New law banning mother-tongue education for minorities in Estonia may violate human rights, UN experts said. Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna (Eesti 200) responded that the transition to Estonian-language education, which is a part of the country's integration policy, should not be linked to ensuring human rights.
UN human rights experts expressed grave concern about new legislation that appears to eliminate minority language education, UN human rights reported on Thursday, August 17.
The UN experts are unpaid, unaffiliated volunteers who report to the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council — the council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanism. The rapporteurs on the topic of transition to Estonian-language education in Estonia were Fernand de Varennes, expert on minority issues; Alexandra Xanthaki, expert in the field of cultural rights; Farida Shaheed, expert on education.
"Recent legislative amendments appear to severely restrict education in Estonia's minority languages by making the transition to Estonian-language education compulsory for all pre-school and school institutions, including those operating in a minority language or bilingual institutions," they said.
The experts concluded that the transition to Estonian-language education may violate the human rights of minorities.
The legislation on transition to Estonian-language education adopted by the Riigikogu on December 12 introduces restrictive and potentially discriminatory measures affecting the rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities, the experts said.
Although the new law permits "language and cultural studies" for minority children whose mother tongue or native language is not Estonian, this provision is only permitted under certain conditions, as part of special classes, and for a short period of time, according to the experts.
"In other words, minority language has been effectively eliminated as a medium of instruction," they said.
They expressed particular concern about how the new provisions could affect members of the Russian linguistic minority, who make up a significant proportion of the country's population.
"By eliminating minority language instruction in pre-schools and schools, the new law severely restricts minority language education in Estonia, in contravention of international human rights instruments," the said.
Response by Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna (Eesti 200) on the UN special rapporteurs' concerns
"Estonia has been preparing for the transition to Estonian-language education in schools for a long time in order to offer all children, irrespective of their native language, the opportunity to acquire quality education in Estonian, create uniform opportunities on the labor market and increase the cohesion of society," Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna said in the ministry's press release August 18.
"There are no grounds for linking the transition to Estonian-language education, which is a part of the integration policy, to ensuring human rights. In Estonia, the opportunities of minorities to study in their native languages and cultural diversity are supported on a broader scale," the press release states.
"We have ratified international human rights conventions and are fulfilling our human rights obligations.
"We will reply to the UN human rights experts concerns in due course."
1st and 4th grades will be the first to switch to Estonian in the 2024/2025 school year
After the transition to Estonian-language instruction, the law stipulates that Estonian will be the only language of instruction in schools and childcare facilities. Kindergartens and school grades 1 and 4 will be the first to transition to Estonian during the 2024/2025 school year.
In the academic years 2024/2025 through 2029/2030, the proportion of another language in the curricula of upper secondary schools and vocational upper secondary schools may reach up to 40 percent of the total volume of required studies.
The school must assure the transition to Estonian-language instruction in the 10th grade no later than the academic year 2030/2031, the 11th grade no later than the academic year 2031/2032, and the 12th grade no later than the academic year 2032/2033. In institutions of vocational education, the modification will apply to students following the curriculum for vocational secondary education.
The new legislation stipulates, similarly to the current law, that if at least 10 pupils with the same mother tongue, which is not Estonian, request language and cultural education, the school must provide it to pupils in basic education.
Editor: Kristina Kersa