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Statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, on the conclusion of his official visit to Slovenia, 5-13 April 2018

13 April 2018

In my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, I conducted an official visit to the Republic of Slovenia, from 5-13 April 2018, at the invitation of the Government. The objective of my visit was to hold consultations on the human rights situation of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities in Slovenia in conformity with my mandate. 

I would first like to sincerely thank the Government of Slovenia for extending an invitation to me and for the excellent cooperation extended by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the purposes of my visit.  I thank them for their time and for the valuable information that they have provided to me. 

The overall aim of the visit was to take a closer look at existing policies for the protection and promotion of the rights of persons belonging to national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities. I also wanted to explore other aspects pertaining to various minorities including access to quality education, use of minority languages, issues relating to freedom of religion, inclusion and participation in the political process, and the existing efforts to fight hate speech. I also wanted to get a better sense of the normative framework regulating the status of minorities including latest amendments to relevant legislation, acts and other mechanisms that have been established in that regard.  

During my nine-day visit I have attempted to meet with the widest spectrum of stakeholders at the governmental level, NGOs, institutions working on various aspects affecting minorities and importantly minority communities themselves and their representatives within and outside the capital. I have specifically met with high-level representatives of a number of ministries and other governmental entities including the Ministry of Economic Development and Technology; the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning; the Ministry of Public Administration; the Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities; the Ministry of Education, Science and Sports; the Human Rights Ombudsman; the Office for National Minorities; the Ministry of Culture and Interior; the Supreme Court; the Constitutional Court, and others.

In terms of representatives of minority groups, I have met with those of the Roma community including the Roma Union and Roma Council, and visited the Puscka Roma settlement and the Lokve settlement in Metlika. I have also met with representatives of the Hungarian minority in Lendava and that of the Italian minority in Koper. Meetings also included representatives of other communities including Albanian, Bosniac, Croat, Kosovar, Montenegrin and Serb minorities. As part of my mandate, I also consider the Deaf and hard of hearing community who use Sign Language as members of a linguistic minority and have met with their representatives accordingly. 

THE CONTEXT

Slovenia is not hugely diverse when compared to other countries: ethnically, religiously and linguistically, Catholics and Slovenes are a clear majority according to the last available census with such data (2002). The largest religious minorities are Muslims (2.4%) and Orthodox (2.3%), while the largest three ethnic minorities according to the same census are Serbs (2%), Croats (1.8%), and Bosniacs (1.1%), with ethnic Slovenes representing 83.1% of the population of just under 2 million. There is no disaggregated population data since 2002.   

Slovenia has what could be described as a three-tiered framework for the protection of the human rights of minorities. At its apex are two “autochthonous national communities” (Hungarians and Italians) recognized in the post-independence Constitution of 1991.

Their status is unconnected to the number of their members but is in response to historical and bilateral factors. Article 64 of the Constitution and other legislative measures guarantee them extensive rights within specific territories in the form of self-government which include the right to education in their own languages, to establish autonomous organizations, and to be directly represented at the local level and in the National Assembly. The specific rights of the Hungarian and Italian communities also require the consent of the minorities involved and an effective veto to be exercised by the representatives of both minorities by their respective deputies in the Slovene parliament and municipal council members. These minorities are thus afforded a widely recognized high level of protection under this constitutional and legal framework with a number of legislative and other changes in recent years. However, both Hungarian and Italian minorities have over time experienced significant decreasing numbers and the aging of their populations, as well as decreasing resources. Their numbers have both decreased by almost half since the 1950s. In the last available census (2002), 7,713 persons declared the Hungarian language as their mother tongue, while 3,762 did so for Italian. 

The second level of minority rights is limited to “autochthonous” Roma who have “special rights regulated by law” according to Article 65 of the Constitution, subsequently elaborated in the 2007 Roma Community Act. While those rights are not as extensive as those recognized for the Hungarian and Italian communities, Slovenia was still the first country in Europe to adopt such a law dedicated to advancing the rights of Roma. In recent years, significant efforts have been made by Slovenian authorities through a panoply of measures to break down the barriers of prejudice and intolerance and be more inclusive of the Roma in various fields of daily life. Noticeable progress has been made in areas such as education, but significant obstacles of prejudice and discrimination remain and continue to permeate many aspects of the life of Roma in terms of employment, access to public services, and even drinking water and sanitation. Improvements such as a proposed new Roma Community Act have not been adopted in 2017 or 2018 as had been hoped, and there are too often discrepancies between the reality on the ground and what is official policy, with the actual implementation of measures for members of the Roma community not meeting up with what is provided or hoped for in legislation and various measures.  

The third level of minority rights could be described as encompassing “everyone else”, including members of Slovenia’s Deaf linguistic minority. Minorities from the former Yugoslavia –  Albanian, Bosniac, Croat, Kosovar, Montenegrin and Serb communities – as well as religious minorities such as Muslims and Jews and some small but historically long-established minorities such as the German-speaking minority (including the Kočevje Germans known as Gottscheer), find themselves in this category, although in the case of members of the Deaf community and those of the former Yugoslavia, there are a few additional legislative measures or programmes in place. The country’s three largest minorities in demographic terms – Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs – are all in this last level of recognition and protection.

Overall, and especially in relation to the rights enjoyed by the Hungarian and Italian minorities, Slovenia has frequently and rightfully been described as having in place longstanding examples of good practices. The level of recognition and implementation of the rights of the Roma has also made noticeable progress in some areas, but here the pace of fully complying with international standards such as the prohibition of discrimination still has a long way to go. Members of the Deaf community for their part can be said to have had for a period of time a good level of acknowledgment and response to their linguistic rights, and Slovenia can be proud in many of its achievements in regard to this minority. How to respond to migrants and other minorities, particularly those from the former Yugoslavia and despite some incremental positive developments, has overall been more of a challenge for Slovenian authorities, and one which will require further steps in order to fully comply with the human rights of these individuals and communities.

POSITIVE DEVELOPMENTS AND GOOD PRACTICES

Institutionally, there have been some notable changes in terms of the general human rights protection regime in Slovenia in the last few years. The rights of minorities as contained in documents such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities are human rights, and since minorities tend to be among the most vulnerable or marginalised segments of society in all countries of the world, the Government of Slovenia is to be commended for any and all strengthening of its mechanisms for the protection and recognition of human rights that will impact on minorities. 

A noticeable development includes in 2016 a new Protection from Discrimination Act entering into force in Slovenia and resulting in the Advocate of the Principle of Equality becoming an independent state body. The mandate of the new Advocate includes independent research on the situation in the field of discrimination, publishing reports and issuing recommendations and proposals on the adoption of special measures to prevent discrimination and provide legal assistance. The mandate also has investigative and decisional powers ordering the end of discriminatory practices, though without any punitive powers. The new Advocate of the Principle of Equality, Mr. Miha Lobnik, took up his position in January 2017. 

Another significant and welcome development has been the amendments to the Human Rights Ombudsman Act towards the end of 2017 which bring this institution in compliance with the requirements for “A” status under the United Nations Paris Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions and provide for the establishment of a human rights centre which will increase its capacity to conduct human rights research and education and give it a more prominent role in Slovenian society. Other developments include an amendment to the Act in April 2016 to provide additional financial support to the office and further staff to aid in the fulfilment of its mandate.

Slovenia must be commended for its considerable efforts in recent years to improve the situation of Roma and the protection of their human rights, including in key areas such as education and employment, and its participation in several campaigns such as the Council of Europe’s Dosta! (“Enough!”) campaign against prejudices towards Roma. There is clearly from the part of Slovenian authorities a desire to address many of the urgent issues surrounding the prejudice, exclusion and discrimination that too many Roma still face in the country, and the pace of attempting to tackle some of the most pressing matters has not dissipated in recent years. There are too many measures, plans, working groups, campaigns and other measures to identify here comprehensively. It may suffice to mention more recent ones such as the formation on 11 May 2017 of an Inter-ministerial Working Group to resolve the housing problems in Roma settlements; the proposed 2017 amendments to the Roma Community Act (unfortunately suspended pending the national elections); the National Programme of Measures for Roma for the Period 2017-2021 which identifies as priority areas education, employment and housing; since 2017, the Police Academy includes in its annual plan of work special training  on “recognising stereotypes, overcoming prejudice and eliminating discrimination in a multicultural society” for police officers and civil servants who regularly come into contact with members of the Roma community; progress as regards the training and employment of Roma teaching assistants in schools and Roma mediators to liaise with Roma families; the eventual setting up in 2018 of seven multipurpose Roma community centres,  etc. Because of the difficulties many Roma homes experience in accessing, among others, drinking water, mention must be made of the November 2016 constitutional amendment to include the right to drinking water: according to Article 70a, “… water resources shall be used to supply the population with drinking water and water for household use…” What is also noteworthy is the increasing number of Roma success stories and pride in achievements, such as when the primary school children in the Roma community of Pušča was hosted by the mayor of the municipality of Murska Sobota for having almost all completed successfully their studies, or the Slovenia’s (only) Red Cross first aid team winning a national competition.

For the Hungarian and Italian minorities, Slovenia provides concrete examples of good practices on how to implement in an overall generous and flexible way the linguistic rights of the Italian and Hungarian minorities in its constitutional and legal framework. 

Despite the modest size of the two communities, persons belonging to these minorities have enjoyed for historical reasons a wide range of rights, as well as a degree of autonomy in the ethnically mixed areas. These constitutional and other arrangements enable the Hungarian and Italian minorities to participate in many aspects of the decision making and management of public affairs related to their culture, education, language and the media, and to obtain a significant amount of financial support for their cultural and other activities. Outside of the officially recognised the ethnically mixed areas, persons belonging to these minorities are only entitled to be entered in a special electoral register for the election of a Hungarian or Italian member of the National Assembly, or to receive education in their own language upon the request of the parents of at least five children. The Hungarian minority includes around 6,000 individuals concentrated in five municipalities: Hodoš, Moravske Toplice, Šalovci, Lendava, and Dobrovnik. The municipalities of Koper/Capodistria, Izola/Isola, Piran/Pirano, and Ankaran/Ancarano are home to most of the slightly above 2,000 people who form the Italian minority of Slovenia, according to the 2002 census. In each of these there is a Hungarian or Italian municipal self-governing community represented at the state level by an umbrella self-governing Hungarian community council and a self-governing Italian community council composed of a selection of locally elected municipal self-governing community councillors. A policy framework aimed at enhancing the use of minority languages, and in particular Hungarian and Italian (and other languages) has been adopted, and interministerial working groups dedicated to monitoring implementation have been established. Initiatives such as the Inspectorate of the Republic of Slovenia for Public Administration’s Plan of Measures of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia for the Implementation of the Regulations in the Field of Bilingualism 2015–2018 show both a willingness to take steps to assist in ensuring compliance with the linguistic rights of both Hungarian and Italian is continuing and being strengthened.

The situation of other minorities in Slovenia have not seen much change for a significant period of time. There have been more inclusive activities such as workshops on diversity, training on cultural sensitivity and the production of material in a variety of languages such as a Multilingual Aid for better communication in healthcare for new migrants and minorities, it cannot be said that there has been much movement beyond the adoption in Parliament in 2011 of a symbolic Declaration on the Status of National Communities of Members of Nations of the Former SFRY in the Republic of Slovenia. This also led in the same year to the establishment of the Council for Issues concerning the Communities of Members of Nations of the Former SFRY, within the Ministry of Culture, as a consultative body made up of six government officials and six minority representatives of the former Yugoslavia to coordinate actions in the fields of culture, media and language.

Positive developments for members of the Deaf linguistic minority have been the adoption of 2002 Law on the Use of Slovenian Sign Language (among one of the first in Europe), and the official recognition by Slovenia,since 2014, of 14 November as National Sign Language Day. Funding and other support for activities such as a 24-hour year-round “internet interpreter call centre” and others have greatly increased the integration of members of the Deaf community in society and have signaled an increasing acceptance and embrace of the role members of the Deaf community can play in Slovenian society.

Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have been identified by various government sections for greater attention in 2016 and 2017 for a growing number of activities, campaigns and efforts aimed at assisting their adaptation and integration, as well as to dispel stereotypes some of them were facing following the massive “migration flow” experienced in Slovenia in 2015 and ensuing reactions. Among some of the many initiatives along these lines are “Refugee Day” events in 12 cities, “social activation” workshops for migrant and refugee women from 2018, the creation of the Government Office for the Support and Integration of Migrants, increased Slovene language tuition, etc.

Many difficulties of course are still far from being surmounted and much more needs to be done in some of the following key areas.

MAIN ISSUES IN THE PROTECTION OF THE RIGHTS OF MINORITIES 

Slovenia can be proud of the significant strides made in a number of areas. The Government of Slovenia can also be proud of many positive developments and strengthened good practices in recent years in relation to human rights and the protection of minorities. Nevertheless, there are also areas where human rights challenges remain, and where the rights of minorities still have to be addressed more directly and comprehensively.

1. Disaggregated data for better and more effective policies

Precise information on the population of a country provides objective and comparative indications as to its characteristics that can be used to design government policies and programmes that reflects the reality on the ground. Governments needs such data to efficiently fulfil the needs of their population and use of their resources. The existence of authoritative data allows the governments to plan programmes so as to reach those most in need. This is particularly true to measure the impact of policies and programmes of those who are most vulnerable and marginalised such as minorities.

Slovenia officially does not collect disaggregated data on ethnicity, language or religion, mainly for privacy considerations to protect personal data. The 2002 Census last provided such information, and it is mainly on the population data of almost two decades ago that there is an indication of the importance and size of various communities. In other words, no one has a clear idea as to the actual size of some of the country’s most vulnerable or marginalised individuals. 

As many international and European organisations have noted, this makes it particularly difficult to identify effectively those experiencing discrimination and to adequately build evidence-based policies to guarantee respect for access a variety of services and full compliance with even basic rights such as education. It is in my view, as it is that of most if not all international observers, that disaggregated data is indispensable to ensure that positive measures to address human rights issues, including those of minorities, are effective. The issue was acknowledged in many of my discussions with various parties, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and I sensed in some of them a degree of frustration at the situation. It was clear to me, particularly from civil society parties, that the lack of collection of data is viewed with frustration and is viewed as preventing concrete progress on human rights issues involving Roma and others.

It is unfortunate that Slovenia has not yet studied how a variety of states have been able to protect personal data while still collecting disaggregated data in their censuses or through other means. The country has a long tradition of well-established research centres such as the Institute for Ethnic Studies and the Peace Institute which had in the past conducted high quality work on the effectiveness of state policies. They now find themselves clearly hampered due to the lack of reliable, long-term data and are therefore unable to provide the guidance and knowledge that would be essential in having a clearer picture of the impact of current or potential policies in critical areas such as education, equality, social services and development for minorities and all other vulnerable segments of society.

2. Enhanced National Human Rights System

The rights of minorities are human rights, and any strengthening of the country’s human rights mechanisms will therefore benefit minorities. I was impressed by the work and research conducted by human rights mechanisms such as the offices of the Ombudsman and the Advocate of the Principle of Equality. I was able to explore in detail their work and the type of issues that they deal with through my meetings with staff members during my mission, and the role they are or can play in relation to minorities. For the Advocate, long term funding, or even if the office will be receiving sufficient funding to carry out its new mandate, is far from finalised: although funding for 2018 is not entirely finalised, projected funding for 2018 of 500,000 euros appears insignificant when compared to the new responsibilities of the office. For both mechanisms, there remains inconsistencies in legislation that need to be dealt with, and still much more to be done in terms of awareness-raising initiatives for the general public and minorities in particular.

3. The Roma minority

The Roma and Sinti communities are not among the largest minority communities in Slovenia, but they undoubtedly continue to be the most marginalized and vulnerable. The specific rights (housing, education and employment) provided under the 2007 Roma Community Act is however restricted to “autochthonous” Roma. In theory, “non-autochthonous” Roma have no status nor specific rights under this constitutional and legal framework. This has been criticized widely by numerous international and European organisations: indeed, almost none of those I met during my mission in Slovenia thought the distinction was necessary or useful. Proposed amendments to the Roma Community Act unfortunately were not adopted in 2018 because of the upcoming national elections. This is perceived by some as a setback, since there is no guarantee the amendments will proceed after the elections. The contentious distinction between autochthonous and non-autochthonous Roma remains however untouched even in the new proposals.

Members from Roma communities have mentioned the continuing difficulties regarding obtaining any legal status for in the settlements where they live, exercising voting rights, accessing drinking water, sanitation and electricity, as well as more generally employment, housing and public services. Despite some progress and a willingness from the part of state authorities to put into place new initiatives and measures to address these challenges, systemic discrimination and prejudices from the majority community, including some municipal authorities, continue to hamper concrete improvements in practice on the ground. 

I visited two Roma communities and it was disheartening to witness the continuing cycle of poverty in difficult living conditions, with little access to services most others in Slovenia would consider normal. While I saw real progress and pride in one community, even high levels of educational success, I was also informed that this unfortunately remains more the exception rather than the rule in the country’s approximately 130 Roma settlements. It was also suggested to me that in some areas such as Novo mesto, there has been no improvement at all in recent years despite national efforts. Lack of political will from authorities has been pointed out to me as one explanation for failures to address more comprehensively and systematically the necessary steps towards the root causes for these difficulties. Most parties acknowledged that the major obstacle faced by Roma communities concern their informal settlements and the consequences of their lack of security of tenure on their homes and property, restricting their rights to adequate housing, water, and sanitation. 

Under Slovenian law, access to services is premised on ownership or some other legal claim over property along with requisite planning permission. In a 2012 special report, the Ombudsman noted the inability or unwillingness of municipalities in resolving the issue of the security of tenure of Roma settlements in South East Slovenia. This was followed in 2015 with a call to the national government to take responsibility for ensuring greater compliance with constitutional and international human rights obligations by municipalities, including by providing municipalities with financial aid in regularising Roma settlements. Other international observers have noted in recent years that perhaps 49 percent of Roma live in “barracks, containers, trailers or other makeshift accommodation” and that while almost 100% of the general population of the country has access to clean water, about 21of 95 Roma settlements in Prekmurje and Dolenjska have no access to water - and many do not even have access to sanitation. This also has serious negative impact on Roma children’s attending and remaining in school, with consequent knockdown effects on social exclusion, illiteracy, lack of skills and qualifications, poverty and high unemployment rates. As I have already mentioned, the lack of disaggregated data on ethnicity in Slovenia makes it difficult to assess the predicament of the Roma, but some unofficial sources presented during the current mission suggest their unemployment rates to be as high as 98%.

Despite some measures aimed at facilitating regularization of Roma settlements, including amendments to the Construction Act that should ease some of the requirements for securing tenure, there is the impression amongst some of the parties I have met that those measures introduce little changes, especially in light of the 2018 judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in Hudorovič and Novak and others vs. Slovenia, where Roma complainants convinced the court that Slovenia’s failure to ensure access to drinking water constitutes a violation of their right to private life and their right not to be discriminated against. 

Given the extremely serious wide-ranging consequences of the discriminatory denial of access to drinking water, sanitation and social services in general, and the subsequent effects in areas such as education and employment, a much more direct and proactive role must be played by state authorities in order for Slovenia to comply fully with its international and constitutional human rights obligations in dealing with the Roma minority. The prohibition of discrimination is in itself clearly a sufficient legal imperative to allow the state to intervene in areas of municipal competence, particularly sanitation and water.

While this particular dimension was the one most frequently raised during my mission in Slovenia, other issues of concern for the Roma communities were brought to my attention. These included in education the very low rates of schooling achieved by Roma pupils, the apparently continuing referring of some Roma children to special classes or schools, and the need for more appropriate forms of pedagogical engagement in the classroom. Roma seem to be at the receiving end of much reported hate speech and incitement to violence. Access to health care and other social surfaces remains difficult due to high illiteracy rates, in some cases to relative isolation of Roma settlements, and many other obstacles.

The reality on the ground must be understood to get a sense of the obstacles faced by members of the Roma in some communities.

For example, there have been reports of water cisterns installed in 2016 in one settlement by national authorities to ensure access to drinking water. Since these were not always filled regularly, people had to get water from a polluted stream for drinking or bathing. The results were predictable, with children in particular being susceptible to diarrhoea and skin rashes. Lack of water means difficulty in maintaining basic hygiene, especially in cold weather. It has been reported that this is one of the factors contributing to Roma children being mocked and therefore avoiding schools in more than one community.

These examples highlight a fundamental disconnect that needs to be addressed in Slovenia between the stated policies, programmes and reality as experienced by members of the Roma minority. There remains a lack of political will between some municipalities such as in the Dolenjska region and the national government to resolve the legal status of their settlements. This has a spillover effect on education, health, access to basic services and employment opportunities. 

As many others have pointed out, including the Ombudsperson in a 2015 report, these issues are human rights issues, including human rights issues which flow from Slovenia’s international obligations in relation to minorities. Slovenia is therefore responsible to ensure that all public authorities comply with these rights.

4. Effective implementation and comprehensive legislation for the protection of minorities

Slovenia is an exceptional meeting point of civilisations and cultures in Europe. But this rich diversity and the contributions made by those who make up the country’s population are simply not reflected in a balanced way in the current three levels of minority protection, with Hungarian and Italian minority at the apex, Roma in the middle, and “others” at the bottom, so to speak. This can lead to resentment and frustration, as individuals from some of the largest minorities feel unrecognised, disrespected and left out. 

State support for cultural activities easily illustrates the disequilibrium: in 2017, Hungarian and Italian cultural activities received funding for about 421,000 and 288,000 euros respectively. All six minorities from the former Yugoslavia received together the same year a total of only about 130,000 euros – even though most of these six communities are much larger in numbers (relying on the data of the 2002 Census) than both the Hungarian and Italian minorities together. Initial promising developments such as the adoption in Parliament, following a dialogue with Albanian, Bosniac, Croat, Kosovar, Montenegrin and Serb minority representatives, of the Declaration on the Status of National Communities of Members of Nations of the Former SFRY in the Republic of Slovenia and the subsequent establishment of the Council for Issues concerning the Communities of Members of Nations of the Former SFRY were not followed up in any meaningful way since. In fact, the Council itself no longer functioned for a number of years between 2012 and 2015.

It was brought to my attention by representatives of the Albanian, Bosniac, Croat, Kosovar, Montenegrin and Serb minorities that while they hoped for recognition of some form of status as national minorities in Slovenia, they felt strongly their presence and constructive place in the country should be fairly acknowledged also in practical terms such as in support to learn their languages in schools and proportionate funding for their culture.

Without diminishing the rights already recognised to the Hungarian, Italian or Roma either under the Constitution or legislation, comprehensive general legislation on the protection of minorities, those from the former Yugoslavia as well as those such as the German-speaking, Jewish, Muslim  and other religious minorities, as is often done in many countries, would fill a serious gap and inconsistencies that are neither healthy for Slovenia as an inclusive society nor its members – including individuals who belong to minorities and are contributing positively to the national community. Not all minorities need to be treated equally since their needs are not identical, and it is widely recognised that long-established minorities may be entitled to more generous provisions and policies. This would, as was pointed out by Slovenia’s own Office for National Minorities, help complete the legal system for the protection of human rights in the country, though it had to include clear mechanisms for implementation.

Indeed, this last point was an important comment that was made to me also in relation to legislation and other measures dealing with the rights of the Hungarian, Italian and Roma minorities.

Implementation and full compliance with the rights of these communities are not always assured comprehensively or in a timely fashion, including as was pointed out in the Office of the Ombudsman’s 2016 Annual Report which noted the much lower number of electronic forms in Hungarian and Italian as compared to Slovenian, despite legislation requiring that electronic forms for submitting applications online must all be available in Hungarian and Italian. Services and information in areas such as health care or education were not always provided for in Hungarian or Italian. It was pointed out to me that qualifications of teachers to teach in the Hungarian and Italian languages have been reinforced through specific training. According to representatives of these minorities, there is room for improvement, especially in requiring fluency in these minority languages for employment and measuring the level of fluency of prospective teachers and other officials. Additionally, while there have more recently been measures to reinforce bilingualism in the self-governing areas, I heard in some of my discussions that these are not sufficiently focused on improving bilingualism in the local administrations. Since the Hungarian and Italian minorities have the right to services from local administrations in their own languages, measures more directly addressing these services and activities could be considered. There was also mention of delays associated with the use of minority languages in accessing information or obtaining services which discouraged insisting on the theoretically available linguistic rights for members of the Hungarian and Italian minorities. Indeed, it was stated to me very clearly that one of the main issues that need to be addressed is that the current legislative regime is simply not implemented properly, with some government officials hired without complying with any requirement for bilingualism (in the case of a medical clinic that captures an area outside of the mixed zone). Even the description of bilingual education in Lendava, for example, is much weaker than often claimed since at the secondary level the proportion of teaching in Slovenian and Hungarian is 80-20, and not even remotely close to 50-50.

5. Hate speech and incitement to violence

Disaggregated data on the targets of hate speech or incitement to violence is again, unfortunately, not readily available to help identify those who are most at risk and vulnerable, though anecdotal and partial data leave little doubt that minorities have been and continue to be particularly victimised. Most of those I met feel the upsurge of hate speech that appeared during the 2015 migration flow through Slovenia may subsided slightly, but that this may also reflect a generalised discontent with the current lack of effective mechanisms to tackle hate speech and incitement to violence. While there is a Penal Code provision dealing with hate speech (Article 297), its requirements have traditionally been interpreted in a narrow, restrictive way, with the consequence that there are in practice very few cases of prosecutions and convictions. Everyone I met readily admitted this to be the case. This is despite fairly clear indications of widespread problems in this regard. Spletno oko (“Web Eye”) a non-governmental organisation acting as an internet hotline and anonymous reporting system against hate speech and other illegal content cooperation with police, internet service providers, and other governmental and non-governmental organisations, received in 2015 1,153 complaints though only 51 were considered to likely reach the threshold od Article 297 and transmitted to the police for possible prosecution.

Overall, the current wording of Article 297, or at the very least its current interpretation, has helped create an environment of impunity and despair: those who engage in hate speech and incitement to violence against minorities are unlikely to be prosecuted and can therefore proceed with little concern of any punishment or consequences, while possible victims may often feel there is simply no point in complaining if they believe no one will be pursued or punished. Most of these potential victims belong to minorities.

6. The Slovenian Deaf Minority and Sign Language

I held a meeting in Ljubljana with representatives of the Deaf linguistic minority who reminded me that Sign Language has a long-standing historical presence and recognition in Slovenia, going as far back as 1840 with one of the first schools for the deaf in Austro-Hungary. The Use of Slovenian Sign Language Act 2002 was also an early general framework in Europe for its use by public authorities. I was told about the two schools of members of the Deaf minority in Ljubljana and Maribor, and the court interpretation and other significant services in Sign Language and Braille are guaranteed under legislation and a number of programmes. I was, however, surprised to learn that Sign Language is not actually used to any significant degree as a language of instruction in these schools, and that some public authorities view Sign Language as a support system for people with special needs rather than an “actual, real” language with its own culture. Although there is here also a dearth of disaggregated data, I did hear of a 2006 study on education that pointed out that while 11% of Slovenia’s general population held a university degree, as did 17.3% of those people who were blind, only a fraction of members of the Deaf community, 0.9%, achieved the same. One suggestion was that this was linked to the inability or refusal to teach in Slovenia in the language of the Deaf community, Sign Language, and the apparent continuing tendency of teaching mainly orally in vocalization.

There is, therefore, resistance to recognizing Sign Language as an actual language in the country made up of members who belong to a community. This explains why, while a growing number of countries around the world recognise Sign Language as an official language, this is not the case in Slovenia despite legislation providing for its use in a number of contexts. It may also explain why Sign Language doesn’t appear to properly fit in Slovenia’s four-year National Language Policy Plan as a full-fledged language.

7. The “Erased” and minorities from the former Yugoslavia

On 26 February 1992 one percent of the population of Slovenia (25,671 people) were removed from its registry of permanent residents (hence the expression “the Erased”). This was the result of legislation which provided that citizens of the former Yugoslav republics who were not citizens of Slovenia needed to fulfil three requirements to could acquire Slovenian citizenship, including applying for citizenship within six months after the 1991 Citizenship Act entered into force. Failure to meet any requirement within the time limit were erased from the register of permanent residents. In other words, they had no legal status and, therefore, no right to remain in Slovenia. 

The situation of the “Erased” –who for the most part are members of various ethnic, religious or linguistic communities – is still unsettled. It is also a human rights issue in the sense that nearly all of those removed from the official residence registry of Slovenia in 1992 belonged to minorities. The consequences, from a human rights point of view, were discriminatory and deprived these many thousands from a number of economic, social, civil and political rights, leading some of them at the margins of society. One of the Erased described to me how she could not initially buy or subsequently lease the apartment in which she had been living because she was not considered a citizen or permanent resident, how she ended up losing her livelihood and essentially survived in poverty for many years. While half of these would eventually regain their residency status or in some cases obtained citizenship over decades of litigation, the situation of perhaps 10,000 who are mainly outside of Slovenia is unclear, and compensation is still being fought over despite judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and an April 2018 decision of the Constitutional Court ruling against the limitations on the amount of compensation the Government of Slovenia had set forth in legislation.

The continuing predicament of the Erased, and particularly of those few who still live in Slovenia without any legal status, is an unnecessary blot on Slovenia’s image. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, among others, have raised concerns in this matter, including on the 2010 or the compensation scheme implemented by the authorities which has just been ruled unconstitutional at the rime of writing this report. 

Arguably, the continuing saga of thousands who have still not been regularized under the requirements and limitations of the 2010 Act on the regularization of the status of Erased persons raises the specter of discrimination against mainly minorities from the former Yugoslavia, and as the country’s Constitutional Court itself announced just a few days ago, the government compensation scheme itself still runs afoul of basic human rights and values.

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Slovenia is impressive. It has a strong commitment and tradition in human rights recognition and protection, has long demarked itself from many others in the way it has protected some of its minorities, and is a beacon of peace and stability. 

Progress in and strengthening of human rights protections, and measures for many of its minorities have been noticeable in recent years, and Slovenia must be commended for these. Obviously, as pointed out in the preceding section, there are however omissions, uncertainties, contradictions and lacunae that must be acknowledged and addressed to better protection the human rights of minorities, as there are in other countries. 

The Government of Slovenia, human rights institutions such as the Ombudsperson and Advocate, civil society actors, minority organisations, and other interested parties are invited to consider the following, non-exhaustive, recommendations: 

On disaggregated data for better and more effective policies

The current opacity on the demographic situation of minorities, and the continued hesitancy to collect data on matters such as ethnicity, religion or language is frustrating for many, unhelpful for authorities and policy makers. As is done in other countries, respecting an individual’s personal data does not mean information on these characteristics cannot be collected for public policy purposes, just as data on gender, age and other characteristics can be obtained for these purposes.

(a) Study how national censuses in other countries collect and analyse data disaggregated by ethnicity, religion or language while being sensitive to and respecting privacy concerns.

(b) Consider and propose, if necessary, legislative clarification to ensure the appropriate balance between the two are taken into account and set out without ambiguity.

On enhancing the national human rights system

The independence and primary role of human rights institutions must be guarded and cherished, particularly in light of their importance for the protection of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized, including minorities. This requires increased efforts such as: 

(a) Adopting multi-year funding formulas for both the Ombudsperson and Advocate that properly reflect their current or expanded mandates, including the conduct of campaigns aimed at promoting respect for human rights and tolerance for diversity and at raising awareness with a focus on Roma, minorities and migrants.

(b) Simultaneously reviewing legislation for both the Ombudsperson and Advocate in order to remove current ambiguities and inconsistencies, and consider permitting a use of limited sanctions so as to provide for more effective legal remedies for victims of discrimination and other human rights violations.

On the Roma minority

Discrimination, prejudice, and social exclusion require further and stronger steps to tackle the continuing issues affecting the Roma community, including; 

(a) Removing the distinction in legislation and other measures between “autochthonous” and “non-autochthonous” Roma communities. Maintaining this distinction is unhelpful, probably harmful and possibly discriminatory.

(b) Adopting legislation rendering the Roma Community Council more representative, democratic and effective by ensuring it properly reflects the diversity within the Roma community.

(c) A new Roma Community Act must be considered to include additional specific measures in the fields of education and social services including temporary affirmative action programmes in employment, in consultation with civil society representatives, to specifically and directly tackle instances of on-going discrimination.

(d) The regularisation of Roma settlements cannot be sidestepped, as it is central to tackling some of the root causes of their exclusion and denial of basic human needs and rights. As a first preliminary step, the means to put into place the financial and legal measures for putting this into place for all of the country’s irregular settlements must in the short term be initiated, along with consultations of the main interested parties. In the longer term, legal and budgetary measures, and a timetable for their effective implementation, need to be put in place.

(e) Access to drinking water and basic services such as sanitation and power are basic human needs that have not been afforded to Roma as they have to the vast majority of Slovenians. This must be tackled not only as an “issue” but as an emergency at the highest levels possible, with a five-year action plan pending the resolution of the status of Roma settlements and other measures currently in place.

(f) Awareness campaigns and training activities on stereotyping have been positive initiatives in Slovenia. Additional measures in order to recognise and highlight positive Roma images and role-models would add a further, helpful dimension that could be put into place in order to provide a more rounded view of members of the Roma community. It is important to see and portray members of this minority as normal rather than too often perhaps unconsciously focusing on them as involving “issues” or “problems”.

On the effective implementation and comprehensive legislation for the protection of minorities

Much has been accomplished for the protection of the rights of minorities such as Hungarians and Italians, but too many Slovenian citizens who are minorities are left out. The following steps can be taken:

(a) Comprehensive legislation needs to be adopted to protect the rights of all minorities of Slovenia, while respecting the currently established constitutional prominence and status of the Hungarian, Italian and Roma. A consultation process in this regard should be initiated in 2019.

(b) Legislation on the rights of minorities must include provisions on education in the mother tongue where there is a sufficient demand in a locality, to the degree appropriate, or at least provide for teaching of a minority language where possible.

(c) Fair and proportionate funding of cultural and other activities of minorities, including in media, must be guaranteed.

(d) Hungarian and Italian minorities have well-established rights and autonomy arrangements which continue to suffer from too frequent omissions or failure to implement, bilingual services not provided when they should be, or bilingual officials and teachers either not in place or lacking the required fluency levels. A review of hiring policies, language testing, and bilingualism requirements for civil servants and teachers should be undertaken in 2019 with representatives of these minorities in order to consider how these issues can be addressed and remedied.

On hate speech and incitement to violence

(a) Legislation may be needed to correct the mistaken interpretation of Article 297 of the Penal Code which make successful prosecutions of hate speech and incitement to violence against minorities extremely difficult, if not next to impossible.

(b) Pending legislative changes to Article 297 of the Penal Code, directives and other clarifications should be issued by police, prosecutorial and other sections on order to propose less rigid – and arguably unnecessary – interpretations on how to apply the requirements of this provision in investigating and prosecuting hate speech and incitement to violence against minorities.

(c) To more efficiently fight against hate speech and incitement to violence against minorities requires a better picture of which minorities are targeted, by whom and how. Disaggregated data on these matters should be collated, and published, by the responsible authorities.

On the Slovenian Deaf Minority and Sign Language

(a) Sign Language needs to be recognised as the language used by members of the Deaf community: legislation should be amended or adopted making it an official language as has been occurring in recent years in a growing number of countries.

(b) Sign Language is a living language and the mother language of members of the Deaf minority. It should be used to the degree possible as the language of instruction in schools for the Deaf to ensure greater access to quality, adapted, appropriate and effective education.

On the Erased 

The illegitimate removal of permanent residence status of too many, with almost no compensation has lasted for too long. Litigation has been ongoing for decades. What is needed is necessary political will and courage so that Slovenia can hold its head up in this matter. Minorities from the former Yugoslavia were the main victims in this sad episode that needs to come to an end while avoiding protracted, painful and embarrassing litigation.

(a) New legislation is required that will provide for the return of permanent residency status without the burdensome requirements and narrow timelines in the 2010 Act on the regularisation of the status of Erased persons.

(b) A more generous compensation scheme must also be considered, not excluding individuals which have benefited from the previous scheme, which is readjusted to take into account losses such as property or employment, and is realistic in terms of the pain and suffering experienced.

My visit comes to an end today. I however look forward to continuing my collaboration with the Government of Slovenia, civil society actors and minority organisations and communities, particularly through follow-up to the recommendations I have made above. I stress that today’s observations are preliminary findings only and will be further developed by additional research and consultations with the Government and other relevant stakeholders. My full report and recommendations will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2019. 

I once again take this opportunity to thank the Government, United Nations Office in Vienna officials and, in particular, my mandate’s Human Rights Advisors, and all of those who took time to meet with me and provided information and assistance.

END

Dr. Fernand de Varennes (Canada) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on minority issues by the Human Rights Council in June 2017. He is tasked by the UN Human Rights Council, to promote the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, among other things.  Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Minorities/SRMinorities/Pages/SRminorityissuesIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

Check the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/Minorities.aspx