Statement of the Hungarian American Coalition on Anti-minority Language Law in Slovakia

The State Language Law amended by the Slovak Parliament on June 30, 2009, is of grave concern to the Hungarian-American community. This extraordinarily restrictive Law devalues and discriminates against Hungarian and other minority language speakers. It establishes the supremacy of Slovak as the “state language;” it makes Slovakia the only EU member country that has imposed sanctions on some of its citizens for speaking their native language. Its restrictions and sanctions against native-language use (with the exception of the Czech language) affect areas of public and private life and target Slovakia’s minority population, which makes up 15 percent of the country’s total population — in particular, the large, 526,000-strong historic Hungarian community.

In passing this law, Slovakia violates international obligations, including the requirement – as set forth in the Bilateral Agreement between Hungary and Slovakia, signed by both nations as a requirement for their acceptance into NATO – to comply with requests for bilateral negotiations. In creating and passing the law, Slovakia has failed to consult with representatives of the Hungarian minority.

In its present form, the Law violates free speech norms, the right to privacy, and basic standards of equality and tolerance. It violates Slovakia’s international obligations as a signer of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. It ignores the May 2009 State Report, in which the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance urged Slovak authorities to take a more robust stance against negative political discourse against ethnic minorities in general, and the Hungarian minority in particular.

Closer examination of the Law reveals the Fico-Meciar-Slota-led coalition government’s intent to discriminate against Slovakia’s minority citizens, curtail their freedom of speech, entrench their inferior status by fostering fear, and increase government control over peoples’ everyday lives. Some provisions of the law include:

  • In hospitals, health-care and social services, the staff may not speak to patients in Hungarian except in towns with at least 20% Hungarian inhabitants;

  • All public announcements, advertisements and signs must be in Slovak and may be followed by a minority-language translation, regardless of the ratio of Slovak-language speakers among the listeners;

  • All public cultural and educational events for minority-language audiences must include a Slovak-language introduction, even if all participants are minority-language speakers;

  • The use of geographical names in minority languages is severely limited;

  • Minority-language schools are required to run their administration and internal documentation in both languages, with a priority given to Slovak;

  • Inscriptions on all monuments and tombstones must first appear in Slovak, followed by the minority language, using the same or smaller letter size, and texts on monuments must be approved in advance by the Ministry of Culture;

  • Official enforcement of the Law will be carried out by a de facto “language police” to be established within the Ministry of Culture, where violations of the State Language Law will be determined and fines of 100-5,000 Euros will be assessed for inappropriate use of minority languages and incorrect use of the Slovak language.

For centuries, a variety of historic ethnic and linguistic communities have lived on the territory of present-day Slovakia. In the 2001 census, ethnic Hungarians constituted 9.7%, the largest national minority in Slovakia. In a democratic nation, their freedom from discrimination should be guaranteed, the preservation of their national identity protected. However, the Slovak State Language Law introduces punitive measures that constitute official discrimination against minority communities, and thereby potentially encourages anti-minority speech and actions by the majority Slovak community. As incidents of ethnically motivated anti-Hungarian violence in the recent past remain unresolved, members of the historic Hungarian community feel increasingly alienated and threatened by the actions of the Slovak government.

As longstanding, strong supporters of the U.S. foreign policy goal to promote stability and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, we call upon American policy makers to urge Slovakian leaders to repeal the discriminatory provisions of the State Language Law and to recreate the law in a form that guarantees genuine equality for minority languages and the state language alike, in conformity with Slovakia’s international obligations.

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