The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities of 1995 entered into force on 1 February 1998.
Although not the only instrument to be developed within the Council of Europe relevant to the protection of national minorities, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is certainly the most comprehensive document in this area. Indeed, it is the first ever legally binding multilateral instrument devoted to the protection of national minorities in general.
The Framework Convention sets out principles to be respected as well as goals to be achieved by the Contracting Parties, in order to ensure the protection of persons belonging to national minorities, whilst fully respecting the principles of territorial integrity and political independence of States. The principles contained in the Framework Convention have to be implemented through national legislation and appropriate governmental policies. It is also envisaged that these provisions can be implemented through bilateral and multilateral treaties.
The main operative part of the Framework Convention is section II, containing specific principles on a wide range of issues, inter alia :
- promotion of effective equality;
- promotion of the conditions regarding the preservation and development of the culture and preservation of religion, language and traditions;
- freedoms of assembly, association, expression, thought, conscience and religion;
- access to and use of media;
- linguistic freedoms:
- use of the minority language in private and in public as well as its use before administrative authorities;
- use of one's own name;
- display of information of a private nature;
- topographical names in the minority language;
- learning of and instruction in the minority language;
- freedom to set up educational institutions;
- transfrontier contacts;
- international and transfrontier co-operation;
- participation in economic, cultural and social life;
- participation in public life;
- prohibition of forced assimilation.
The monitoring mechanism of the Framework Convention is based on Articles 24 - 26 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and on the Committee of Ministers' Resolution (97) 10 as well as other relevant decisions. The evaluation of the adequacy of the implementation of the Framework Convention by the Parties is to be carried out by the Committee of Ministers, which is assisted by the Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee is composed of 18 independent and impartial experts appointed by the Committee of Ministers.
The States Parties are required to submit a report containing full information on legislative and other measures taken to give effect to the principles of the Framework Convention within one year of the entry into force. These state reports are made public and examined by the Advisory Committee, which is to prepare an Opinion on the measures taken by each reporting State. Having received the Opinion of the Advisory Committee and the comment from the respective State, the Committee of Ministers is called on to adopt conclusions and, where appropriate, recommendations in respect of the State Party concerned.
As a rule, the opinions of the Advisory Committee shall be made public at the same time as the conclusions and recommendations of the Committee of Ministers together with any comments the Contracting Party may have submitted in respect of the opinion delivered by the Advisory Committee. States may make the opinions of the Advisory Committee and the comments of the States concerned public at an earlier date.
With respect to various working methods designed over the first years of its operation, perhaps the most important step was the introduction of country-visits by the relevant working groups of the Advisory Committee as a customary element of the monitoring procedure.
The Advisory Committee is pleased to note that most of the countries concerned welcome the Opinions of the Advisory Committee and provide constructive comments on them, in many cases indicating that the Opinion has already prompted increased action to address specific shortcomings in the implementation of the Framework Convention. The Opinions appear to have stimulated fresh rounds of interdepartmental discussions within governments and in some cases they have prompted an immediate dialogue with national minorities on the issues raised.
In all resolutions adopted so far on the implementation of the Framework Convention the Committee of Ministers has asked the country concerned to “continue the dialogue in progress” with the Advisory Committee and to keep the Advisory Committee regularly informed of the measures taken in response to the conclusions and recommendations of the Committee of Ministers.
In particular, a number of State Parties have taken the initiative to organise, in co-operation with the Council of Europe, so-called “follow-up seminars”, bringing together governmental representatives, experts from the national administration, representatives from the civil society, as well as members of the Advisory Committee, to discuss the implementation of the first results of the monitoring of the Framework Convention in the country concerned.
In order to mark the 5th anniversary of its entry into force, the Council of Europe organised a conference in Strasbourg on 30 and 31 October 2003, which brought together a large number of representatives of governments, civil society, minorities as well as eminent experts in the field of minorities.
The second cycle of monitoring under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities actively commenced with the submission of the second State Reports in respect of Liechtenstein on 25 March 2004 and Croatia on 13 April 2004. The first opinions adopted on 01 October 2004 by the Advisory Committee under the second cycle of monitoring concerned Croatia and Liechtenstein.
A range of activities pertaining to the protection of national minorities are being implemented in the framework of the Council of Europe co-operation and assistance programmes: the Secretariat organises information meetings to give detailed information on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (and other Council of Europe legal instruments) and encourage the process of its signature and ratification or, for those States already party, to discuss in more detail domestic developments and implementation of the Framework Convention. These meetings are directed to parliamentarians, government officials and representatives of national minorities. Legislative expertise in several member and applicant states on questions relating to the protection of national minorities are also carried out by Council of Europe experts. Finally, with a view to increase the effectiveness of the supervisory mechanism of the Framework Convention, training seminars on the drafting of state reports are also organised.
Issues of particular importance for national minorities are also discussed in an intergovernmental meeting bringing together representatives of government offices for national minorities or persons responsible for minority issues within the governmental structure. Most recently, the focus of these meetings has been increasingly linked to the discussion of the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, opening a space for dialogue among all those involved in this process.
Building on the assistance and co-operation activities as well as the Joint Programmes with the European Commission, three projects were implemented under the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe concerning national minorities and were concluded at the end of 2003.
These projects included a non-discrimination review aimed at identifying discriminatory provisions in the legislation, policies and practices of the countries of the region and recommending action to bring legislation and practice into line with European standards. There was also a project concerning acceptance and implementation of existing standards. This project was geared towards encouraging the countries in the region to sign and ratify all relevant international standards and also ensures that these standards are fully implemented in practice at national level and local level. Finally there was a project concerning bilateral co-operation agreements aimed at reinforcing and developing bilateral co-operation in the field of minorities in a way that is consistent and co-ordinated with existing multilateral standards, and in particular those of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.