The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) is a European treaty (CETS 148) adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe. The preparation for the charter was undertaken by the predecessor to the current Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe because involvement of local and regional government was essential. The actual charter was written in the Parliamentary Assembly based on the Congress' Recommendations. It only applies to languages traditionally used by the nationals of the State Parties (thus excluding languages used by recent immigrants from other states, see immigrant languages), which significantly differ from the majority or official language (thus excluding what the state party wishes to consider as mere local dialects of the official or majority language) and that either have a territorial basis (and are therefore traditionally spoken by populations of regions or areas within the State) or are used by linguistic minorities within the State as a whole (thereby including such languages as Yiddish, Romani and Lemko, which are used over a wide geographic area).
Some states, such as Ukraine and Sweden, have tied the status of minority language to the recognized national minorities, which are defined by ethnic, cultural and/or religious criteria, thereby circumventing the Charter's notion of linguistic minority.
Languages that are official within regions, provinces or federal units within a State (for example Catalan in Spain) are not classified as official languages of the State and may therefore benefit from the Charter. On the other hand, Ireland has not been able to sign the Charter on behalf of the Irish language (although a minority language) as it is defined as the first official language of the state. The United Kingdom has ratified the Charter in respect to (among other languages) Welsh in Wales and Irish in Northern Ireland. France, although a signatory, has been constitutionally blocked from ratifying the Charter in respect to the languages of France.
The charter provides a large number of different actions state parties can take to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages. There are two levels of protection—all signatories must apply the lower level of protection to qualifying languages. Signatories may further declare that a qualifying language or languages will benefit from the higher level of protection, which lists a range of actions from which states must agree to undertake at least 35.
Countries can ratify the charter in respect of its minority languages based on Part II or Part III of the charter, which contain varying principles. Countries can treat languages differently under the charter, for example, in the United Kingdom, the Welsh language is ratified under the general Part II principles as well as the more specific Part III commitments, while the Cornish language is ratified only under Part II.
Part II of the Charter details eight main principles and objectives upon which States must base their policies and legislation. They are seen as a framework for the preservation of the languages concerned.
- Recognition of regional or minority languages as an expression of cultural wealth.
- Respect for the geographical area of each regional or minority language.
- The need for resolute action to promote such languages.
- The facilitation and/or encouragement of the use of such languages, in speech and writing, in public and private life.
- The provision of appropriate forms and means for the teaching and study of such languages at all appropriate stages.
- The promotion of relevant transnational exchanges.
- The prohibition of all forms of unjustified distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference relating to the use of a regional or minority language and intended to discourage or endanger its maintenance or development.
- The promotion by states of mutual understanding between all the country’s linguistic groups.
Part III details comprehensive rules across a number of sectors, that states agree to abide by. Each language to which Part III of the Charter is applied must be specifically named by the government. States must select at least thirty-five of the undertakings in respect of each language. Many provisions contain several options, of varying degrees of stringency, one of which has to be chosen “according to the situation of each language”. The areas from which these specific undertakings must be chosen are as follows:
- Judicial authorities
- Administrative authorities and public services
- Cultural activities and facilities
- Economic and social life
- Transfrontier exchanges
Languages protected under the Charter
Countries that have ratified the Charter, and languages for which the ratification was made:
Armenia ratification: 25 January 2002
Austria ratification: 28 June 2001
Bosnia and Herzegovina ratification: 21 September 2010
Croatia ratification: 5 November 1997
Cyprus ratification: 26 August 2002
Czech Republic ratification: 15 November 2006
Denmark ratification: 8 September 2000
Finland ratification: 9 November 1994
Germany ratification: 16 September 1998
Hungary ratification: 26 April 1995
Liechtenstein ratification: 18 November 1997
Luxembourg ratification: 22 June 2005
Montenegro ratification: 15 February 2006
Netherlands ratification: 2 May 1996
Part II applied to:
Part III applied to:
Slovakia ratification: 5 September 2001
Slovenia ratification: 4 October 2000
Spain ratification: 9 April 2001
Sweden ratification: 9 February 2000
Switzerland ratification: 23 December 1997
Ukraine ratification: 19 September 2005
Ukraine does not specify languages by name, but rather ratifies on behalf of "the languages of the following ethnic minorities of Ukraine": Not counted are Rusyns (Ruthenians), because Ukraine (unlike neighboring countries) denies them separate ethnic and linguistic status.
The Government of the United Kingdom declares [on 23 April 2003] that the Charter should extend to the Isle of Man, being a territory for whose international relations the Government of the United Kingdom is responsible.