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State Language Law of Ukraine fails to strike balance between strengthening Ukrainian and safeguarding minorities’ linguistic rights, says Venice Commission

CoE: To avoid the language issue becoming a source of inter-ethnic tensions within Ukraine, it is of crucial importance to achieve an appropriate balance in its language policy. The authorities have so far failed to do so, also in the recent State Language Law. This is the key conclusion of the new opinion adopted today by the Council of Europe’s body of constitutional legal experts, the Venice Commission.

The experts acknowledge that the language policy is an extremely complex, sensitive and highly politicized issue in Ukraine, especially in the context of the ongoing conflict with Russia. In view of the particular place of the Russian language in Ukraine, as well as the oppression of the Ukrainian language in the past, the Venice Commission fully understands the need to promote the use of Ukrainian as the State language. It is therefore commendable that the State Language Law provides for positive measures to this end by obliging the State to provide each citizen of Ukraine with an opportunity to master the language through the educational system, to organise free language courses and to promote access to films and other cultural products in Ukrainian.

The Venice Commission also welcomes that in several areas the State Language Law provides for the use of minority languages in parallel with the State language by referring to the anticipated Law on Minorities. However, the Minorities Law has not been prepared yet, even though it should have been drafted simultaneously with the State Language Law to secure the needed balance from the outset. The Council of Europe experts call on Ukraine to prepare without any unnecessary delay the Law on Minorities and to consider postponing until adoption of this Law the implementation of the State Language Law provisions which are already in force.

The authorities are invited to revise the State Language Law and to prepare the Law on Minorities in consultation with all interested parties, especially representatives of national minorities and indigenous peoples. The Venice Commission specifically recommends reconsidering the provisions of the Law providing for a differentiated treatment between the languages of indigenous peoples, the languages of national minorities which are official EU languages, and the languages of national minorities which are not official languages of the EU. Any distinction between treatment of those languages should be based on an objective and reasonable justification, which is so far not the case. For instance, the transitional period of implementation of the much-criticised Education Law provisions have been extended from 1 September 2020 to 1 September 2023, but only for students whose native language is an EU language, and not for those with other native languages, including Russian. The Commission recommends prolonging this period for all national minorities and indigenous peoples.

Besides, the authorities should consider repealing the mechanism of complaint and sanctions set forth in the Law or at least to limit it strictly to the public sphere and for the most extreme cases. If the mechanism should be kept, the sanctions provisions should not be enforced until the adoption of the Law on Minorities and the revision of the State Language Law.

The article establishing liability for deliberate distortion of the Ukrainian language in official documents and texts should also be removed. The Venice Commission invites the legislator to lower the quota requirements for the Ukrainian language content imposed by the State Language Law on television and radio broadcasters. In addition, the Commission notes that private parties must be allowed to use a minority language among themselves, including when visible and audible by others in public places; the possibility to distribute electoral campaign materials in languages other than Ukrainian should not be limited to areas of compact residence of minorities;  the Law must provide for clear exceptions for the use of languages other than Ukrainian in emergency situations (e.g. in communication with rescue services such as police, firefighters, hospital staff, etc.); requirements requesting the print media in the minority language to be published simultaneously in Ukrainian on the same day should be repealed; and the provision on all geographical names and toponyms to be solely in Ukrainian as well as  other provisions of the Law should be reconsidered.