The website for critical discussion about migration in Central and Eastern Europe.

Act on the Rights of Members of National Minorities

After ten years, the act fulfills and implements the provisions of Article 25, Paragraph 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees to citizens-members of national and ethnic minorities: a) the right to education in their own language; b) the right to use their language when dealing with government authorities; and c) the right to take part in resolving issues related to national and ethnic minorities.
The act is a clear compendium of legal tools dealing with issues traditionally connected to the existence of national minorities (virtually all provisions have existed within the Czech legal framework before the enactment of this act.)

The act defines a national minority (it is likely that the difference between national and ethnic minorities has been intentionally left out) as “a community of citizens of the Czech Republic living on the territory of the present Czech Republic who usually differ from other citizens by common ethnic origin, language, culture and traditions, make up an arithmetical minority of the population, and at the same time express their will to be regarded as a national minority for the purposes of a common endeavor to protect and develop their uniqueness, language and culture in order to articulate and protect the interests of their community, the origins of which lie in history.” A member of a national minority is defined as “a citizen of the Czech Republic whose declared nationality is other than Czech and who wishes to be considered a member of a national minority together with others who are of the same declared nationality.”

Although this definition limits the subject of national minorities to citizens, there are no clear obstacles to creating new national minorities from the present immigrant communities. The wording specifies “a community the origins of which lie in history” which, however, is a rather vague notion in this respect. The individual provisions of the act also set apart “national minorities who have traditionally and for a long time lived in the territory of the Czech Republic." Only such minorities have certain rights under the act: the right to multilingual names and signs of municipalities, streets, government authorities, etc.; the right to use their language when dealing with government authorities; the right to education in the national minority’s language; and the right to receive subsidies to protect and develop the cultures, traditions and languages of members of national minorities. With the exception of subsidies, however, no implementing regulation makes a distinction between national minorities in the above sense. The formulation may be a safeguard enabling the exclusion in the future of minorities that are currently being formed in the Czech Republic from claiming certain rights that may entail significant costs.

The act guarantees freedom of choice as regards the selection of one’s own national minority, protection of the relevant personal data by government authorities as well as the right to associate in national (civil) organizations and political parties.
The right to take part in resolving issues related to national minorities is exercised either through committees for national minorities or through the Council for National Minorities of the Czech Government. All municipal assemblies are required under the Act on Municipalities to establish a committee for national minorities if at least 10 percent of citizens living in the respective municipal district declare that their nationality is other than Czech (apparently, all the individual minorities are added together to this end). According to the Act on Regions, regional assemblies are also required to establish committees for national minorities if there are at least 5 percent of such citizens living in the respective region. At least one half of the committee’s members must be members of national minorities, whereas precedence is given to people delegated by national associations (i.e. associations bringing together members of a certain national minority). The committee can take initiative and carry out inspections on behalf of the assembly, but its powers are in principle advisory only.

The same rules of composition apply to the Council for National Minorities of the Czech Government which, however, has more specific powers. According to the Council’s current status (approved by the government), there is a fixed number of representatives of the individual minorities (apart from members delegated by government bodies): three representatives of Slovaks, Poles and Roma, two representatives of Germans and one representative each of Bulgarians, Croatians, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Russians, Greeks and Ukrainians. The government is likely to change the number of representatives according to the future development of the share of individual national minorities in the Czech Republic.

The right to use one’s name and surname in the language of a national minority may be exercised under the Act on Registers (No. 301/2000). According to Section 69 of the act, a female surname in a form that is contrary to the Czech grammar may be entered into a registrar’s document and subsequently used only if it is required by an international treaty. This issue is covered by Article 11 of the Framework Convention on Protection of National Minorities (No. 96/1998). Female members of national minorities should therefore have the right to use their surname without the Czech suffix –ová.

The right to have names of municipalities, parts thereof, streets and other public areas as well as signs identifying the seats of government bodies and election rooms in the language of a national minority is guaranteed under Section 29 of the Act on Municipalities provided that during the last census, at least 10 percent of all citizens living in the given municipality declared their membership in the respective national minority and at least 40 percent of all citizens over 18 who declared their membership in the national minority signed a petition to this effect.

The use of foreign languages when dealing with government authorities and in courts of justice is governed by general regulations which essentially do not distinguish between members of national minorities, foreigners and other persons who do not speak Czech. According to Section 18 of the Code of Civil Procedures, all participants in court proceedings have the right to use their mother tongue, whereas the court must arrange for an interpret to be present. According to Section 2, Paragraph 14 of the Penal Code, any person who declares his inability to speak Czech may – in his dealings with the prosecuting bodies – use his mother tongue or other language. Section 33 of the Act on the Constitutional Court also guarantees that any and all persons may use their mother tongue. On the other hand, there are legal provisions (for example Section 3 of the Act on the Administration of Taxes and Fees [No. 337/1992] and Section 46a of the Lottery Act [No. 202/1990]) allowing anyone who does not speak Czech to arrange for an interpreter, but to do so at his own cost, while in the case of members of national minorities, the costs are covered by the respective government authority.

The use of minority languages when dealing with government authorities is closely related to the use of these languages during elections. In municipalities that are required to establish a committee for national minorities, information about elections must be also published in the language of the “respective national minority” (Section 29 of the Act on Elections to Representative Bodies in Municipalities [No. 491/2001], Section 27 of the Act on Regional Elections [No. 130/2000] and Section 15 of the Parliamentary Elections Act [No. 247/1995]). Nonetheless, it is not clear from the wording which minority language is concerned, as all minorities are counted together when deciding whether it is necessary to establish the committee; the 10 percent of citizens belonging to minorities may speak many different languages. In spite of this, there have so far been no problems in this respect.

The right to upbringing and education in national minority language is guaranteed under Section 3 of the Schooling Act (No. 29/1984; it specifies only education) “in a scope appropriate to the interests of [the minority’s] national development”. This right covers all national minorities.

As regards subsidies which the government is legally bound to provide in order to protect the culture, traditions and languages of national minorities, these include subsidies earmarked for cultural activities of members of national minorities, publishing of periodicals and also radio and TV broadcasts in the languages of national minorities. The Act on the Czech Television and the Act on the Czech Radio include a provision stipulating that one of the major goals of public service broadcasting is “the development of cultural identity of the citizens of the Czech Republic including members of national and ethnic minorities”. The rules of subsidies distribution are specified in a government resolution and based on projects presented by national minority associations to the relevant government authority. It is the opinion of the author that the individual amounts distributed reflect the size of the individual national minorities and tend to favor the minorities represented in the Council for National Minorities of the Czech Government as well as the Jewish minority.

As regards the Roma minority, the act contains special provisions charging regional and municipal authorities with extended powers with tasks aimed at “facilitating the exercise of rights of the Roma community and integrating members of the Roma minority into the society”. Because this act concerns only citizens of the Czech Republic, its significance for the area of migration has so far been rather negligible. It is safe to assume, however, that in the future – after large numbers of immigrants obtain Czech citizenship – the act will become an important regulation governing the lives of people of different nationalities in the Czech Republic.

The Act on the Rights of Members of National Minorities entered into force on 10 July 2001 under No. 273/2001.

(Abstract by Pavel Čižinský)
24. 5. 04

For download
...up ▲