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Ref. DC 183(2017)

Ukrainian Education Law: sufficient minority language teaching needs to be maintained, and unequal treatment of non-EU languages problematic, says Venice Commission

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Strasbourg/Venice, 08.12.2017 – The Council of Europe’s body of constitutional law experts, the Venice Commission, adopted today its Opinion on the provisions of the new Ukrainian Law on Education related to teaching in state language, minority and other languages.

It is a legitimate and commendable aim for states to promote the strengthening of the state language and its command by all, as a way to address existing inequalities and to facilitate more effective social integration of persons belonging to national minorities, the Venice Commission said.  However, the strong domestic and international criticism drawn especially by the provisions reducing the scope of education in minority languages seems justified, due to various reasons.

The relevant Article 7 of the Law, as adopted, is quite different from the draft on which minorities were consulted; it contains important ambiguities and does not appear to provide the needed guidance on the application of the country’s international and constitutional obligations. The exact scope of the guarantees for education in the minority languages, mainly limited to primary education, is not clear.

As it stands, the legislation “allows to radically change the previous language regime towards a system focused on the mandatory use of the Ukrainian language as the language of education”. This could result in far less opportunities available to persons belonging to national minorities to be taught in their own languages. In addition, the short deadline for the implementation of the new rules raises serious concerns about the quality of education.

On the other hand, because Article 7 as a framework provision does not specify the modalities of its implementation, there is space for an interpretation and application which are more in line with the protection of national minorities. The Venice Commission welcomes the readiness of the Ukrainian authorities to use such possibilities; for instance, through teaching in primary schools of most subjects in minority languages in specific classes for national minorities.

As for secondary education, there is also room for some flexibility: the current Education Law is a framework law, and a forthcoming Law on General Secondary Education, still to be adopted, could provide for more detailed and balanced solutions and address many of the immediate concerns. Besides, Article 7 provides a legal basis for the teaching of other subjects in the EU official languages, such as Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian and Polish; it seems to be the intention of the Ukrainian authorities to make use of the possibilities offered by this provision.

However, the new Law provides no solutions for languages which are not official languages of the EU, in particular the Russian language, as the most widely used non-state language. The less favourable treatment of these languages is difficult to justify and therefore raises issues of discrimination. The appropriate solution would be to amend Article 7 and replace this provision with a more balanced one.

The Venice Commission recommends ensuring a sufficient level of teaching in official languages of the European Union for the respective minorities;  continuing to ensure a sufficient proportion of education in minority languages at the primary  and secondary levels, in addition to teaching of the state language; improving the quality of teaching of Ukrainian as the state language; amending the Education Law to provide more time for a gradual reform; exempting private schools from the new language requirements; entering, during the implementation of the Law, into a new dialogue with all the stakeholders, and, finally, ensuring that the implementation of the Law does not endanger the preservation of the minorities’ cultural heritage and the continuity of minority language education in traditional schools.

The Venice Commission has assessed the new Law in the light of the European and international commitments undertaken by Ukraine, including under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages. While making some references to the Ukrainian Constitution, it stressed that it belongs to the Constitutional Court of Ukraine to take a stand on the matter.

The full text of the as adopted opinion will be made available on the Venice Commission website on Monday 11 December.

Contact: Tatiana Baeva, Spokesperson/Media officer, Tel. +33 6 85 11 64 93