Address by Tytti ISOHOOKANA-ASUNMAA,
member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,
member of Parliament of Finland
One of the main tasks of the Council of Europe consisting of more than forty member countries is to further in its new member states democratic safety i.e. human rights and a versatile democracy including many different values. The Council supervises the realization of member criteria and the ability of states to conform with member obligations e.g. with the aid of monitoring. On the follow up list are for instance minority issues. Many minorities are with greater probability than others subjected to breaches of human rights and discrimination. In the prevention of conflicts the improvement of the position of minorities is of great importance, because a considerable part, especially of the local and regional conflicts, originate in ethnic disagreements and oppression of a minority.
Furthering of minority rights on international forums is a challenging task, because not all governments want to acknowledge the existence of minorities or the rights of the minorities. An example of this are the Finno-Ugric Csangos, who live in Rumania on the slopes of the Eastern Carpates. Discrimination manifests itself in their life in many practical things e.g. beginning with population census. They have also been refused the right to education in their own language. Indigenous peoples can be in the same position as minorities.
In the Council of Europe several agreements protecting the rights of the minorities, regional and minority languages and cultures have been approved, which the member states have ratified unevenly. An important agreement is the European Chart on regional languages or minority languages signed in 1992. This agreement aims especially at the fortification of the position of minority languages. The Chart recognizes the minority languages as being part of the European cultural heritage and strives to further their position among the main European languages. The aim is to protect small minority languages on the verge of disappearing, which the citizens of the signatory states traditionally use in their states. In Russia there are for instance several such languages.
Another important agreement was concluded in 1995 and it deals with the protection of national minorities. In this agreement the principles are defined, which oblige the signatory states to protect national minorities within their territory. The signatory states commit themselves to support the maintenance and development of minority cultures.
In addition to the agreements attention can be paid in the Council in different ways to the actions of the governments of the member states or rather their lack of action in the improvement of the position of minority languages and cultures. One of the most applied methods of action is to authorize one of the members of the parliamentary general assembly of the Council to put together a memorandum based on expert opinions as a basis for discussion of a certain issue. I have myself compiled a memorandum among others aiming at the improvement of the position of the Finno-Ugric peoples living in Russia, who are in an endangered position, and to make it easier for young people belonging to national minorities to gain access to university education. At present I am writing a report to the general assembly on the Csango people, whom I mentioned earlier.
The main message of the said agreements and reports is that linguistic and cultural versatility is an extremely important factor from the point of view of the European cultural heritage and its future. It is a feature, which enriches Europe, and which we want to protect. The European map of nationalities is like a beautiful mosaic. In spite of their efforts, the imperialists, nationalists and advocates of social realism have not been able to destroy it. It is wise that the new Europe allows for cultures to live and continue to develop. When difference is considered a value, the Finno-Ugric peoples as well have their possibility in the Europe of the future.
The same ideology has been written down in the recently approved document on basic rights of the European Union. One of the articles of this document states the following: the union respects cultural, religious and linguistic versatility. Realization of these factors in the every day life of citizens is one of the conditions for maintaining peace.
Thus European integration does not weaken the position of small languages. With the Finnish language the case has for instance been the opposite. The union membership has elevated its position and the interest toward a language, which differs from all the other official languages of the union, has clearly grown. When the union some years from now will expand, the amount of Finno-Ugric languages will increase as well. Thus the Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian languages do not for the time being need to carry on a defensive battle in the union. On the other hand, in those countries where these languages are minority languages, the situation is different. Due to their strength, the three above mentioned states are obliged to help and support in every way possible the development of the language and culture of their language relatives.
The Council of Europe and the European Union work at present together in favour of cultural versatility. A recent example of this is the common theme for next year.
The Council of Europe has together with the European Union and UNESCO designated the coming year as the European language year. With this theme year they wish to remind of the linguistic versatility of the continent as well as to further learning of languages. This campaign is an open invitation to get acquainted with new languages and to meet new cultures.
The language year is meant to wake up the general public to notice the necessity of language studies. The slogan of the language year is simply as follows: language studies open doors and everybody can do it. Everyone can leam new languages, it is never too late to start. Learning is a life long process.
The Commission of the European Union is at present preparing a long-term programme in support of European regional and minority languages and cultures. For this purpose 2,5 million euros have been allocated, with the aim of promoting the preservation of more than 40 minority languages spoken with the territory of the EU.
But no language has a future, if it is not used in the home, the schools, public administration and media. Understanding, thinking, remembering, expressing oneself, experiencing - all of this is connected with the language, a person grows up with. All of ones life is connected with the mind of the language. Therefore realization in practice of the point of view that only by merging into the main population can a minority or indigenous population be able to influence its own matters, would for the minority be a shocking suicide. Therefore intervening in the position of a language is the most important action in preventing a culture from being destroyed. On the agenda of the power-holders securing of the position of small, endangered languages should be considered as important as prevention of an ecological catastrophe or promotion of disarmament.
We know that languages die just as plants disappear from the surface of the earth. In Western Europe Uralic languages have at some time been spoken from the Atlantic to Siberia. The history of development of languages is fascinating. The theories on the origin of Finno-Ugric languages render our languages an exotic element, which I hope will increase our self-esteem. We can succeed alongside the big languages and cultures stronger than ours only by following our own path as we move ahead. The past and our memory has to be connected with the future and technology. This may save many indigenous peoples from final annihilation. We also have to understand and realize that the right to the mother tongue is everyone's basic right. It is a human right we have to fight for. Those who fight are protected by numerous international agreements.
But how can we get people to realize their rights? Recently I read a UNDP report
on the Ukraine. According to the report only some 65 % of the Ukrainians were
aware of the fact that the constitution guarantees Ukrainian citizens the right
to teach and to learn in their mother tongue. There is among others a large
Hungarian minority in the Ukraine.
Citizens need explicit information on international achievements, the contents of agreements and the obligations contained in them. They need information about their rights, which they should demand of the decision-makers and governments. Let this Congress become one of the means for passing on information even to the most remote Finno-Ugric villages.
Dear participants and guests of the Congress!
The strength of small peoples is in the end in their individual culture. It has to be sufficiently distinctive in order to offer protection against direct efforts of conquest from the outside, in order to oblige its citizens to mutual relations and in order to secure passing on of their own national values to the next generation. The strength of small peoples is also in their past, the feelings of joy and sorrow that they have felt, the victories and losses, which they have experienced, in order for the inseparable unity of fates to be born. The strength of small peoples is in the common language. If the language disappears, with it disappears all that is own, inherited, lived, experienced, finally and for ever.
Source: III World Congress of the Finno-Ugrian Peoples. Helsinki, 2000 [Joshkar-Ola,2001], pp 18–21.