The Protection of Linguistic Minorities in Europe and Human Rights: Possible Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts?

2 Colum. J. Eur. L. 107 (1995)

Dr. Fernand de Varennes. Lecturer, School of Law, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia.

Does not the sun shine equally for the whole world? Do we not all equally breathe the air? Do you not feel shame at authorising only three languages and condemning other people to blindness and deafness? Tell me, do you think that God is helpless and cannot bestow equality, or that he is envious and will not give it?
– Saint Constantine

This paper explores some of the causes of ethnic conflicts in European and international contexts, especially as they relate to language issues. Many of these conflicts could be avoided if states properly understood and applied human rights, especially the principle of non-discrimination and the right of minorities to practice their religions or use their languages. Yet, there is a significant trend and consensus building up at international and national levels to suggest general principles which must be respected in order to achieve a proper balance between, on the one hand, the interests and priorities of the state, and on the other hand, the rights, interests and duties of individuals.

The question of language is fundamental in human society. Language plays a central role in terms of economic opportunity and success; the dominance of one language in a state will be advantageous to individuals who have greater fluency in the official or majority tongue in terms of access to and distribution of public resources. Moreover, language is often central to feelings of community and culture, of tradition and belonging; this makes any menace, disrespect or attack on its use capable of arousing strong emotions and potentially cause conflict. Language is prominent as the main link between individual and community life. Language arouses highly charged sentiments as part of the history and culture of many people. It has become one of the most common differentiating factors used in human affairs, followed closely by religion and race, and a signalling point in identifying potential targets for discrimination.

In the last century, states have reached much deeper down into the life of the individual and communities. The expanding role of the state has seen government becoming a major purveyor of services and employment or economic opportunities in many countries. Formerly, state intervention in the lives of individuals and communities was mostly limited to maintaining internal order for the benefit of the controlling elites, exacting tribute or exploiting the resources of its people and territory, and defending them against foreign aggression. The modern state, in contrast, is highly invasive and provides a wide range of services, such as education, health, welfare, postal service, and regulatory mechanisms, such as broadcasting. The state, naturally, must use at least one language in the discharge of its duties and in its contacts with its inhabitants. Those who are primary speakers of that language thus gain an enormous advantage over others. The shared cultural outlook and psychological bonds the majority language fosters in its speakers are enhanced by economic interests arising from the state’s language(s). It becomes highly politicized and prominent for economic and social mobility in today’s society. While one can have separation of state ari religion, the separation of language and state is no longer possible in most societies.

Recently, there is growing world-wide interest in the complex political and legal issues sometimes raised when governments face compact linguistic communities within their borders. This interest has led to the creation of a large number of international, regional and bilateral instruments involving language compromises and rights. This may be partially due to a recognition of language’s importance in individual and community life, as well as an implicit admission that steps are necessary to protect individual and community rights and interests in order to avoid serious social and political conflicts.

In short, language is a potent source of ethnic conflict. It is capable of arousing strong emotions by being so intimately connected as a community bond and, at the same time, as an integral part of an individual’s persona. In addition to having great symbolic importance, linguistic differences are highly visible and can be co-opted for nationalist political goals as primary beacons of community identity, even when other indicators of community boundaries, such as religion, are involved. Add to this the very real economic or employment disadvantages that would ensue if a state disregarded the needs or interests of a large number of its non-official or non-majority language-speaking inhabitants.