|Vilmos Ágoston - AUTONOMY - Challenge and/or Solution|
In Bulgaria, one of the biggest minority groups is the Gypsies. The Turkish national minority has its political background in Bulgaria. They have their own political party, which has almost ten percent of the seats in Parliament and supports the government. In Bulgaria there are several political organizations of the Gypsies as well. Two of them, the Gypsy Alliance of Bulgaria and the Confederation of Gypsies in Bulgaria are quite important. They have an advisory council with five members which consults the government on matters concerning the Gypsy community. Thy Gypsies - just as in all the other countries in East-Central Europe - live in appalling poverty in Bulgaria. Unemployment rates are very high all over the country, but the Gypsies are exceptionally hard-hit by it to a large extent because of the low level of their education.
As far as cultural autonomy is concerned, the Bulgarian government does not take it very seriously and does not do too much in this respect.
I have to tell you, basically I am not a theorist and an expert in the general fields of international law, but rather a kind of executive as a managing secretary of a committee might be, dealing with the matters of local and regional governments, and as such, my special field is autonomy, which we have heard so much about here at this conference.
The Council of Europe has already had a European Charter on local autonomies. This agreement was adopted and signed by Hungary and other four nations in 1985, and - even more important - it has been ratified by seventeen European nations since then. According to the agreement "local autonomy means the right and the actual possibilities for a local community to take responsibility and manage and control most of the public issues within a certain legal framework at a local level, pursuing the interests of the local population".
Act 4 of the same Charter makes another important statement, which is very topical all over Europe again, namely the principle of subsidiarity. The Charter says the following about it: "As a rule, matters of public interests must be decided on at a level of administration most available to the citizens", which means first at local, then regional, and finally at state and European level. The Charter goes on saying that "devolution of these tasks to other administrative authorities fully depends on the nature of the issue and might be possible for economic and other reasons of efficiency."
There are tasks, of course, that cannot be solved at local level. There is a third part of the charter that may be important for us. It speaks about the defence of the community's territorial borders. Act 5 imposes on local authorities - and mutatis mutandis it applies to regional authorities as well - that in the case of any wish to change the borders they should consult in advance the local communities involved and they can decide on the matter only with the consent of the local community (as a result of a referendum, if the law makes it possible, for example). These questions are of vital importance, but minorities might be more interested in the problems of what we call in Strasbourg "regionalism" or regional autonomy, because their problems are usually raised at that level.
There was a conference in 1978, with a lot of participants representing different regions of Western Europe where we tried to give a definition of regional autonomy. When we speak about regional autonomy we always mean decentralization and devolution of central state authorities but within the framework of the status quo. The 1978 Declaration of Bordeaux, prescribed regional autonomy in the field of culture - and, what was especially important for each minority community, in the field of education. The Declaration demanded proper laws, fixed regulations and general standards concerning education, research and culture. It also demanded that regions should be vested with the right to make cultural agreements directly with other European regions and gave voice to a wish to establish regional medias. It emphasized the importance of the variety of cultures and languages and claimed for equal rights to all regional minorities. Regional autonomy is the best means to accept and assert the great variety of cultures, ethnicities and languages. After 1978, we tried to work in the spirit of the Declaration and based on the results of this conference we organized another one in 1984, this time on the problems of minority languages and invited the representative of both the regions and the minorities. It was at this conference in Strasbourg that the thought of a Charter concerning regional minority languages was conceived. It was the duty of our committee to prepare the Charter with the help of an elected consultative body and some independent experts. Later, when the proposal got some support from the Parliament, which was very important from a political point of view, after some reservations the Board of Ministers adopted the text and appointed a government committee to examine the proposal. Finally, a couple of years later the Charter was adopted in June 1992, and was signed in November 1992. The Charter asserted specifically cultural aims. Its main object was to support the development and assure the defence of regional minority languages, especially of those in danger and which organically belong to a coherent system of European cultural values. I think especially of languages that are separated. The Charter gives clear instructions regarding these languages considering it illegal to discriminate against them. But it goes much farther and urges the governments to give active and efficient help to support these languages and their speakers and demands that regional minority languages should be used in education as far as possible - there is a whole chapter about this problem - in the media, in administration and justice, especially at local levels, as well as in the fields of economic, cultural and social life. The authors of the Charter, and basically also the governments that signed it, all agreed that these languages - at least in some cases - had to be compensated somehow for the discrimination imposed on them in the past, so they wanted to make efforts and give active help to these languages to survive or revive. The Charter's main concern was to preserve these cultures and languages, but it was also worried about the speakers' circumstances and tried to make all the important aspects of their life easier. At the same time, the principles incorporated in the Charter cannot be reckoned legally of course. Nevertheless, it is a kind of obligation for the signers to provide regional minority languages the status declared in the Charter and make laws supporting this process.
It is important to see that the principles of the agreement were worked out before the crucial changes in East-Central Europe, so the new realities and the newly sprung claims and demands of these countries could not be taken into account in these proposals. But by the time the agreement got in front of the Board of Ministers, some of the representatives of these new regimes - for example the representative of Hungary, among others - had been adopted by this board and took a very active part in working out the final version of the principles. Nevertheless, I have to admit that this agreement does not deal with the defence of the national minorities whose natural right would be to fight for a kind of autonomy and it does not concern itself with the problem of borders either. The only thing it can do is to alleviate the tensions within the framework of the status quo, it cannot claim to be more than a basis for new agreements. The proposal makes it possible for governments to give voice to some of their reservations in connection with certain acts. Hungary has already signed the agreement and Romania has just been adopted as a member of the Council of Europe and is bound to consult the text and the principles of the agreement. Although, the principles laid down in the agreement cannot be enforced by law, I still believe it can serve as a useful basis for a dialogue between the government and the minorities and helps to make it clear how much the government can take these principles on board and how far it is ready to go. At present, we have thirteen states that have signed the agreement, and Hungary is the only country from the East-Central European region which has joined. But the ratification of the agreement is still ahead of us; it has not happened anywhere yet.
Let me continue with some plans that might be more interesting for the minorities because they deal with their problems in a more direct way. In 1990, not long after the crucial changes in East-Central Europe, The European Parliament adopted the first and later, in 1993, the second version of its Proposals. It actually suggests that an amendment should be attached to the European Agreement on the Defence of Human Rights, which means that our proposal should be fitted somehow into that set of individual (not collective!) human rights whose defence is clearly laid down in this agreement and whose compliance can be reckoned by the force of law. As early as February 1991, another organization, called the European Committee of Rights for Democracy, which is a consultative committee and has numerous prominent advisors and experts on constitutional matters as members, also made a proposal for a European agreement on the defence of minority rights. The text of this proposal is still on the table of the governments, at least in Strasbourg. This proposal encompasses not only the individual but also the collective rights of minorities, such as the right to exist and be respected and the right to develop and defend their ethnic, religious and linguistic identities - to mention only the most important ones. The proposal declares that every linguistic community has the right to associate with other linguistic communities, any member of a minority religion has the right to teach and pursue his or her religious beliefs either as an individual or as a member of a community, either privately or publicly. The agreement proposal of the so-called Venice Committee, has worked out a very complicated system of control, which in many respects is very similar to the mechanisms worked out by the European Convent of Human Rights, but according to this proposal, complaints would not be handed in as individual complaints but by groups representing the individual's interests.
We also have to mention some resolutions, for example the ones adopted by the Conference of European Local and Regional Self-governments of Europe in March 1992, which dealt with the problems of minority autonomies, nationalism and the possibilities of a Union of Europe. The document states that in the defence of certain ethnic identities the constitution of some states should be amended to give scope to the defence of minority rights so that these rights might be defended by the force of law.
The Committee urges decentralization of powers and demands an extensive devolution of central authorities to regional and local authorities. At the same time it urges the recognition and the defence of local and regional identities and claims for the right of minorities to take an active part in matters of public interest.
On October 8-9, 1993, the Council of Europe held a a summit meeting in Vienna with the participation of the state and government leaders of the member countries. At this meeting minority issues were often on the agenda and stirred much debate. I would like to quote some parts of the Declaration, which was signed by the state and government leaders of the 32 member countries, among others Meciar, Iliescu and the Hungarian Foreign Minister, who signed the Declaration in the name of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr. Antall, who could not take part in the meeting because of his illness. The participating heads of state and Prime Ministers signed an agreement in which they took legal and political responsibility for the observation of minority rights in different European countries, and they commissioned the Board of Ministers of the Council of Europe to work out the appropriate legal means.
Amendment 2 of the Declaration deals with the minority issue. There are several statements in the Declaration which strongly emphasize the fact that without assuring and defending minority rights in the region we can hardly live in peace and stability in the long run. There are two other principles that can never be violated according to the Declaration, namely those of the constitutional state and territorial integrity. These principles are self-explanatory, or at least they should be. The Declaration also demands that all minority groups should have the right to use their own language and pursue their own cultural traditions and religious beliefs. The Amendment emphasizes the importance of bilateral meetings and agreements, as well as the defence of minority rights and the preservation and maintenance of peace and stability in the region. All the European political leaders agreed that the Council of Europe should do the best in its power to translate these political responsibilities into political obligations that can be guaranteed by the force of law.
All the agreements mentioned above have dealt with local or regional autonomies, which remain within the framework of the status quo and never had any mention about separatism or secession. It is quite evident as well, that autonomy is not a general term in itself, and it always means a concrete form of autonomy.
Let's start with an agreement already in force, namely the Charter of Regional and Minority Languages. It this case it is quite clear that we are speaking about territorial languages, that is languages whose use can be exactly defined geographically. That is why the agreement is about "territories" where these regional or minority languages are used, by which it means not only the territory where these languages are in a dominant or majority position, but also territories where for different historical reasons these languages have become minority languages, sometimes even in regions where they used to be in a central and dominant position. The fact that the most part of the agreement deals with these territorial languages shows it very clearly that the application of these minority rights and principles really needs geographical considerations and on the side of the government. For example, when you are talking about the use of a language within a certain local or regional community, it is quite evident that you do not want to extend it to the whole territory of the country and you have to be exact and define the region where the given community is sufficiently numerous and concentrated (it does not mean it has to be in majority of course) to demand this right. There is another act of the Declaration which deals with non-territorial languages, such as the language of the Gypsies or the Jews among others. But it does not concern the essence of the agreement. Naturally, the agreement uses the term "territorial" in a relatively flexible way, since the only thing it ordains is that at the moment of ratification every state is to define exactly which territories it takes upon itself to observe minority rights in. There is another act of the agreement which declares that territories where these regional or minority languages are spoken cannot be discriminated against and all their rights must be respected. According to the agreement it would be desirable to find some correspondence between the language and the administrative units, which would make it much easier to manage and control these territories and their problems. This principle cannot be followed in all cases of course. Sometimes minority communities are extremely scattered and interspersed. But besides language aspects, there are other criteria according to which the administrative division of a country can be made, for example the borders of a settlement, etc. Thus, the agreement does not claim that it is a must that regional or minority language territories and local or regional administrative territories always correspond, but it condemns all administrative measures (for example dividing a language community by attaching them to two different administrative units) that aim at making it more difficult for a minority community to use its native language and assert its own culture and identity. In other words, if in certain cases the administrative-territorial division cannot correspond to the regional-minority language division, it should remain neutral, at least, and should not have a negative impact on the language.
The proposal of the Venice Committee mentioned above is quite exact about this problem. In Act 13 we can read the following: "All states herewith undertake that they restrain themselves from taking or encouraging measures that aim at assimilating different minority communities or changing the ratio of these communities on purpose."
Act 14 says the following: "All states undertake to help and support minority communities to take an active part in public affairs, especially in matters and decisions concerning their own areas."
In Act 11 of the Amendment of the Declaration of the European Parliament, we can read the following: "In regions where certain minority communities are larger in number than the majority community, they are entitled to establish their own local or autonomous administration or obtain a special status according to special local or historical circumstances and in accordance with the national law of the country."
The Council of Europe has an agreement adopted on the status of minority languages; there are two proposals in the pipeline: one of them is a kind of guide-line agreement on minority issues and the other is an effort to fit our principles into that set of individual rights that are laid down in the amendment of the Declaration and are guaranteed by the mechanisms stipulated and controlled by the Human Rights Committee. Besides that, the Council of Europe has been commissioned to give legal and technical help in bilateral agreements between states or regional communities.
|Vilmos Ágoston - AUTONOMY - Challenge and/or Solution|