New European Minority Rights Standards
By Manon Olsthoorn
On 1 February 1998 the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities entered into force. It is the first legally binding multilateral instrument devoted to the protection of minorities.
The Convention contains provisions which set out objectives and principles concerning issues such as association, cross-border contacts, education, equality, identity, language, media, participation, and religion. As of 31 August 1998, 23 States have ratified the Convention: Armenia, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Malta, Moldova, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Slovakia, Spain, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. The State Parties are to put the Convention into effect through national legislation and policies which best suit their specific situation.
While it is true that minority situations differ from country to country and may therefore require different approaches, there is a danger that the Convention will be interpreted restrictively by the State Parties. The Convention’s flexibility in this area could be used by State Parties to enable them to escape their obligations.
The extent to which the Convention will promote minority rights depends therefore on the State Parties having a constructive and cooperative approach. In addition, an effective functioning of the Convention’s monitoring system is critical. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe will monitor the Convention’s implementation on the basis of reports submitted by the States. These reports should detail all of the legislative and other measures taken by the national, regional and local authorities regarding minorities. The Committee will be assisted by an Advisory Committee, consisting of 18 independent experts on minorities.
States are obliged to submit their initial reports within one year after the Convention has entered into force in their country. The initial reports need to contain information on the country’s legal, administrative and judicial structures which are relevant to minorities, as well as relevant demographic and statistical information. The effectiveness of the measures taken to improve minority protection and the need for further measures can then be assessed. The first 12 State reports are due by February 1999. After the initial report State Parties have to submit a report every five years.
The Advisory Committee considers the State reports and draws up its opinions, which are passed on to the Committee of Ministers. In the examination of the reports, the Advisory Committee may make use of additional information in order to fully assess the minority situation in a particular country. In this context, interested parties, such as national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and minority communities, may present detailed and factual, sourced information to the Advisory Committee. (Minority groups and NGOs interested in providing information and commenting on State reports can contact the Council of Europe for information on deadlines for the submission of comments on State reports.*)
On the basis of the State report and the opinions of the Advisory Committee, the Committee of Ministers will evaluate the measures taken by the State concerned to implement the Convention, and adopt conclusions and recommendations. It is hoped that the Committee of Ministers will not shy away from being critical of State Parties where there is an obvious lack of compliance. Otherwise the whole monitoring exercise could become ineffective, thereby seriously undermining the Convention’s potential.
Equally, it is hoped that both Committees will address the question of to whom the Convention should apply. The Convention does not give a definition of a national minority. Various States have already submitted declarations or reservations upon signature or ratification explaining which groups they will consider to be national minorities. However, the recognition of a national minority by a particular State cannot be conclusive as to whether or not a group falls within the scope of the Convention. The reservations made by State Parties need to be reviewed in the light of international law.
The conclusions and recommendations of the Committee of Ministers, and the opinions of the Advisory Committee, will be made public. There is a role for NGOs to disseminate them widely, so that a discussion on follow-up can take place within society at large.
*The Secretariat of the Advisory Committee to the Framework Convention can be contacted at the Directorate of Human Rights, tel. 0033 388 41 2956, fax. 0033 388 41 2793.
This article was first published in the 52nd edition of our ‘Outsider’ newsletter on October 1, 1998.