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Experts of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Commend Estonia’s Efforts to Reduce Statelessness, Ask about Lack of Legislation on Hate Crimes and Occupational Language Proficiency Requirements

Meeting Summaries

 

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today concluded its consideration of the combined twelfth and thirteenth periodic report of Estonia, with Committee Experts commending efforts to reduce statelessness and raising questions about the lack of legislation on hate crimes and hate speech and about occupational language proficiency requirements.

Faith Dikeledi Pansy Tlakula, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, commended efforts to provide citizenship for stateless persons, and called for disaggregated data on people who had acquired citizenship over the past 10 years. Another Committee Expert congratulated Estonia’s efforts to reduce child statelessness, but noted that there were difficulties for parents to acquire citizenship due to the minimum amount of income required. By ratifying the Convention on Statelessness, Estonia would strengthen its approach to addressing statelessness. Did the State have a national plan on eradicating statelessness?

Yeung Kam John Yueng Sik Yuen, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for Estonia, said that the Committee had previously recommended that the State make incitement of hate crimes a criminal offense punishable by law. However, the State party had yet to act on this recommendation on the grounds of protecting free speech. As a result of the lack of legislation, there had been no criminal cases specifically addressing hate crimes and hate speech. Did the State party intend to define hate crimes and hate speech within its legislation?

Mr. Yueng Sik Yuen also addressed occupational language proficiency requirements, saying that the Language Act stated that employees who were found to not be fluent in Estonian could be fined, as could their employers. The Act also recommended firing such employees in certain cases. Would the State party consider revising the Language Act to remove fines for non-fluency?

Introducing the report, Katrin Saarsalu-Layachi, Permanent Representative of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva and head of the delegation, said that Estonia had consistently taken legal and policy measures to promote the acquisition of Estonian citizenship and lower the number of persons with undetermined citizenship. The number of persons with undetermined citizenship had been steadily declining, falling from 32 per cent of the population in 1992 to 4.9 per cent in 2022.

The delegation added that free Estonian language training was provided and information campaigns were carried out to support acquisition of Estonian citizenship. All non-nationals residing in Estonia were able to apply for citizenship on an equal basis.

On hate crime legislation, Ms. Saarsalu-Layachi said that significant progress had been made in reviewing articles on hate crimes in the Penal Code and amendments were being discussed in parliament.

The delegation added that the incitement of hatred and violence was prohibited by law. There had been five attempts to change the legislation on aggravating circumstances. However, police officers were required to take note of whether offenses were driven by a racial motive. The current legislation on base motives was broad, and it covered racial hatred as a motive. However, the Government would continue to try to specifically include racial hatred as an aggravating circumstance in legislation.

On language proficiency requirements, the delegation stated that employees of companies were required to be proficient in Estonian if it was justified as being in the public interest. Since 2015, the Language Board had not fined persons for a lack of language proficiency as fines were banned in 2014. Persons with insufficient language skills were advised on language courses to take to acquire necessary language skills. Fines would only be applied if persons did not comply with directions from the Language Board.

In concluding remarks, Ms. Tlakula thanked the delegation for providing detailed answers to the Committee’s questions. There were clearly three main issues in Estonia: statelessness, language proficiency, and hate crime legislation. All forms of discrimination, she said, were made by people, and could be fixed by people. This required political will and steadfastness from Estonia.

Ms. Saarsalu-Layachi, in her concluding remarks, expressed sincere gratitude to all members of the Committee for their deep knowledge of and interest in the situation in Estonia. Estonia remained fully committed to promoting and protecting human rights, and was dedicated to combatting racial discrimination in all its forms. The fight against discrimination was a dynamic and continuous process, she said. The delegation highly valued the contribution of the country rapporteurs and all Committee members for their guidance in this regard.

Verene Albertha Shepherd, Committee Chair, thanked the delegation for its detailed replies and report, thanked the country rapporteurs for leading the dialogue, and thanked all Committee members for their questions.

The delegation of Estonia consisted of representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Ministry of the Interior; the Ministry of Justice; the Ministry of Education and Research; the Ministry of Social Affairs; the Ministry of Culture; the Ministry of Defence; and the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva .

The Committee will issue its concluding observations on the report of Estonia after the end of its one hundred and sixth session on 29 April. Those, and other documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, will be available on the session’s webpage. Summaries of the public meetings of the Committee can be found  here, while webcasts of the public meetings can be found  here.

The Committee will next meet in public on Thursday, 21 April at 3 p.m. to start its consideration of the combined eighth to tenth periodic report of Kazakhstan (CERD/C/KAZ/8-10).

Report

The Committee has before it the combined twelfth and thirteenth periodic report of Estonia ( CERD/C/EST/12-13 ).

Presentation of Report

KATRIN SAARSALU-LAYACHI, Permanent Representative of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that Estonia remained fully committed to promoting and protecting human rights and was dedicated to combatting racial discrimination in all its forms. Emergency measures related to COVID-19 had been in place in Estonia from 12 March to 17 May 2020. Emergency measures were temporary, lawful, non-discriminatory, necessary for the protection of public health and proportional to the legitimate aim. There was a quick transition to teleworking and e-learning in education. In 2021, around 200 cases were initiated in the administrative courts against COVID-19 restrictive measures, demonstrating the awareness of the public of their rights and the effectiveness of the legal remedies available.

Significant progress had been made in reviewing articles on hate crimes in the Penal Code and amendments were being discussed in parliament. The Chancellor of Justice and the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner played an important role in awareness-raising, promoting equality and non-discrimination. The Chancellor of Justice had been assigned the functions of the national human rights institute since 2019. This institute received “A” status accreditation from the Sub-Committee on Accreditation of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions.

Estonia was a firm believer in the advantages that digital society and e-Government could bring, including better protection of human rights, access to justice, and greater transparency of decision-making processes. International law, including human rights law and prohibition of racial discrimination, applied in cyber space. Estonia had used electronic voting since 2005. In 2021, over 250,000 people cast votes online, around 25 per cent of all voters. Citizens of countries outside the European Union and persons with undefined citizenship residing in Estonia on a long-term residence permit could vote in municipal council elections but could not stand as candidates for the municipal councils.

Estonia had consistently taken legal and policy measures to promote the acquisition of Estonian citizenship and lower the number of persons with undetermined citizenship. The number of persons with undetermined citizenship had been steadily declining, falling from 32 per cent of the population in 1992 to 4.9 per cent in 2022.

Estonia had long-term experience with horizontal integration policies. One-third of the population of 1.3 million had a migrant background. Estonia hosted residents of over 190 nationalities, and minorities constituted approximately 31 per cent of the entire population. Three integration development plans had been adopted and implemented since 2000, mainly managed by the Ministry of Culture but with the cooperation of other ministries, local municipalities and civil society organizations. All residents, irrespective of their national background, learned Estonian from an early stage. Government studies had shown that most new immigrants had integrated well in society. The fourth consecutive integration development plan “Cohesive Estonia 2030” had been adopted by the Government in November 2021. It set goals in the areas of adaptation, integration, civil society and Estonians living abroad.

Estonia faced new challenges in 2022 due to the military aggression against Ukraine by armed forces of the Russian Federation, which was a flagrant violation of international law. Estonia condemned this aggression in the strongest terms. In the past weeks, more than 30,000 war refugees from Ukraine had arrived in Estonia. Estonia had warmly welcomed the war refugees by providing them with all possible assistance to settle in Estonia for as long a period as necessary. It would ensure that children from Ukraine could continue their education at all levels.

In 2020, the Minister of Foreign Affairs appointed the first diplomatic representative with a special mandate on human rights and migration. The special envoy represented Estonia’s position internationally regarding various human rights and migration related issues. Further, in 2021, the Estonian Government approved its first-ever national action plan for human rights diplomacy. The action plan focused on protecting the rights of women, children, and indigenous peoples; freedom of speech and expression, including online; and upholding the principles of civil society, rule of law, and democracy, as well as on fighting impunity.

The protection of the rights of indigenous peoples was also one of Estonia’s human rights priorities. Over the years, Estonia had contributed to the preservation and development of indigenous culture, education and languages, focusing primarily on the Finno-Ugric peoples. It had hosted the eighth World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples from 17 to 19 June 2021, the goals of which were to protect the national consciousness, cultures and languages of the Finno-Ugric peoples. Estonia had financially supported the activities of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.

Questions by Committee Experts

FAITH DIKELEDI PANSY TLAKULA, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, said that three non-Governmental organizations were consulted regarding the Estonian report. What was the basis for choosing these three organizations, and why were other organizations not consulted?

Had amendments to the Equality and Treatment Act been tabled and adopted in Parliament? If not, why had these amendments not been adopted?

The Committee commended that the National Human Rights Institute, the Chancellor of Justice, had received “A” status. What measures had the State party taken to support this institute? The Chancellor of Justice had not received any complaints related to nationality and ethnicity in 2021 and 2022, and only six had been received since 2015. Why was this number so low? What had been done to increase awareness of the work of the Chancellor? What remedies were provided for victims of discrimination? Had the number of staff of the Chancellor been increased?

Could the State party highlight the impact of awareness raising projects carried out by the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner? Why was the number of discrimination cases investigated by the Commissioner so low?

Personal data had become a very important commodity. Had the State party adopted cybercrime legislation, and if not were there plans to do so?

Some political parties had engaged in xenophobic rhetoric in the lead-up to the previous election. What measures had been taken to prevent xenophobia and discrimination in the political sphere?

YEUNG KAM JOHN YUENG SIK YUEN, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for Estonia, said that the State’s report stated that 16 hate crimes had been registered since 2015. This did not correspond with figures given by human rights institutions. What was the source of these figures?

The report had not provided information concerning the number of crimes related to discrimination occurring between 2017 and 2019. What was the reason for this scarcity of information?

Intolerance and discrimination were significantly directed toward people of Asian descent at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. What had been done to prevent discrimination against persons of Asian descent?

The Chancellor of Justice had the power to declare a law unconstitutional, and to make proposals for amendments of legislation. Could the State party provide information about cases where the Chancellor had enacted this right?

A complaint had been made to the Chancellor about requirements in job applications for high levels of proficiency in Estonian language. Could such requirements not lead to discrimination against non-Estonian speakers?

The Chancellor had been rarely approached about racial discrimination. Why was this? Was there a low level of awareness about the institute, or a lack of faith in its workings? What were the grounds for non-racial discrimination claims made to the Chancellor?

The Committee had recommended that the State make incitement of hate crimes a criminal offense punishable by law. In response, the State party had said that it valued the protection of free speech. Did the State party consider hate speech to be permissible?

Estonian national law contained no definitions of hate crimes. As a result, there had been no criminal cases addressing hate crimes and hate speech. Did the State party intend to define hate crimes within its legislation?

GUN KUT, Committee Expert and Follow-Up Rapporteur, congratulated the State party for submitting its report on time. Both the interim report and the periodic report stated that revisions to the Criminal Code were being debated in Parliament. Mr. Kut asked the State party to provide more information about those revisions.

Another Committee Expert said that since 2013, 18- to 27-year-old Estonians had been able to perform military service, as had persons with disabilities. What logistical arrangements were in place to facilitate this?

Around 50 per cent of applications for naturalisation were rejected. What were the grounds for these rejections?

One Committee Expert stated that, according to the report, non-Estonian nationals could vote in elections but not stand in elections. Why could they not stand in elections? Non-nationals had access to the labour market but could not hold certain positions within the civil service and in private institutions. Why did this discrimination occur?

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that it highly valued the participation of non-governmental organizations in the preparation of the State report. The three non-governmental organizations referenced were the three largest. Other non-governmental organizations had reported that they did not have appropriate resources to contribute to State reports.

The Equal Treatment Act prohibited discrimination on the grounds of nationality, ethnicity, race and skin colour in relation to access to housing, work and social services. Amendments to the Act had been approved by the parliament in a first reading, and would soon undergo a second reading.

Persons who had experienced racial discrimination in employment could turn to the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner. The Commissioner assessed compliance with the Gender Equality Act and the Equal Treatment Act. Complaints could be submitted via email or in person. Counselling was also available over the phone and via social media. Two complaints were made to the Commissioner relating to racial discrimination in 2019 concerned access to housing, and two complaints were made in 2020 concerning a discriminatory article in a newspaper. This article was removed at the request of the Commissioner. The Commissioner’s budget had increased by over 100,000 euros in 2021.

The Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner had carried out awareness raising activities regarding legal counselling available in cases of racial discrimination. The Commissioner also worked to raise awareness of racial discrimination amongst youth. A survey found that, because of the Commissioner’s campaigns, the percentage of Estonian people with a positive perception of other nationalities had increased.

Including different groups of persons in military service was a long-term goal of the Government. Every male citizen was obliged to participate in conscription, and every female had the right to participate in conscription. Disabled persons’ state of health was assessed when conscripted, and if deemed fit for service, they were allowed to enter the service. The State provided persons with disabilities with technical aid to enter the work force, and the military provided additional aid for persons with disabilities as required.

The Chancellor of Justice had the highest possible protection of independence under the Estonian legal system. The Chancellor of Justice could participate in parliamentary hearings with the right to speak. Its budget had increased from 2.8 million to 3 million euros between 2020 and 2021. Awareness of the institution and trust in its work was very high. The Chancellor of Justice had published an e-book on human rights in Estonia. Advisory committees advised the Chancellor on various legal issues.

The Supreme Court had referred to the Convention, as had municipal courts. The Supreme Court had held that it was not unconstitutional to prevent non-nationals from running for parliament.

There were various cybercrime offences listed in the Penal Code, although there was no distinct legislation on cybercrime.

According to the Constitution, the incitement of hatred and violence was prohibited by law. Six bills on discrimination had been presented to parliament, including one that was currently being considered. This draft bill did not include prohibition of hate speech, but it did address hate symbols. The Government did not consider that hate speech should be permitted under the principle of free speech, but struggled to find appropriate wording within legislation that protected free speech while prohibiting hate speech.

Guidelines on hate crimes were issued to lawyers and judges in 2019. Data on offences with hate motives was being collected. It was important to obtain statistics on victims to better support their needs, and the State was working to do this. There was a general definition of aggravating circumstances in crimes that allowed for hate speech and hate crimes to be considered as an aggravating circumstance.

Police officers received training in human rights. Topics covered included religious and cultural differences, avoidance of racial profiling, and intercultural communication.

Questions by Committee Experts

FAITH DIKELEDI PANSY TLAKULA, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, said that the Committee had not received any report from a non-governmental organization. She called on the State to empower smaller non-governmental organizations to participate in reporting procedures.

Could a person acting on behalf of a victim submit a complaint to the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner? Could the delegation provide a breakdown of the 15 complaints received by the Commissioner in 2021? The Commissioner had only seven members of staff, and Ms. Tlakula said that this was inadequate. Why did the Commissioner choose to embark on a campaign to deal with outdated stereotypes?

Were there statistics on ethnic minorities in military services? In court judgements, was the Convention used in cases dealing with racial discrimination and racism? Did the Penal Code include hate crime and hate speech occurring online? A Violence Prevention Agreement had been adopted by the Government. Ms. Tlakula asked for more information about this agreement.

YEUNG KAM JOHN YUENG SIK YUEN, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for Estonia, asked whether there was a requirement of language proficiency regarding serving in the military, as in private businesses.

The Chancellor of Justice was chosen by the President and elected by the parliament, and appointed for seven years. Was this seven years renewable? What were the avenues that a person could take if their complaint was rejected by the Chancellor of Justice?

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation agreed that more could be done to include smaller non-Governmental organizations in the reporting process.

The Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner provided free legal counselling for persons who were victims of discrimination. The Commissioner formed an opinion regarding whether discrimination had taken place, and the complainant could reference the Commissioner’s decision and decide whether or not to take their case to court. Most complaints made to the Commissioner related to discrimination based on gender, followed by disability, nationality and religious beliefs. The delegation agreed that the Commissioner’s office would benefit from having more staff.

A Supreme Court judgement had referred to the Convention, and it was customary to refer to international conventions and the Constitution. The Penal Code did not distinguish between incitement of hatred online or offline, and one case of online hate speech had been tried. The Violence Prevention Agreement had been adopted in parliament, and this addressed hate crimes and support for victims of such crimes.

Questions by Committee Experts

A Committee Expert, referring to the State party’s statement that its policy of legal integration had enabled around half of the population of non-nationals to acquire rights, asked about the grounds for rejection of the other half of the population. Language was an important barometer for participation in public life. What measures were in place to support participation in public life for people that did not speak Estonian?

Another Committee Expert said that there was a bill being debated in parliament regarding amendment of the Constitution. The Convention required the State party to criminalise hate crimes, and the Committee previously recommended that such legislation be introduced. There were indirect ways to judge aggravating circumstances related to hate crimes, but this had been only done in one case. Was there no political will to introduce such legislation?

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that there appeared to be a lack of political will related to introducing legislation concerning incitement to hatred. Hate speech could be considered in courts. Parliament found that it was premature to tackle the issue of hate speech in the current bill, but the wording of draft legislation would continue to be considered with a view to introducing legislation on hate speech.

Questions by Committee Experts

FAITH DIKELEDI PANSY TLAKULA, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, asked about the impact of the Welfare Development Plan 2016-2023? Which stakeholders had been engaged under the plan?

She asked for information on the training of lawyers, including how many lawyers had been trained. Was legal aid available to immigrants irrespective of their country origin? What impact had the Estonian Integration Plan of 2014-2020 had on improving knowledge of minority groups and immigrant groups’ rights and promoting the language and culture of minority groups? What measures had been taken to popularise the Integration Plan among all vulnerable groups, including migrants, ethnic and linguistic minorities, and persons with undetermined citizenship. She asked for statistical information on the representation of ethnic minorities in parliament, the judiciary and in different public speres at all levels.

What measures had been taken to improve access to employment for minority groups and what had been the results? The Committee had previously recommended that the State party enhance language training to address persistent disadvantages faced by minority groups with regard to the rate of employment and remuneration based on language proficiency. Had the State party followed up on this recommendation? Would the State party consider banning requirements for fluency in Estonian in private sector jobs?

What measures were being taken to increase the enrolment of Roma children in schools? Had the Roma Community Support Committee had an impact on supporting the integration of Roma persons? Could the State party provide statistics on the Roma community’s access to housing, education and jobs?

Ms. Tlakula commended efforts to provide citizenship for stateless persons, and called for disaggregated data on people who had acquired citizenship over the past 10 years.

What measures were in place to ensure the non-refoulement of asylum seekers at border points? Which measures were in place to monitor immigration centres at border points? Had a comprehensive policy on immigration been enacted? Ms. Tlakula called for data on asylum seekers’ access to education, housing and work. How many refugees had entered Estonia since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine? How many persons of African descent lived in Estonia, and how many had citizenship?

What impact had the COVID-19 pandemic had on ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and non-citizens? What had the State party done to prevent discrimination of these groups related to the pandemic, and to provide access to health care and vaccinations for these groups?

Had the State party made efforts to ratify international conventions on statelessness? What events had the State party organised related to the International Decade for People of African Descent?

YEUNG KAM JOHN YUENG SIK YUEN, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for Estonia, said that the political climate in Estonia had become more hostile since the 2019 elections, and attempts had been made to end funding of non-Governmental organizations working on human rights. Could the State party provide more information on attempts to end this funding?

Mr. Yueng Sik Yuen appreciated the State party’s attempts to promote integration, but asked whether Estonian-based education was supported by non-nationals? Had the State party acted on recommendations to end segregation of school classes based on languages spoken?

Under the Language Act, employees who were found to not be fluent in Estonian could be fined, as could their employers. The Act also recommended firing such employees in certain cases. Would the State party consider revising the Language Act to remove fines for non-fluency? Proficiency in Estonian language was not a requirement for service in the Estonian military. Was there not an equal right for a person working in Estonia to be given the same treatment regarding Estonian language?

Another Committee Expert asked whether the wave of some 32,000 Ukrainian refugees had subsided. Had Ukrainian children been invited to the Estonian school system, and was Ukrainian language education available? Had refugees been given the possibility to access public State services through the electronic e-State?

One Committee Expert said that the provisions provided by the Convention allowed for legislation to be adopted on hate speech that did not limit freedom of expression, and called on the State party to implement such legislation.

The Expert also called for more information on how universal healthcare was provided, especially emergency healthcare services.

A Committee Expert said that the number of stateless persons had declined, but a given reason for this was that stateless persons had acquired citizenship from another country. How was this possible if these people lived in Estonia? Why was there a high number of stateless children?

YEUNG KAM JOHN YUENG SIK YUEN, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for Estonia, said that it was almost impossible to prosecute incitement to racial hatred due to the strict requirements of Estonian legislation. He called on Estonia to strictly apply article four of the Convention and legislate against hate crimes and hate speech.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that if a person had a long-term residence permit or had lived in Estonia for at least five years, and had passed an Estonian language exam or had received secondary language education in Estonian, they were eligible for Estonian citizenship. Parents who were applying for Estonian citizenship received it for their children simultaneously. Minors born in Estonia to residents of Estonia received citizenship. After independence, persons born in Russian territory and living in Estonia were asked to choose whether they wished to obtain Estonian or Russian citizenship. Many had not decided, and thus had undetermined citizenship. In 2019 and 2020, over 700 people acquired Estonian citizenship, and in 2021, over 1,200 persons acquired Estonian citizenship.

Around 213 persons had been refused citizenship since 2017. Refusals were made on the grounds of criminal convictions or military service for a foreign State. Free Estonian language training was provided and information campaigns were carried out to support acquisition of Estonian citizenship. All aliens residing in Estonia were able to apply for citizenship on an equal basis. The number of applicants for citizenship had gradually increased.

Estonia fully respected the principle of non-refoulement. Applicants for international protection enjoyed rights guaranteed by international refugee conventions. Free legal aid and counselling were provided to asylum seekers through the duration of their processing period. Interpreters were provided as necessary. No person had been denied legal aid. Illegal entry into the State was assessed in criminal proceedings.

In 2021, 46 people were granted international protection, mainly from Afghanistan, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Over 21,000 Ukrainians had been provided with temporary protection in 2022. Many had passed through Estonia into Finland. Ukrainians received a residence permit and the right to work on an equal basis with Estonian citizens. The State was doing what it could to provide necessary food, healthcare, accommodation and psychological aid to these people. Long-term residency would be provided to those who wished to obtain it.

Estonian language proficiency requirements did not restrict the use of other languages. People who spoke a minority language were required to acquire proficiency in Estonian. The use of minority languages was allowed in workplaces as necessary. Employees of companies were required to be proficient in Estonian if it was justified as being in the public interest. The Ministry of Education oversaw the Language Board. Since 2015, the Language Board had not fined persons for a lack of language proficiency, after fines were banned in 2014. Persons with insufficient language skills were advised on language courses to take to acquire necessary language skills. Penalty payment may only be applied if persons did not comply with directions from the Language Board. Persons belonging to language minorities could communicate with the State in their own language.

The Ministry of Education and Research aimed to improve tuition in minority languages. Only 11 per cent of parents supported schools with tuition solely in Russian. More than half of the population supported mixed education, including minority groups.

Inclusive education was a fundamental principle of basic and upper secondary education in Estonia. Education was accessible regardless of race, ethnicity or economic status. More than 11,000 Ukrainian children had arrived in Estonia, and accommodating them was a challenge. The Government was focused on supporting the mental health of these children. Digital resources had been prepared in Ukrainian to allow these children to study online following the Ukrainian curriculum.

There were no pupils with Romani as their native language. The Ministry of Culture funded programmes helping to integrate Roma children into the education system; 27 per cent of Roma children living in Estonia participated in the education system.

Estonian public employment services were committed to providing language courses to non-nationals. There was an increase in language learning amongst employed people in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic had had an impact on public employment services, but the Government had adapted training services to support access for non-citizens. There was also a regional job creation support programme that had helped to increase employment in vulnerable areas such as Russian-speaking regions. Non-Estonians were more affected by the pandemic, with the employment and unemployment rates of non-Estonians falling and rising respectively by a larger rate than that for Estonians. There were around 4,000 unemployed non-Estonians involved in workplace training. Analysis conducted on the job creation scheme found that it had helped to reduce the unemployment and poverty rates in vulnerable areas.

Reception centres for asylum seekers were set up within apartment buildings. Each apartment had its own kitchen and bathroom. Support was provided to refugees who found their own accommodation. A real estate portal had been set up that gathered offers of accommodation for Ukrainian refugees.

Emergency care was provided to all persons. Applicants for international protection were provided with “necessary care”, which included all types of care deemed necessary in healthcare assessments.

The Roma Integration Council made proposals to relevant organizations promoting the integration of the Roma community. Several initiatives supporting Roma integration had been carried out. As a result of these initiates, the attendance of Roma children in schools and kindergartens had increased. Different cultural minorities were also being supported, with programmes aiming to maintain minority languages and cultures.

The State had also expanded its cooperation with African States to promote the rights of Africans in Estonia. There were more than 500 students in Estonia of African descent. These students were offered free education in Estonian language and on Estonian society. People from an African background were also offered special consultation sessions on Estonian society. Compared to 2015, the share of persons with an open attitude to other cultures and nationalities in Estonia had increased. Special steps had been taken to support minority groups’ entry into the workforce.

Positions in public and civil service were required to be filled by Estonian citizens; however, they could be filled by non-citizens as an exception.

Prisoners could benefit from Estonian language lessons free of charge and they even received an allowance if they studied Estonian. However, there was no obligation for prisoners to study Estonian.

There had been suggestions on introducing legislation related to incitement of hatred. Estonian legislation did cover article four of the Convention, as acts of violence and incitement to violence were criminal offences in Estonia. There were restrictions to holding public meetings where the intent was to promote racial hatred. The State was continuing to consider how to word its Criminal Code to address hate speech and hate crimes.

Language skills were not a requirement in the military; however, communication within the military was carried out in Estonian. Language training was offered to non-Estonian conscripts, and this had been effective in improving their language skills and improving their opportunities in the labour market.

Questions by a Committee Expert

FAITH DIKELEDI PANSY TLAKULA, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, asked whether there were measures to protect women and children from trafficking.

How many people of African descent were citizens of Estonia? Had Estonia celebrated the International Decade for People of African Descent ? Why did Estonia boycott the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Durban Declaration in New York?

Responses by the Delegation

Estonia had not celebrated the International Decade for People of African Descent. The State party expressed regret about this, and intended to celebrate it in future. It would also consider the Durban Declaration.

All persons arriving in Estonia received immediate temporary protection and were provided with necessary healthcare and access to social services. They were also provided with COVID-19 vaccinations. Most arrivals from Ukraine were women and children. A body had been established to support persons from Ukraine to access work in Estonia.

Numerous awareness-raising campaigns had been carried out regarding human trafficking, and there were initiatives in place to support victims of trafficking.

Questions and Comments by Committee Experts

VERENE ALBERTHA SHEPHERD, Committee Chair, said that European States often considered that the International Decade for People of African Descent and the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action were for non-governmental organizations, and did not address these at the State level. Ms. Shepherd called on Estonia and all States to address these at a national level.

YEUNG KAM JOHN YUENG SIK YUEN, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for Estonia, said that it was normal for language proficiency to not be a requirement for service in the military, but not normal for language proficiency to be a requirement for basic private sector work.

Article four of the Convention was a crucial article, with three general recommendations devoted to that article. If hate speech and hate crimes were not considered as an aggravating circumstance, it meant that the law did not consider the racial basis of attacks on minorities, and this was important.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation of Estonia said that there had been five attempts to change the legislation on aggravating circumstances. The act of violence was punishable. Police officers were required to take note of whether offenses were driven by a racial motive. The current approach to base motives was broad, and racial hatred was included in this broad definition. However, the Government would continue to try to include racial hatred as an aggravating circumstance in legislation.

Different activities had been undertaken by Estonia in line with the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Estonia paid special attention to the rights of women and children in special projects. The delegation was not aware of the reason why Estonia had not participated in the twentieth anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action in New York, but members of the delegation had supported the anniversary in a personal capacity.

Questions by a Committee Expert

A Committee Expert congratulated Estonia’s efforts to reduce child statelessness, but noted that there were difficulties for parents to acquire citizenship due to the minimum amount of income required. By ratifying the Convention on Statelessness, Estonia would strengthen its approach to addressing statelessness. Did the State have a national plan on eradicating statelessness?

Concluding Remarks

FAITH DIKELEDI PANSY TLAKULA, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, thanked the delegation for providing detailed answers to the Committee’s questions. There were clearly three main issues in Estonia. The first was statelessness, and the Committee welcomed the measures in place to reduce statelessness. In the twenty-first century, statelessness should not be allowed to continue. The next issue was language proficiency.Ms. Tlakula applauded measures supporting language education. However, she stated that major non-governmental organizations had raised concerns about the language proficiency requirements implemented by the Language Act. She called for the reform of these requirements. The third issue was compliance with article four of the Convention with national legislation, and Ms. Tlakula again called on the State party to address this.

All forms of discrimination, she said, were made by people, and could be fixed by people. This required political will and steadfastness from Estonia.

KATRIN SAARSALU-LAYACHI, Permanent Representative of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva and head of the delegation, expressed sincere gratitude to all members of the Committee for their deep knowledge of and interest in the situation in Estonia. Estonia remained fully committed to promoting and protecting human rights, and was dedicated to combatting racial discrimination in all its forms. Better implementation of the Convention was a task that State authorities would address. The Committee’s concluding observations would be translated into Estonian and communicated with the State, and addressed by relevant stakeholders.

The review of legislation on hate crimes within the Penal Code was currently being carried out, and authorities would continue to analyse additional amendments to it. Public servants would continue to be educated on human rights.

Estonia continued to promote the acquisition of Estonian citizenship, and was working to reduce the number of persons with undermined citizenship. Maintaining the national language was a priority in Estonia, but this could not be done through pressuring linguistic minorities. Estonia did not restrict the opportunities of persons who spoke minority languages. Employees needed to be able to understand and use Estonian to perform their duties. The aim of supervisory activities was to advise people on how to improve their Estonian language skills.

Estonia had warmly welcomed many war refugees from Ukraine, providing them will all possible assistance so that they could settle in Estonia for as long as necessary.

The delegation understood that improvements in legislation were necessary to fully implement the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The fight against discrimination was a dynamic and continuous process. The delegation highly valued the contribution of the country rapporteurs and all Committee members for their guidance in this regard. Estonia looked forward to continuing its dialogue with the Committee.

 

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