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This article was written by Emīlija Branda. Emīlija is a lawyer and a human rights activist from Latvia. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Latvia and is currently a student in the master’s program International Human Rights Law at Lund University.
Modern day states no longer strictly conform to the notion of nation states wherein a state’s population shares a common identity, traditions, and language. In the 21st century with the rise of technological advancements and advanced transportation, migration patterns have significantly transformed. This transformation is particularly evident within the European Union where the freedom of movement allows for seemingly unlimited travel and migration across the Union. Consequently, the state populations have become and are becoming increasingly multicultural. Instead of homogeneity, the state’s population now consists of diverse groups representing different races, ethnicities, each with their own traditions and languages. The presence of multiple diverse groups within a state necessitates a thorough re-evaluation of the existing “social contract”.
Protecting the rights of minority populations within a state is undeniably crucial, encompassing their rights to speak their language, practice traditions and religion. However, in specific contexts, this may raise concerns and a potential threat to the nation state. Consider the example of the Baltic States. After World War II Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were under Soviet occupation until the 1990s, during which the Baltic population endured russification aimed at culturally “assimilating” the groups within the Soviet Union. That, among other things, meant forcing the Russian language onto the nations. Now, after the independence of the three states has been regained, 25% of the Latvian population, 25% of the Estonian population and 5% of the Lithuanian population now consist of a Russian speaking population.
After Soviet rule the relations between Russia and the three Baltic States have been complicated. In the aftermath of threats of Russian aggression and the unlawful invasion of Ukraine, the presence of Russian speaking populations in Baltic States has caused severe internal tensions. This tension is aggravated by the historical sensitivity stemming from the repressive Soviet rule.
For instance, in Latvia the tensions surrounding the presence of a significant Russian speaking population have prompted multiple plans aimed at limiting Russian language education in schools and banning Russian TV stations. These actions have been driven by concerns about the potential spread of Russian disinformation within Latvia and the perceived threat to both – national security and national identity. The government’s intention behind such measures is to safeguard the country’s cultural and linguistic integrity, as well as to address concerns about foreign influence and disinformation campaigns. This is not a novel concern in 2023. Back in 2012 the Latvian Prime Minister called upon Latvian citizens to “express one’s faithfulness to Latvian national identity and constitutional value” by voting against the recognition of Russian as a second official language in a referendum. Consequently, the proclivity of Russian aggression has only further strengthened Latvians in their commitment to preserve their national identity.
However, more recently the actions aimed at limiting Russian language have sparked debates about balancing national security interests with the rights of other communities and the principles of cultural diversity and inclusion. Finding the right balance between preserving and cherishing the national language and upholding the rights of all citizens, including minority groups, remains a complex and ongoing challenge.
For instance, a law aimed at transitioning the language of instruction in school and pre-school institutions to be only in Latvian has gained negative response from the United Nations. The United Nations experts have stated that this restriction is too harsh, severely limits education in minority languages and is contrary to human rights standards. However, in a recent case Valiullina and Others v. Latvia the European Court of Human Rights has clarified that the European Convention of Human Rights guarantees only the right to education in one of the official languages of the country concerned. Nevertheless, the Court assured that the maintenance of a possibility for pupils of minorities to learn their language and preserve their culture and identity were necessary. Despite the ruling, the best approach on balancing these interests remains ambiguous.
The national language serves as a bridge between past generations and as the foundation for a nation’s future. It constitutes an integral dimension of national identity and the essence of the state itself. Language enables us to recognize our shared heritage and collective identity as people, transcending mere words to encompass our thoughts, cultural expressions, and the repository of our collective memory. The interpretations of cultural collective memory and the means through which it is represented plays a crucial part in enabling a social group to construct a self-image by collectively acknowledging its own past. For these reasons, the concept of national identity and the elements thereof have found their place in constitutional laws as the object of collective protection both in law and in spirit.
Therefore, while multiculturalism and the vision of a multicultural state thriving in harmonious coexistence is appealing, it demands cautious examination and scrutiny. This is especially important in regions where the national identity is delicate and particularly vulnerable to external factors either because of the foundations of the state itself or historical reasons. Multiculturalism, at its core, celebrates the diversity of human nature and promotes the idea of peaceful unity sharing traditions, beliefs, languages. It is an admirable aspiration. However, the concept of national identity is deeply intertwined with history; in regions where the wounds of history are fresh or perhaps the “scar is torn” with present events, the need for strengthening national identity can be of the utmost importance for the flourishing of the state, its continuity, and the overall well-being of its population.
In such contexts, international lawyers or observers should abstain from general conclusions. Sensitive contexts ask for an understanding of historical nuances and a dedication to not only protecting the rights of individuals but of the state’s national identity as a whole.
More recently, conversations surrounding national identity have been a recurring theme within the European Union, an entity where a variety of distinct national identities meet. Hence, naturally, the European Court of Justice has faced cases in which the conflict arises between a fundamental domestic norm representing national identity and a primary norm of European Union law. These cases underscore the complex interplay between national identity and supranational governance within the Union. Furthermore, in these decisions a conflict can be found between two obligations of the European Union. Firstly, the obligation to respect national identity. Secondly, the obligation to uphold the core principles of European integration.
In short, the balance between national identity and accommodating cultural diversity is quite delicate, particularly in contexts where national identity is not as “bulletproof”. Collective cultural memory is a central factor that shapes national identity serving as a repository of shared experiences, traditions and historical narratives that allows to form a national self-image fostering national unity. The significance of national identity has formed a crucial component of many countries’ legal frameworks. Nevertheless, discussions on multiculturalism call for a context specific understanding of questions of national identity and balanced, nuanced approach upholding both individual and collective rights.
Assmann, J. Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Cloots E. National Identity in EU Law. Oxford University Press, 2015.