Efforts by authorities in Latvia to make Latvian the only language used in schools discriminate against other ethnic groups in the country, which is home to a large number of Russian speakers, UN experts said on Wednesday.
Last September, Riga adopted a law that aims to make Latvian the only language used in the country’s schools by September 2025, starting with preschool and certain elementary level classes.
“The Government of Latvia has an obligation under international law and regional instruments to protect the language rights of the country’s minority communities without discrimination”.
“Latvian authorities must clarify the strict restrictions on minority language education that amount to its virtual eradication, and the consultation process with the respective minority communities,” they added.
In its reply to the UN, the Latvian government said the new bill did not break international law, arguing that countries were free to choose “the most appropriate measures to ensure appropriate and effective protection” of minority rights.
“Latvia has acted in good faith by gradually increasing the proportion of the Latvian language as the language of instruction in education and setting a sufficient transition period to implement the amendments,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevich wrote.
Although it will no longer be possible to follow a bilingual curriculum taught in Latvian and other languages, “children and students will have the right to study minority languages and cultural history (in minority languages),” Rinkevich added.
Latvia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is home to several thousand Russian speakers, who make up about a quarter of the country’s 1.8 million inhabitants.
While the country was under Soviet rule, the communist authorities enacted a policy of “Russification”, establishing Russian as the main institutional language and creating Russian-language schools.
According to the Latvian authorities, the new education bill is part of a broader de-racialization effort to “affirm, maintain and develop the Latvian language as the official state language and common language in society”.
Like the other two Baltic countries, the Latvian government has taken a strong stance against Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine, with measures ranging from tearing down Soviet-era war monuments to expelling some Russian diplomats.