Human rights experts have expressed concern over new legislation introduced in Estonia that could potentially eliminate minority language education in the country. This warning was published in a report by UN human rights experts on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website.
The legislation specifically affects Estonia’s Russian-speaking community, as ethnic Russians account for nearly a quarter of the population. The report states that the recent legislative amendments appear to severely restrict education in minority languages by mandating the transition to Estonian-language education for all pre-school and school institutions, including those operating in a minority language or bilingual capacity.
The UN experts argue that this new legislation causes “grave concern” as it introduces “restrictive and potentially discriminatory measures” that impact the rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities in education. Although the law permits limited “language and cultural studies” for minority children whose native language is not Estonian, the experts claim that the minority language has effectively been eliminated as a medium of instruction.
The experts note that Russians constitute a significant portion of the country’s population, and despite protests from parents and children, several Russian-language schools have been closed in recent years. They emphasize that these restrictions on minority language education go against international human rights instruments.
The Estonian parliament adopted this law on December 12, aiming to facilitate a nationwide transition to Estonian-language education. Starting in 2024, all school teachers will be required to possess an advanced level of proficiency in Estonian, while school principals and directors of studies were required to have achieved this level of proficiency by the beginning of this month.
Estonia’s efforts to diminish the use of the Russian language coincide with the government’s support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia and its crackdown on Russian residents in the country. In May, Estonian authorities threatened to arrest and fine individuals displaying symbols or listening to music considered “aggressor” or patriotic to Russia or the Soviet Union. This essentially outlawed the celebration of Victory Day over Nazi Germany. Furthermore, in April, Tallinn banned Russian nationals from entering the country, except those with EU residence permits or family members in Estonia, even if they owned real estate in Estonia.
The UN experts conclude that the measures taken by Estonia to limit minority language education are in violation of international human rights standards. They have engaged with the Estonian government on this issue and continue to monitor the situation closely.
It is important to recognize the significance of protecting the linguistic and cultural rights of minority communities in any country. Language plays a crucial role in identity, education, and social integration. Any policy that hinders or restricts the use of minority languages must be carefully evaluated to ensure that it upholds human rights standards and promotes inclusivity.