UN says Latvia's language rules discriminate against Russians
Russian-speakers in Latvia face discrimination because the law imposes restrictions on people who have not mastered the national language, a UN human rights panel said Thursday, urging Riga to change its rules.
The UN Human Rights Committee's scrutiny of Latvia comes as the Ukraine crisis has made Russian-speakers' rights a headline issue in former Soviet states, after the Kremlin claimed abuses forced it to intervene in Crimea.
In a report after a human rights hearing with Latvian officials earlier this month, the panel spotlighted the status of "non-citizens" and linguistic minorities.
Its British chairman Nigel Rodley said language was a "highly sensitive issue" in the Baltic state.
"It's not spelled out here, but this is about the Russian national minority," he told reporters as he released the report.
Since Latvia's independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, the Kremlin has regularly condemned its treatment of Russian-speakers, but Riga accuses it of political meddling.
Latvian is the sole official language in the country of two million people, where around a quarter of the population are Russian-speakers.
The committee expressed concern over the "discriminatory effects of the language proficiency requirement on the employment and work of minority groups and at the exclusion of 'non-citizen' residents from certain professions in the private sector".
Latvia says the legislation rights the wrongs of the Soviet era.
Moscow annexed Latvia during World War II. Thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia, and huge numbers of Russian-speakers sent in over the ensuing decades.
"On what grounds can you say that the minority language must have the same representation and rights as the main language? We can guarantee equal rights for individuals but not for collectives," ex-defence minister Artis Pabriks, a lawmaker with the governing Unity party, told AFP Thursday.
- Concern over 'non-citizens' -
After 1991, Latvia also denied automatic citizenship to Soviet-era arrivals and their offspring, bringing in language tests and creating a special resident status for those who did not apply or failed.
The country's pre-Soviet Russian and ethnic Polish minorities were given citizenship, however.
The number of non-citizens has declined due to naturalisation, but remains around 13 percent of the population of Latvia, which joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.
In 2012, Latvia's voters rejected efforts by Russian-speaking campaigners to give their language equal status via a referendum.
Later that year, the authorities refused a plebiscite on granting automatic citizenship.
The UN committee urged Latvia to "enhance its efforts to ensure the full enjoyment" of human rights as set down in an international treaty and to facilitate integration.
It called for a review of the language law "to ensure that any restriction on the rights of non-Latvian speakers is reasonable, proportionate and non-discriminatory" and make it easier for them to deal with the authorities.
Latvia should also consider widening the number of people eligible for free-language lessons, and improve funding for minority-language education, it said.
Opposition lawmaker Nikita Nikiforovs, from the largely pro-Russian Harmony Centre party, said change was unlikely.
"The main problem we face is clearly that of non-citizens, though unfortunately I don't believe the government or parliament will take much notice of this UN criticism," he told AFP.
© 2014 AFP