electoral material in Polish and Russian. Moreover, the changes in the boundaries of constituencies do not always consider the needs of national minorities, which directly restricts the right of national minorities to elect the minority representative.
Implementing the original spelling of personal names
Article 2.20 (1) of the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania states that every natural person has the right to a name. This includes the right to a surname, a first name(s) and a pseudonym. Moreover, a person’s name is one of the elements of their identity and private life, the latter being protected by Article 7 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and Article 8 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Even though Article 7 of the Charter does not directly refer to a person’s name, it is principal to a person’s private and family life acting as a means of identifying and allocating them to a specific family unit.
In 2014, the Constitutional Court prescribed for certain cases of non-Lithuanian names to be written using not only the letters of the Lithuanian alphabet, but also Latin characters. However, the current legal framework in Lithuania stipulates that the personal names of Lithuanian citizens shall be entered into their documents using Lithuanian characters, without specifying any exceptions to this legal norm. Although there have been several draft laws proposed that would have paved the way for the names of mixed families to be written in Latin characters in their personal documents, these drafts have been buried in the Parliament, which prefers to postpone the discussion of the relevant laws.
Individuals have been forced to take the initiative themselves due to the delays from the legislator. With the help of the Lithuanian Courts and the European Foundation of Human Rights, they have been exercising their right to a name and a private life in accordance with both the international obligations and the national legislation since 2015. In one of the first cases on the spelling of personal names, the court decided that the inviolability of a person’s private and family life must take precedence over the state’s wish to protect cultural identity by disregarding any of the following: the new terms of Lithuania becoming a member of the European Union, the free movement of citizens, the fact that the borders of the EU Member States are no longer national borders, and thus restricting a person’s statutory right to choose their own surname (that does not impinge on the public policy and good morals). Moreover, for some applicants, their children’s surname will always differ from the surname of the father or the mother, in turn restricting and limiting their rights and legitimate interests.
At the end of 2019, Vilnius City District Court made a significant decision affecting the national minorities living in Lithuania. Due to the court’s decision, Malgožata finally became Malgorzata. The Malgorzata case was the first in Lithuania to recognise the right of a Lithuanian citizen of Polish descent to use the original spelling of their name. Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (“National Minorities Convention”) provides for the right of every person belonging to a national minority to freely choose whether or not they should be treated as a national minority representative, and their decision to exercise associated rights must not put them at a disadvantage. According to Article 11 of the National Minorities Convention, a person has the right to spell their name in the minority language.
It should be noted that the issue of the original spelling of personal names is relevant not only to national minorities. The majority of applicants have been members of mixed families, where one of the spouses is a foreign national and their surname contains the letter w, x or q. Marriage registration process in Lithuania gives the surname a Lithuanian version, which results in the members of the same family having different surnames. Consequently, this often inconveniences the family because its members are regularly expected to prove their identities, the authenticity of their documents, and their family ties.
Hate speech and hate crimes
Article 1 of the EU Council Framework Decision of 28 November 2008 on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law states that each Member State must take the necessary measures to ensure that intentional expressions of racism and xenophobia as well as any public incitement to violence or hatred against a group or an individual that are characterised by race, colour of the skin, religion, nationality or ethnicity, are punishable.
With the help of volunteers and trainees, The European Foundation of Human Rights has been actively monitoring internet for hate speech and submitting such occurrences to competent authorities since 2011. In 2019, the organisation filed 66 statements about potential incitement to hatred online. In 2015, the number of such cases was 127, and 45 of these cases were successful.
The European Human Rights Fund also assists the victims of hate crimes. In 2019, the counsel of the Foundation represented Fabian Sanchez from Ecuador in a high-profile assault case. Originally from Ecuador, Fabian had been living in Lithuania for five years, when on 19 July 2018 he was attacked by two men who were shouting ‘Lithuania for Lithuanians’ during the assault. The court found the attackers guilty of a public order violation in accordance with the Article 284 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Lithuania and an incitement to hatred against a person of a different nationality, race, beliefs and opinion in accordance with the Article 170 (2) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Lithuania. The court ruled the following: ‘Although the slogan “Lithuania for Lithuanians” in purely linguistic terms does not entail discrimination and offence of or contempt for people of certain races or nationalities and simply serves as a slogan for the national march on 11 March, [the Court] recognises that the victim was attacked precisely because of his advocacy for the equality of all nations as a foreigner from Ecuador. Even though both defendants state that the victim did not appear to stand out from the crowd, both stressed that they remembered the victim actively participating in the march of 11 March with a poster reading “Lithuania for All”, which emphasised that Lithuania is a free country for all citizens of any country.
In 2019, the European Foundation of Human Rights (EFHR) and its partners, including the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights, the Lithuanian Police School and the Human Rights Monitoring Institute, launched the project #PolicijosMokykla_LT: Promotion of effective response to hate crimes and hate speech in Lithuania (later named #MesVisi). The project aims to improve the ability of law enforcement to effectively respond to hate crime and hate speech, it aims to reduce the latency of hate crimes, to increase trust between the officers and the affected/vulnerable communities, and to promote public recognition and reaction to hate crimes.
During the #MesVisi project, the Foundation conducted a comprehensive study on hate crime and hate speech. The study aimed to define the obstacles for effective investigation of hate crimes: it surveyed people in vulnerable communities, prosecutors, and police officers; it reviewed the existing Lithuanian legal framework and its possible gaps; and it proposed clear recommendations. More details on the study will be presented at a Conference at the National Human Rights Forum, which is taking place 10 December.
Preparing and submitting reports to international organisations
The European Foundation of Human Rights actively monitors the implementation of international obligations in Lithuania and regularly provides alternative reports to international institutions and organisations. The alternative reports provide additional alternative information in order to draw attention to the main problems in securing human rights in Lithuania. The Foundation has prepared the following reports in the decade of operation:
- In 2011, 2015 and 2019, the European Foundation of Human Rights submitted alternative reports to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The last report was submitted by the Foundation together with the Lithuanian Human Rights Centre. The organisations noted that although Lithuania had made some progress in implementing previous recommendations from the Committee, some issues were nevertheless ignored. Consequently, ensuring human rights remained a major challenge in the country. In order to combat discrimination and to protect the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania, new policies and action plans must be introduced in the country. The most urgent issues pertinent to national minorities today include combating incitement to hatred and hate crime, the living conditions of the Roma community, asylum seekers and migrants, people trafficking, etc.
- In 2014, the Foundation presented a report on the implementation of human rights in Lithuania in 2012-2013. The report aimed to communicate the current human rights situation in Lithuania in the context of its membership in the EU and in other international organisations, including the UN, CoE, etc. Special consideration was made to the implementation of the rights of national minorities, including the issues of education, the spelling of personal names, and topographical names. The following points were also covered in the report: the problem of online hate speech, the inclusion of international organisations in the discussion on human rights in Lithuania, as well as conclusions and recommendations from independent experts on improving the situation in Lithuania.
- In 2014 and 2018, the European Foundation of Human Rights provided alternative reports on the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. In the most recent report, the Foundation drew attention to the execution of international obligations, the lack of legally binding mechanisms, hate crimes, education and media of national minorities, etc.
Legal Aid Centre
Since the inception of the European Foundation of Human Rights, the organisation’s mission has been to provide free legal aid to anyone who has experienced discrimination, have had their human rights violated in professional or private settings, or have witnessed such violations (e.g. the party being an institution or an employer). Legal aid includes consulting, preparing legal documents and the representation in courts or other institutions. Legal aid is provided by qualified lawyers of the Foundation and reliable law firms who work in collaboration with the Foundation.
Although legal aid is not provided on all issues, citizens are willingly applying and consulting with the Foundation’s lawyers on discrimination at work or in state institutions, the restrictions on rights during the quarantine, restrictions on movement in Lithuania, xenophobia, poor imprisonment conditions, illegal dismissal, violation of rights in criminal proceedings, etc.
The European Foundation of Human Rights is greatly concerned with education, especially that of national minority communities. In the decade of operation, the Foundation’s team visited many schools and communities throughout Lithuania to give talks on human and national minority rights, discrimination at work, hate speech, the spelling of personal names, etc.
The Foundation also organises free training for lawyers and other interested parties on the matters of human rights protection. Some examples include an international conference in 2018 titled ‘Legal Framework for National Minorities: Theory and Practice’ and a training event ‘Language Rights of Linguistic Minorities: International Standards and Their Significance”. Such events are free to attend and open to the public. The participation is also certified.
The European Foundation of Human Rights also distributes information about human and national minority rights by participating in other events and projects. For two years, the Foundation had the opportunity to organise discussions at the festival ‘Būtent!’ It invited discussions on tolerance, the Lithuanian language and the Polish national minority. Last year, the Foundation participated in the ‘Freedom Picnic’ ideas festival, where anyone interested had the opportunity to interact with the Foundation’s team for the day. The team counsel shared their experiences in the areas of human rights, national minorities and hate crimes. We are pleased that the number of people interested in the Foundation was so big. The young people were particularly active and involved with the issues of discrimination, hate speech, and equal opportunities.
The organisation is also involved in projects organised by its international partners, including a 2018 discussion titled ‘There is No Place for Racism in Football’ and a 2019 drawing competition for pupils, where they were invited to express how they think football can communicate the values of human rights, such as gender, race, nationality, tolerance, and diversity. In collaboration with the European Network against Racism, Fascism and Anti-Semitism (UNITED for Intercultural Action), the Foundation participated in the ‘European Week for Action against Racism’ all of six times. During the campaigns, the Foundation gave presentations at the Faculty of Law at Vilnius University and participated in anti-discrimination campaigns in the city centre, during which passers-by were introduced to the issues of discrimination and received free legal advice. The Foundation invited community leaders, organisations and other public figures to collaborate and talk about urgent issues, including fascism, racism and discrimination.
Promoting voluntary activities and volunteering projects
Since its inception, the Foundation has consistently had an ambitious and active team of volunteers and trainees who jointly contribute to combat discrimination and the abuse of human rights. Volunteers help monitor the internet, they write and translate articles and texts, prepare case-law summaries, help organise events and conferences, and participate in community meetings. We thank each volunteer who has contributed to achieving the Foundation’s goals and securing human rights in Lithuania.
In 2013, the European Foundation of Human Rights became an accredited organisation and joined the youth exchange network between European and partner countries. During this time, the Foundation has implemented a number of projects designed to provide education on human rights and to improve the inclusion of various social groups. The projects involved collaboration with a number of institutions and organisations, including the SEN preschool Čiauškutis, Vilnius Šilas School, Bonafides Civic Activity Association, European Law Students’ Association (ELSA) and others. The projects involved 11 volunteers who stayed in Lithuania for ten months and came from countries such as Italy, Romania, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland, Hungary and Spain.