Ethnic Conflicts and Language in Eastern European and Central Asian States: Can Human Rights Help Prevent Them?

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The movement towards democracy has not brought peace and serenity in many Eastern European and Central Asian countries. While one political system is being replaced with another, majority rule has often appeared to exarcerbate tensions between governments and certain ethnic minorities rather than constitute a solution in itself. In many of these conflicts, language issues over education, state services and even citizenship have become prominent.The prominence of language in many conflicts can be explained by reference to a number of inter-related factors. For members of a minority, it can be central to feelings of community and culture, of tradition and ‘belonging’, thus serving as a marker of membership in their community. At the purely individual level, language also plays a central role in terms of economic opportunity and success, since the prevailing use of one language in a State will mainly advantage individuals who have greater fluency in this official or dominant tongue.For some governments in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, language and ethnic diversity are, if not a threat to national unity, at least an inconvenience. Many of the most tense situations are those where attempts at forging a national uniformity in terms of language have precipitated resistance from segments of the population with a different language or culture.Part of the problem may also be found in a common misconception: language issues are not only a socio-political matter, they are also indivisible from human rights, yet in many States there is the belief that language is a purely internal matter wholly dependent on the discretion and sovereignty of the State. It has become clearer in the last few years that such is not the case, and the fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, the right of members of a linguistic minority to use their language with other members of their community, and non-discrimination may impose restrictions on State legislative discretion in language matters.Instead of being a guarantor of ethnic peace, democratic systems, especially in younger States, may run the risk of fanning conflicts unless there is the recognition that the will of the majority must be tempered by fundamental human rights, or unless there is a commitment to arrive at a political compromise that incorporates in the political and legal regime of the State the interests of minorities. In both cases, there is the need to attain a balance between the interests of the State, normally representing those of its majority, and the rights, freedoms and interests of individuals who may differ from the rest because of their language.Countries likely to be the setting for conflicts are those where individuals feel that they are being discriminated against, treated unfairly, or denied rights and opportunities allowed to members of the majority. If their numbers are large enough or if they are in a majority in a given territory, there is the danger of a feeling of frustration growing to the point of seeing violence as one of the only possible responses to State policies.In terms of specific rights, international decisions since the 1990s have begun to give shape to the linguistic dimension of a number of fundamental, individual human rights. Freedom of expression necessarily implies a restriction on a State's interference in certain areas of private activities, and this would, generally speaking, preclude a government from forcing its exclusive language preference on individuals in non-governmental activities. Discrimination involves a language preference or requirement by a State that is deemed to be unpermissible. Not all language distinctions are necessarily discriminatory: only if a linguistic distinction creates burdens on individuals or denies them certain advantages that are unreasonable will they actually constitute discrimination.In terms of the language used as medium of instruction and applying the right of non-discrimination, this means that a State's choice of a particular language involves a distinction based upon language, since all students are not treated neutrally and some will experience an additional burden if they have a different primary language from the one chosen for State education. Thus, there is a distinction based upon language that may or may not be discriminatory, depending on whether it is reasonable, especially in light of the number of people being disadvantaged.Finally, various treaties and documents recognise that States must also ensure that members of a linguistic minority can use their language in community with other members of their group. The State should not seek nor permit others to stop or obstruct the use of a minority language in those circumstances, although this does not oblige States to affirmative action other than to legislate where necessary to ensure that the members of a linguistic minority are not prevented from using their language amongst themselves.It is generally in contexts where individuals are subjected to discrimination, denied freedom of expression, or are unable to use their language in their relations with public authorities to the degree appropriate to the strength of their relative numbers, that a ‘linguistic minority' or ‘ethnic' problem is created. More often than not, it is the exclusion of all but one language by public authorities and the resulting resentment and discord that leads to conflict and violence when it is done irrespective of the disadvantage to significant segments of a State's inhabitants.

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