Amnesty's row with Estonia over minorities heats up

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 2 13:19:01 UTC 2007

>>From Monsters and

Europe Features
Amnesty's row with Estonia over minorities heats up

By Ben Nimmo
Mar 1, 2007, 17:53 GMT

Tallinn - A smouldering dispute between Estonia and human-rights group
Amnesty International threatened to reignite Thursday after Amnesty
slammed changes to Estonia's language inspectorate. Almost a third of
Estonia's 1.35 million inhabitants are ethnic Russians, but the state's
only official language is Estonian. The inspectorate's job is to maintain
the national language's status. A range of foreign observers, from western
human-rights groups to Estonia's old colonial master Russia, have
criticized the policy, saying that it breaches international human-rights

'Estonia: language police get more powers to harass,' a headline on
Amnesty's website proclaimed on Tuesday, before quoting the organization's
secretary general Irene Khan as calling the inspectorate 'repressive and
punitive in nature.' The comments coincide with legal amendments to the
inspectorate's status, which came into force on Thursday. According to
Amnesty, the amendments extend the inspectorate's powers, allowing it to
revoke the language certificates of those who fail a state language exam.
But officials at the inspectorate dismissed the claims, saying that the
amendments simply change the organization's legal status.

'The amendments don't make a difference to our work. What they mean is
that while we worked under a government regulation before, we're now
regulated by law,' inspectorate spokeswoman Hele Parn told Deutsche
Presse-Agentur dpa. 'We can't revoke certificates, because only the
qualification centres are allowed to do that,' she added. Amnesty
representatives, however, insist that their concerns are valid and should
be addressed.

The amendments 'change the legal basis from secondary law to primary law,
making it harder for individuals to challenge the practices of the
Language Inspectorate in court,' said Anders Dahlbeck, an Amnesty
researcher specializing in EU states. The changes 'do in effect have a
negative effect on persons who are not Estonian native-speakers, and this
is the reason why Amnesty International has spoken out against (them),' he
added. At the same time, Dahlbeck praised Estonian efforts to improve
communication with the authorities in areas with a large minority
population - another innovation brought in on Thursday.

Estonia was occupied by the USSR from 1940 to 1991. During that time,
hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians entered the country, and many did
not learn Estonian. When Estonia declared the renewal of independence in
1991, it decided to only grant automatic citizenship to those families
which had been citizens before 1940. All other residents could achieve
citizenship by passing exams in Estonian language and history. Since the
policy was introduced, more than half the people who became non-citizens
in 1991 have naturalized. However, the issue is still sensitive, both
locally and internationally. In December 2006, Amnesty issued a report
accusing Estonia of discrimination. Estonian officials and some outside
observers slammed the report as biased and unprofessional.

'It is a bad piece of work, ahistorical and unbalanced. It echoes Kremlin
propaganda in a way that Estonians find sinister and offensive,' wrote
Edward Lucas, the Economist's regional expert. In February, however, nine
Tallinn taxi-drivers were reportedly fired on the inspectorate's
recommendation for their insufficient grasp of Estonian - a case
highlighted in Amnesty's letter. 'I lost my job thanks to the Language
Inspectorate... How am I going to live? Isn't this discrimination?' the
organization's website quoted an email from a Tallinn taxi driver as

 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur


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