22 January 2001
Regional or minority languages
Opinion on the report on the rights of national minorities 1
Committee on Culture and Education
Rapporteur: Mr Lluis Maria de Puig, Spain, Socialist Group
The Committee on Culture and Education is not responsible for human rights questions in general or minority rights issues in particular. It asked to submit an opinion on this report by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights on the rights of national minorities when it learned that the report would cover, inter alia, the application of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, including the first report on the application of the Charter presented by the Secretary General to the Assembly.
It should be pointed out that the committee has been looking into this issue for many years, starting out with a report by Mr Cirici on “the educational and cultural problems of minority languages and dialects in Europe” in 1981, followed by my own monitoring of the work by the Conference (now Congress) of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe during the 1980s to prepare the Charter and the adoption of the Assembly’s opinion by the Committee of Ministers in 1988, the references to the Charter in the committee’s recommendations on Gypsies in Europe in 1993 and the Aromanian culture and language in 1997 and, finally, the reports on Yiddish culture (1996), endangered Uralic minority cultures (1997) and linguistic diversification (1998).
The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages was opened for signature in 1992 (four years after the Assembly’s opinion) and entered into force on 1 March 1998. As Mr Bindig states in his explanatory memorandum, it has been signed and ratified by 11 member states and signed by 13 others. Paragraphs 13 to 24 of the explanatory memorandum provide relevant information on the Charter and its implementation, and there is no need to repeat the details here.
It is useful, however, to stress that the Charter is not an instrument for the protection of minorities. Its aim, as the report by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights indicates, is to protect and promote regional or minority languages in Europe as integral parts of the European cultural heritage. The Charter concentrates on the cultural aspects; an approach based on minority rights was deliberately avoided. The protection and promotion of these languages are precisely aspects of interest to our committee.
The provisions of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages require the Secretary General to submit two-yearly reports to the Parliamentary Assembly on its application. The first of these reports was duly transmitted to the Assembly in October.
It was, however, a report that dealt more with the arrangements for application of the Charter than with its actual application, as the periodic national reports on which it is based (the first for each state party) describe the situation of regional or minority languages in each country before the application of the Charter. The parties are not required to submit new reports until three years after the first ones and it is only then that it will be possible to assess the changes that have taken place. The Secretary General’s next report will therefore be much more interesting than this one.
The Committee on Culture and Education examined and discussed the report in question on 13 December 2000. It shares the Secretary General’s disappointment about the slowness of the ratification process and, in order to overcome certain political difficulties, proposes that an effort be made to present the Charter as a cultural instrument for the protection of languages (which it is) and not as a political instrument for the protection of the people who speak these languages (which it is perceived as). Moreover, the linking of the Charter to the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in a single report by the Legal Affairs Committee on the “rights of national minorities” does nothing to clear up the confusion here.
With regard to the various sign languages, we share the concern of the Legal Affairs Committee to protect those in use in Europe, possibly through the adoption of a recommendation to member states, but we cannot agree with the rapporteur on the possibility of including these languages in the Charter. It is not an instrument that was intended to be applied to all types of languages or situations. There are two main reasons for not including sign languages in the scope of the Charter: the Charter is not an adequate response to the specific needs of sign languages, and its operation would be disrupted by their inclusion. The Council of Europe should be able to find other ways of properly satisfying the needs of the users of sign languages, taking account of their specific situation.
At the beginning of the European Year of Languages, the Committee on Culture and Education wholeheartedly supports the Legal Affairs Committee’s other recommendations, namely that those states which have not yet done so should be encouraged to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and states parties and future states parties should be urged to apply it properly, that the human and financial resources at the disposal of the Council of Europe Directorate General concerned by the application of the Charter should be increased and, lastly, that the reports by the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages should be published.
Committee in charge with the report: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights
Committee for opinion: Committee on Culture and Education
Reference to the Committee: Assembly decision of 22 January 2001 on the holding of an urgent procedure debate
Secretaries of the Committee: Mr Ary, Mrs Theophilova-Permaul, Ms Kostenko
1 See Doc 8920 of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights