Ukraine: Legislature Adopts Language Law

(May 13, 2019) On April 25, 2019, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s legislature) adopted a law enhancing the role of Ukrainian as a state language. (Proekt Zakonu Pro Zabespechennya Funktsionuvannya Ukrainskoi Movi Yak Derzhavnoi [Law on Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as a State Language], Verkhovna Rada website (scroll down and click “Tekst zakonoproektu do druhoho chytannya 18.02.2019”).) The new Law establishes the legal foundations of state linguistic policy. This Law replaced the 2012 Law on the Principles of State Language Policy, which had been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in February 2018 because “the procedure for the consideration and adoption of the Law established by the Constitution was violated.” (Summary to the Decision of the Grand Chamber of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine No. 2-r/2018 Dated February 28, 2018 in the Case Upon the Constitutional Petition of 57 People’s Deputies on Conformity of the Law of Ukraine “On the Principles of State Language Policy” to the Constitution of Ukraine, Feb. 28, 2018, Constitutional Court of Ukraine website.)

The goal of the new Law is to strengthen the role of the Ukrainian language in state-building, ensuring the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and promoting national security. (Law on Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as a State Language, preamble.) The Law reaffirms the status of the Ukrainian language as the state language, as provided for in the Constitution. (Law on Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as a State Language art. 1(4); CONSTITUTION OF UKRAINE, 1996, art. 10, official Ukrainian Government Portal website.)

According to the Law, the use of Ukrainian is mandatory throughout the entire territory of Ukraine “in the exercise of powers by public authorities and local self-government bodies, as well as in other spheres of public life, as defined by this Law.” (Law on Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as a State Language art. 1(9) (translation by author).) The Law prohibits actions aiming to introduce multilingualism at the official level (granting any other language besides Ukrainian official status) and views these attempts as unconstitutional—identical to actions aimed at forcibly overthrowing constitutional order. (Id. art. 1(6).)

The Law also obligates every citizen of Ukraine to speak the state language. (Id. art. 6(1).) Acquisition of Ukrainian citizenship is subject to presenting certification of Ukrainian language proficiency. (Id. art. 7.) The state provides opportunities for citizens to master Ukrainian through its system of preschool, secondary, vocational, higher, and adult education, as well as through support for informal education aimed at studying the language. (Id. art. 4(2).) The Law mandates the use of Ukrainian by officials and representatives of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, as well as persons working in medical and educational settings. (Id. art. 9.) It also requires that Ukrainian be used in all official bodies, meetings, and legal documents, including those of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. (Id. arts. 12, 13.)

The new Law requires that, from 2023, education must be conducted in Ukrainian. In addition to their Ukrainian language classes, persons belonging to national minorities or indigenous peoples have the right to conduct education in their respective native languages through the formation of classes (grup(s)). (Id. art. 21.) Additionally, certain classes can be conducted in languages other than the state language (for example, English or other official languages of the European Union). (Id.) Works of science, art, and culture are to be presented in the state language, and the print media must use the state language. (Id. arts. 22, 23, 25.) Scientific and cultural events that are not conducted in the state language must be accompanied by translation into the state language. (Id.) This requirement applies to works of cinematography and museum exhibits. (Id. art 23.) Movie theaters have the right to show subtitled foreign-language movies. Such movies, however, should make up no more than 10% of all public film screenings in the country. (Id. art. 23(6).) Broadcasts in the language of the Crimean Tatars or other languages of indigenous people should not exceed 30% of all broadcasts. (Id. art 24(3).) Goods sold in Ukraine (including computer programs) must have descriptive user interfaces in the state language. (Id. art. 26.) At least 50% of all books available for sale in bookstores are to be in the state language. (Id. art 27.)

According to Article 43 of the Law, the National Commission on the Standards of the State Language is the authorized body for setting policies, establishing standards, and overseeing tests and certification in the state language, as well as providing for enforcement legislation. The Law also establishes the position of the Commissioner for the Protection of the State Language. (Id. art. 49.) The Commissioner, who is appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers, must be at least 35 years of age, possess higher education, have full command of both the state language and English, and have had work experience in the field of human rights. (Id. art. 49(4).) The Commissioner for the Protection of the State Language can initiate language inspections aimed at investigating and identifying violations of the Law. (Id. art. 58.) The inspector is to issue mandatory rulings based on the results of the inspection, which can be appealed in court. (Id. art. 59.) Violations of the Law are subject to fines prescribed in the Code of Administrative Violations. (Id. art. 59, sec. VIII, art. 2.1.)

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