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Latvia: “Rejection of Russian as an official language should inspire dialogue on minority rights” – UN expert

GENEVA (22 February 2012) – United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Rita Izsák, today encouraged the Government of Latvia to ensure its protection of the rights of the Russian speaking minority and engage in a process of meaningful dialogue following a referendum on 18 February which rejected a proposal to recognize Russian as a second official State language.

“This referendum should not be considered as a victory for one community over another, rather it should mark an opportunity for enhanced dialogue on minority rights in Latvia. I urge the Latvian authorities to make concentrated efforts to bring the different communities together and assist them in overcoming historical prejudices, fears and mistrust,” Ms. Izsák said.

“There is clearly the need for greater discussion and dialogue about how to create unity in diversity and how to accommodate the needs and rights of all groups within society,” stressed the human rights expert.

“It should be clearly understood that Latvia’s referendum result does not mean that Latvia has any less obligation to ensure the rights of persons belonging to national minorities, including to use their minority language,” the Independent Expert said, underscoring that those rights are enshrined in various international treaties and human rights standards, including Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Declaration on Minorities* and must be respected by all States.

According to the UN expert, such international human rights law requires that States protect the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities, and promote conditions for that protection, including through legislative and other measures. Minorities have the right to use their own language in private or in public without discrimination and provisions should also be made to enable minorities to learn and be taught in their mother tongue as well as the official State language.

About 27% of Latvia’s population is of Russian origin and an estimated one-third of the 2.1 million inhabitants consider Russian to be their mother tongue. Some 75 per cent of Latvia’s population voted against an amendment to the Constitution to introduce Russian as a second official language.

Rita Izsák was appointed as Independent Expert on minority issues by the Human Rights Council in June 2011. As Independent Expert, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/minorities/expert/index.htm

(*) Check the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/minorities.htm

UN Human Rights, country page – Latvia: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/LVIndex.aspx

For inquiries and media requests, please contact Graham Fox (+41 22 917 9640 / gfox@ohchr.org) or write to minorityissues@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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