Book Review: Minority Rights in Europe. European Minorities and Languages. The Hague, 2001


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Subject: Book Review: Minority Rights in Europe. European Minorities and Languages. The Hague, 2001

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Original sender: Stefan Wolff <S.Wolff@bath.ac.uk>

Book Review: Minority Rights in Europe. European Minorities
and Languages. The Hague, 2001


Sneana Trifunovska (editor-in-chief), Fernand de Varennes (guest
editor), Minority Rights in Europe. European Minorities and Languages.
The Hague: T.M.C. Asser Press, 2001. XIV + 606 pp. ISBN 90-6704-127-0.
 
Reviewed by Stefan Wolff (S.Wolff@bath.ac.uk), University of Bath,
England, UK
 
In a nutshell, this is a very valuable account of the current legal
and political status of minority languages in Europe published in the
wrong medium. It is valuable because it integrates thorough analysis
with a fairly comprehensive collection of important source documents,
it is published in the wrong medium because it would have been more
useful either to combine book and electronic publishing formats or
publish it electronically only, i.e., on CD-ROM or via an online
subscription. This is as much a question of usability, particularly in
class rooms, as it is a question of price and the ability to provide
regular and affordable updates. Already, some of the data presented in
the book have been overtaken by developments on the ground. While this
is a general problem with many publications dealing with highly
dynamic subjects, it is particularly critical for a volume whose final
purpose is to provide information which should facilitate discussion
in the scientific, governmental and non-governmental circles dealing
with both human rights protection and security issues, and to assist
in finding solutions to particular minority situations (p. V).
 
To be sure, there is a lot of high-quality material in this volume
that deserved to be published, and the volume benefits from bringing
together a broad range of experts on various aspects of minority
protection and minority rights legislation. Fernand de Varennes's
introductory chapter on The Linguistic Rights of Minorities in Europe
provides a sound introduction to the historical development and
contemporary dynamics of linguistic rights. The case studies that
follow on Romany (Marcia Rooker), Italy (Francesco Palermo), Frisian
in the Netherlands (Floris van Laanen), Spain (Giovanni Poggeschi) and
Sweden (Sia Spiliopolou kermark) provide good examples of how the more
general points made by de Varennes have played out in different
national contexts. In contrast to these, Dnall Riagin's chapter,
although quite good on the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages,
is rather weak and duplicates issues that are much better covered in
different chapters (e.g., de Varennes's introduction or von
Toggenburg's piece on the EU). It also contains a number of
inconsistencies and questionable judgements. A statement like the
existence of a German-speaking minority in the Sudetenland [not
Sdatenland as spelled in the original  S.W.] provided a ready-made
excuse for invading Czechoslovakia (p. 32) is at best overly
simplistic, as is the assertion that people like Stalin, Franco, Tito
and Salazar did produce a certain form of stability within their own
states but at a frightening cost in terms of human liberty and dignity
(ibid.). There is also a surprising lapse in copy-editing: page 32
informs the reader that [i]n the European Union alone almost forty
autochthonous languages are spoken, two paragraphs on at page 33 the
reader learns that [i]n the member states of the European Union alone
there are almost fifty communities speaking over thirty autochthonous
European languages.
 
Part two of the book, entitled International Activities and Documents,
is in so far misleading as it also includes some excellent pieces of
analysis (as does part one, entitled Academic Discussion) of these
activities and documents by scholars and practitioners alike. Cecilia
Thompson gives an overview of the state of the debate on minority
rights at the United Nations, including the increasingly important
part played by NGOs in this arena (pp. 133-4). What I felt was missing
from this chapter was some explanation as to why there is relatively
little on language rights in UN documents. Following Sneana
Trifunovskas examination of  The Protection of Linguistic Rights
within the Council of Europe, Gabriel von Toggenburg takes a look at
minority protection at the level of the European Union, looking at the
European Parliament, initiatives supported by the European Commission,
and the increasing importance of the issue of minority protection in
the EU's external relations and internal practice. Edwin Bakker's
piece on Linguistic Rights and the OSCE is largely superfluous as it
does not cover anything that could not have been integrated, or is
indeed more broadly examined, in John Packer's comprehensive overview
of The Protection of Minority Language Rights through the Work of OSCE
Institutions. The final two chapters in this part, by Ole Espersen and
Hanne Fugl on the Council of Baltic Sea States and by Sneana
Trifunovska on the Central European Initiative, deserve special
commendation as they provide a concise account on otherwise largely
ignored institutions that take a specifically regional approach to
minority rights in Europe.
 
Part three of the volume reprints the 1999 Report on the Linguistic
Rights of Persons Belonging to National Minorities in the OSCE Area by
the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, but adds to, and
updates, the original report by including additional countries and a
separate section on developments/events/comments for a number, but by
no means all, the countries covered in the 1999 version. In addition,
the introduction to part three of the book provides a useful guide to
sources, including a variety of online databases, that should prove
helpful for those readers who are interested in keeping themselves
up-to-date on developments in some of the countries concerned.
However, it would have been even more valuable if there had been a
short explanation as to each of the sources in order to enable the
reader to gauge their objectivity, and hence reliability.
 
A final concern with this volume is its utterly confusing status as to
title, editor, and in fact type of publication. There are a number of
indications that this might be the first volume in a series entitled
Minority Rights in Europe whose general editor is Sneana Trifunovska.
This would make Fernand de Varennes the editor of this particular
volume on European Minorities and Languages, and he should be properly
recognised as such on the book cover. On the other hand, there is also
an indication that this publication had been intended to be the first
volume of the European Yearbook on Minorities, but then was not
realised as such. Nevertheless, on page 341 the reader learns that
Part Three of the Yearbook includes information, which is additional
to the Report of the High Commissioner. None of this is terribly
important, but it becomes frustrating for the reviewer, the reader,
and the librarian who want to establish with what kind of publication
they are dealing. Should this first publication lead to a longer
series of volumes on minority rights issues as indicated in the
Foreword (p. VII), and given the importance of the topic for
contemporary European politics and society this is hopefully the case,
it would be good if the editors of the series and future volumes were
able to address some of the concerns expressed in this review. After
all, an integration of theoretical and practical debates on minority
rights is urgently needed, but it is needed in a quality and format
that enables people from different professional backgrounds to use the
result of such efforts.

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