ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe


22 August 2014

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today completed its consideration of the combined tenth and eleventh periodic report of Estonia on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Presenting the report, Anne-Ly Reimaa, Under-Secretary on Cultural Diversity, Ministry of Culture of Estonia, informed the Committee about positive changes resulting from the implementation of the Estonian Integration Strategy 2008 to 2013, including the figure that today 70 per cent of Estonians felt that including non-ethnic Estonians in the country’s economy and governance was beneficial to the country.  Efforts to support the Russian-speaking sector of the population were outlined, as well as legislative amendments to the Citizenship Act, and a draft law that would comprehensively prohibit hate speech and declare racial motivation an aggravating circumstance in criminal proceedings.  The participation of ethnic and minority communities was described, including Roma communities. 

During the discussion, Committee Experts regretted that a national human rights institution still had not been established and asked about the timeline for the draft law on hate speech and racial discrimination.  Reports of xenophobic attitudes among the public and portrayals by Estonia’s media of potential asylum seekers as terrorists were raised, as were forms of support to Russian speakers, including in education, the workplace and Estonian language classes with a view to attaining citizenship.  The situation of people with undetermined nationality was also discussed, as well as the integration programme, birth registration, women from minorities, Roma and the Setos people. 

In concluding remarks, Gun Kut, Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur for the report of Estonia, said challenges faced by Estonia in its implementation of the Convention included resolving the issue of people with undetermined citizenship, although the ongoing reduction of that number was a positive trend, as well as supporting the Russian-speaking community, and the lack of a national human rights institution.

Ms. Reimaa, in concluding remarks, thanked the Committee for the constructive discussion which gave the Government very important feedback which it would use to develop its policies and legislation.  Estonia looked forward to receiving its concluding recommendations.

The delegation of Estonia included representatives of the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education and Science, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Cultural Diversity Department, Border Police Department and the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva. 

The Committee has now completed all State party report reviews scheduled for this session.  It will next meet in public at 3 p.m. on Friday, 29 August to adopt its concluding observations and recommendations on the reports of El Salvador, the United States, Peru, Cameroon, Iraq, Japan and Estonia and close the session.


The Committee is considering the combined tenth and eleventh periodic report of Estonia: CERD/C/EST/10-11.

Presentation of the Report

ANNE-LY REIMAA, Under-Secretary on Cultural Diversity, Ministry of Culture of Estonia, informed the Committee about positive changes resulting from the implementation of the Estonian Integration Strategy 2008 to 2013.  Today 61 per cent of non-ethnic Estonians were moderately, strongly or fully integrated.  The open attitude of the native population had increased, and today 70 per cent of Estonians felt that including non-ethnic Estonians in the country’s economy and governance was beneficial.  More than half of the respondents with Russian or another language as their mother tongue took part in organizations with either Estonian or both Estonian and Russian as the working languages.  Political activity and interest towards domestic policy at local, national and European Union levels showed Russians and other nationalities did not differ considerably from that of Estonians. 

Since 2006 there had been no court rulings on offences against equality.  Since 2010 there had been four cases of incitement of hatred, and one case on grounds of violation of equality which were investigated by the judicial authorities.  There had been nine complaints regarding discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin since submitting the report, added Ms. Reimaa.  Generally, the number of complaints of discrimination was low and most complaints only concerned the so-called ‘general equality’ clause of the constitution, she noted. 

Regarding legislative measures taken in line with the Convention, it was announced that a new draft law which would comprehensively ban hate speech and expressly declared racial motivation an aggravating circumstance in criminal proceedings was to be introduced to parliament this autumn.  Furthermore, a draft amendment declaring the act of incitement of hatred a crime was currently under review by ministries.  On 1 January 2015 an amendment to the Penal Code would come into effect which would make it possible to punish criminal organizations promoting racial discrimination or violence even if they did not act for the purpose of self-enrichment.  The Equal Treatment Act was being revised to widen the scope of protection to include all grounds of discrimination, in line with European Union requirements.  Estonia was still looking at the best solution regarding the establishment of an independent national human rights institution compliant with the Paris Principles, and in the meantime the institution of the Chancellor of Justice covered most of the functions of such an institution. 

The situation of ethnic and minority communities, and their participation in public life and representation in parliament were described in detail, with Ms. Reimaa briefing on support to both long-term residents of foreign origin and newly arrived immigrants to acquire the official language, adapt to society and acquire citizenship.  On political representation, minorities were best represented at the local level in the areas where they were concentrated, such as the capital Tallinn, and Ida-Virumaa County in North Eastern Estonia.  Statistics showed that voter turn-out in municipal elections was similar for non-Estonians and Estonians.  No statistical data on the ethnic background of public sector employees was collected, she noted. 

Amendments to the Citizenship Act in 2012 led to changes for 64 per cent of residents with undetermined citizenship in Estonia who wished to become Estonian citizens.  The amendments had significantly simplified the process for disabled persons and persons with a restrictive active legal capacity, and allowed some students to be able to complete their Estonian citizenship exams as part of their school exams.  The cost of language courses were now reimbursed to people who passed the citizenship language exam, added Ms. Reimaa. She also spoke about awareness-raising among parents whose children were entitled to naturalization.  A further amendment to the Citizenship Act was planned which would half the perpetuation of statelessness by guaranteeing the right to acquire Estonian citizenship by naturalization to all children born in Estonia to stateless parents. 

The Language Act entered into force in 2011, followed by a major amendment in June 2014, which meant that from 1 January 2015 the Language Inspectorate had no power to pose monetary fines for employees who lacked sufficient State language proficiency. Instead the Inspectorate could issue an order to obtain the necessary qualifications.  Only the employer could be fined for not ensuring their employees had the necessary language skills.  Measures had been taken to integrate members of Russian-speaking minorities into the labour market, in both the public and private spheres.  The preference for higher education in Estonian language had increased among the Russian-speaking population, said Ms. Reimaa, noting that as education was an important means of integration to increase social cohesion in society, 40 per cent of subjects in upper secondary school were taught in Russian. 

There were less than 500 Roma living in Estonia, constituting 0.04 per cent of the total population of Estonia, and measures had been taken to improve their access to employment and education.  According to Government data, there were 32 children studying in the Estonian schools who had specified Romani as their mother tongue.  Although the Roma community in Estonia was small, it still received special attention from the Government with regard to education, employment and social issues. 

Questions by the Experts

GUN KUT, Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur for the report of Estonia, welcomed the large and diverse delegation, complementing it upon its strong gender balance.  In 1991 Estonia regained its independence, and  since then it had been a ‘good pupil’, submitting its reports on time.  The Committee regretted that a national human rights institution still had not been established, nor had the act of incitement to hatred been made a crime.  The motive of ethnic or religious hatred should be taken as an aggravating circumstance under the law – the Committee had expected extensive information on that in this report, but the report simply stated there was not yet any developments in that area (paragraph 48). 

Near absence of complaints of acts of racial discrimination was another concern, said the Country Rapporteur – none in 2009 and one conviction of discrimination in 2011 which resulted in a US$100 fine.  No complaints against the police.  The report seemed to acknowledge problems, talking about awareness-raising among officials.  But the report really generally did not show much proof of the integration strategy – the Committee would like to know more about how it had happened, about the success stories. 

Was it true that there had been three court proceedings for genocide, as per the report, he asked?  He also asked about amendments to the citizenship act, asking for concrete numbers on how many people it had impacted, and what changes had occurred.  There had apparently been four enquiries into cases of incitement to racial hatred since 2010, said an Expert.  What were the results of those enquiries? 

There were reports that Estonian media portrayed potential asylum seekers as terrorists, and reports that politicians – especially among the members of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia – were frequently making xenophobic or discriminatory statements.  There were reports that history textbooks treated the 1941 to 1944 Nazi occupation in an almost positive light, and also concerns about the way Russians were portrayed.   Could the delegation please comment on that? 

They should not forget that for decades Estonia was incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and following that there was Russia immigration on a large scale, and that the minority became a majority during the Soviet period, recalled an Expert.  That dramatically changed once Estonia claimed its independence, and it was understandable that Estonia wanted to mark its independence by promoting its language, while at the same time offering the once dominant Russian-speaking group the opportunity to integrate by learning the Estonian language.  There were big differences between Estonian  and Russian – Russian was a large, widespread language, whereas Estonian was only spoken by a small group of people, and was reportedly difficult to learn.  However, the Committee had concerns, particularly that an employer could be penalized if his or her employee did not speak the national language. 

Every European Union Member States was obliged to produce an integration strategy for Roma, said an Expert.  Could the State party share details of its integration strategy for Roma, including progress made, outstanding challenges, and up to date statistics?  Another Expert asked if it was true that only 30 Roma children attended school in Estonia, which meant that each Roma family only had two children, which would be untypical.  How many Roma children did not attend school? 

Were there any particular measures to support women from minorities, including Roma women, from discrimination?

An Expert asked about people studying at Russian private schools, and the law on the ratio of language teaching. 

In August 2008 a television channel named ETV2, a progressive channel to meet minority interests, was set up, ostensibly in Russian aimed not just at Russian nationals but people who wanted to keep their Russian language skills up.  But the percentage of programming in Russian was being reduced – what was the channel’s policy? 

Birth registration was raised by Experts who asked about the patronymic tradition of Russians and some other minority groups, and that the patronymic was no longer written down.  The patronymic was the name of the father with a suffix, coming between a child’s given name and surname, and was a tradition, explained the Expert, adding that there should be an additional space for it on the birth certificate.

The Setos people lived in the eastern part of Estonia; they were a small ethnic group, mainly Orthodox Christians although there were some pagans among them, and Russia recognized them as an indigenous people.  There was no information on them in the report, however.

What about people of African descent, asked an Expert; how was Estonia preparing to mark the Decade of People of African Descent?  There were small numbers of Black Estonians, he said, and wondered what their situation was. 

The State party’s integration strategy did not appear to explicitly address racial discrimination; could the delegation please comment?

Estonia was a small European country, and a wealthy one compared to others in the region.  It had made good advances, but there was room for improvement.  One of those was that the constitution was insufficient with respect to provisions for equality, as was the Penal Code.

Unemployment was highest among minority groups and foreign nationals in Estonia.  What was the Government doing to curb unemployment among those groups?   

Response by the Delegation

The Estonian Government decided that it did not need a special strategy for Roma and had explained its reasons to the European Commission and Member States of the European Union.  However, every year it coordinated its measures to support the Roma people, and also the next Integration Strategy 2014 to 2020 included Roma.  There was also the Working Group for Roma, as well as Roma representatives working closely with the municipal authorities. 

In the context of the question about whether Estonia would join the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, a delegate recalled that following the restoration of independence there were almost 500,000 people who were citizens of the former Soviet Union who had to decide whether to acquire Estonian or Russian citizenship.  Some of them had still not made that decision which was the reason they had undetermined citizenship today.  Persons with undetermined citizenship could not be considered as stateless persons, added the delegate.  To date some 157,286 persons had acquired Estonian citizenship by naturalization.  The delegate emphasized that the Government did not make the choice of Estonian citizenship mandatory – it was up to the individual. 

In 2000 there were more than 178,000 persons with undetermined citizenship living in Estonia, but on 1 August 2014 the number was 86,481.  That number included 936 children less than 15 years of age.  Children under 15 years did not have to pass any exams to obtain citizenship, a delegate noted. 

Amendments to the Citizenship Law were discussed, including one made in June this year to make it easier for young people to apply for Estonian citizenship despite not having a residence permit in Estonia, if they had lived there for at least eight years.  A delegate noted exemptions from the language exam requirement under the Citizenship Act, which included those who had acquired basic or higher education in an Estonian language school, and persons with a disability, health condition or reduced legal capacity; persons born before 1 January 1930 were exempted from the written part of the exam.  The principle was that a person who wanted to acquire Estonian citizenship had to be integrated into Estonian society, and had to have at least an elementary understanding of the local cultural environment.  If an Estonian citizenship applicant learned the Estonian language it demonstrated his or her willingness and effort to integrate. 

An amendment declaring the act of incitement to hatred a crime in itself was submitted to ministries in 2012, but due to substantial public debate on the subject, particularly regarding limits to freedom of expression and delays caused by the change of Government early this year, the relevant amendments had not passed through parliaments yet.  The draft would be introduced to parliament in the next few years, the delegation announced.  The revision would declare incitement to hatred, including racist hate speech, a crime.  It would abolish the requirement that incitement to hatred had to result in danger to life, health or property of a person.  The Penal Code’s wording would declare punishable: “public action, inciting to hatred or violence against a person or a group of people on grounds of their real or alleged nationality, ethnicity, race, physical characteristics, health status, disability, age, sex, language, origin, ethnic affiliation, religion, beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, financial or social status in a manner affecting public order”. 

The penalty for incitement of hatred, under the revision, would be increased to a minimum of one year imprisonment or pecuniary punishment.  The amendment would also add a clause according to which the commission of an offence by racial motivation would explicitly constitute an aggravating circumstance, added a delegate.  Furthermore, the draft act contained a new regulation which would declare public justification, denial or gross trivialization of crimes of aggression, genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes an offence, when the manner was carried out in a way that incited hatred and the crime referred to by the delinquent had been established by a final decision of an international or Estonian Court.  Finally, the amendment would reword the actual offence of discrimination by concretizing the different forms and alternatives of discrimination.

Explicitly integrating the element of racial motivation into the Penal Code and alleviating the legal requirements for the crime of incitement of hatred would help facilitate the application of rules concerning racist offences and help improve statistical findings about racially motivated crime in Estonia, said a delegate. 

A delegate provided information about the genocide case raised by an Expert, explaining that there were currently four criminal proceedings which had been initiated, two on grounds of crimes against humanity (in 2013) and two on grounds of genocide (in 2010).  The accusations regarding genocide concerned deportation proceedings since 1949, and were dismissed for reasons concerning the defendants’ health.  The proceedings concerning crimes against humanity from 2013 were currently being investigated by the public prosecutor and procedures had been declared confidential.  As was known publicly, one of the cases concerned criminal acts committed during World War II outside the territory of Estonia, and the other case regarded a murder case from the 1950s.  Those cases marked the first time Estonian courts had had to judge on matters concerning crimes against humanity or genocide, added a delegate. 

Setos were an ethnic and linguistic minority living mostly in an area covering south east Estonia, but also in north west Russia, who declared themselves a nation in 2002, being descendants of the ancient Finno-Ugrians.  Their estimated population in Estonia was 10,000 to 13,000, of which approximately 3,00 to 4,000 lived on their indigenous land.  Their borderland status gave Setos a chance to preserve their language, lifestyle, food and unique folk customs.  UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of the Humanity included three from or related to Estonia.  The first was the tradition of the song and dance festivals of the Baltic countries, the second was the sub-culture of the Kihnu Island, and the third was the song tradition of Setu leelo.  The Ministry of Culture launched in 2003 a culture programme for Setos land, aiming to support and preserve their languages and culture. 

There were very few Roma students, only 35 in school in Estonia, and five studied in special schools for mentally disabled children, confirmed a delegate.  The procedure to send students to special schools was complex and was based upon a psychologist’s diagnosis, the wish of the parents, and assessment by a committee of experts.  Inclusive education in mainstream schools was the policy of the State and increasingly mainstream schools were being enabled to teach mentally-challenged children, she noted. 

Regarding comments about bias in school history books, a delegate agreed that history was a very sensitive subject, but emphasized that in Estonia history teaching presented both the Nazi and the Communist regimes as ‘regimes against humanity’.  A new curriculum launched in 2010 placed more emphasis on the values of democracy, human rights and a multi-perspective view on historical events, she added. 

There were 72 schools with Russian as the taught language in Estonia, said a delegate, but nevertheless many Russian-speaking families understood the importance of their children learning Estonia, and sent their children to Estonian-speaking schools.  Some 3,000 to 4,500 children with a non-Estonian mother tongue studied in Estonian-speaking schools, but there was no political pressure on families to do that – it was a free decision made by the parents. 

Concerning comments by Experts about media portrayal of refugees and asylum seekers as terrorists, a delegate said he could not agree that was a general trend, although some media coverage had had a xenophobic undertone.  However, there were two facts: Freedom House had ranked Estonia as the twentieth best country in the world for press freedom, and last year, second in the world for internet freedom – the year before, it was first.  That illustrated that the State could only indirectly influence the media.  It did so on several fronts, from awareness-raising, statements by politicians and celebrations of World Days.  The free internet did allow the possibility of anonymous, but moderated, commentary that could sometimes encourage harsher comments which could be picked up by the press, said the delegate.  In spite of that, reliable public opinion research showed that over half of the population supported humanitarian issues. 

The ETV television station was targeted at Russian speaking audiences, confirmed a delegate, and since its launch in 2008 had increased the volume of Russian language programming, including Estonian programmes with Russian subtitles, from 200 to 600 per year.  The decline in 2012 was caused by a cut in the production of original programming in Russian, she noted.  ETV was continuingly improving and increasing its output, namely cultural and children’s programmes for the Russian-speaking population.

Regarding asylum seekers, a delegate said from 2000 until the present date Estonia had received 358 applications for international protection, of whom 104 were accepted.  During the same 14 year period, Estonia had 100 applications for international protection at its borders, of whom only 24 applicants were refused entry and sent back, as their applications were clearly unfounded.  Such decisions were made initially by the Police and Border Guard Board, in agreement with the central unit responsible for asylum matters. 

All birth certificates in Estonia had information about both parents of the child.  It was not common to duplicate and combine the father’s name in the same line as the child’s name in identification documents of some minority groups, said the delegate, and it was important that all official identification documents had the same format and data. 

Describing prevention activities by the police on discrimination matters, a delegate spoke about regulations for police forces on prohibiting discrimination, and police-led programmes to increase tolerance, especially among children.  To gain entry to the Estonian Police Force people had to pass a mandatory course titled ‘religion, manners and customs’ which focused on recognizing, preventing and tackling racial discrimination.  Police officers also received periodic in-service training.  There had been no cases or complaints regarding racial discrimination by members of the Estonian Police Force in the last three years. 

Nine complaints had been made to the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner between 2012 and 2013, confirmed a delegate, adding that the Commissioner opened up enquiries for five of those cases, and concluded that discrimination had taken place only in one case.  She also clarified that the office of the Commissioner consisted of seven employees and was financed by the State budget with additional funding from Norway for a programme on promoting gender equality and work/family life balance covering 2009 to 2015.  The Commissioner’s office also provided legal counselling throughout Estonia for people who suspected they had been discriminated against on the grounds of their nationality.  She also added that the Chancellor of Justice was considering the possibility of collecting data on discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnicity. 

The ‘Diversity Enriches’ programme was led by the Human Rights Centre and Tallinn University of Technology, in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs, and aimed to fight intolerance in the country.  The 2013 focus was diversity management in businesses and private companies, which led to a ‘diversity agreement’, an annual conference and practical workshops for the 31 participating companies. 

Estonia had not ratified the International Labour Organization Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers yet because among other reasons, there were not many migrant workers in Estonia and their rights and freedoms were in any case guaranteed in domestic legislation. 

The Estonian Conservative People’s Party gained just one per cent of the vote at the European Parliament elections in May 2014, confirmed a delegate, which was a clear verdict by the Estonian people through elections of its view of intolerant voices. 

Answering a question about celebrations of the Decade for People of African Descent, a delegate replied that Estonia was committed to supporting people of African descent, was one of the country members of the Bureau of the Preparatory Committee of the Durban Review Conference, and was coordinating with the European Union on specific celebratory activities for the Decade. 

Statistics on the ethnicity and language of prisoners were provided by a delegate, who said that at the end of 2013 there were 3,123 prison inmates in Estonia: 2,428 convicted prisoners and 684 persons in custody (21.9 per cent).  The number of inmates had decreased by seven per cent compared to the previous year.  Some 40 per cent of inmates had Estonian as their mother tongue, and 57 per cent of inmates had Russian mother tongue.  Among young inmates, the number of Estonian-speaking inmates exceeded the number of exclusively Russian-speaking prisoners.  Prisoners who did not speak the State language had the right to use a translator, which may sometimes slightly delay proceedings but did not limit their rights, noted the delegate.

Concerning the political participation of minorities, a delegate confirmed that in Estonia members of political parties were required to be citizens, but noted that every European Union citizen residing permanently in Estonia had the right to vote and run as a candidate at local Estonian elections and European elections.  Citizens of other countries and individuals of undetermined citizenship could participate politically in other ways, from voting at local elections to founding citizens’ associations. 

Estonia did not agree with the Committee’s assertion that it placed too much emphasis on language learning, said a delegate, continuing to describe in detail the Integration Programme and its three areas: educational and cultural, social and economic, and legal and political.  The Government sought to foster a situation where other nationalities living in Estonia, as well as Estonians themselves, were ensured of a cohesive and tolerant society where everybody felt happy and safe, to work, study, develop their culture and be a full member of society. 

Concluding Remarks

GUN KUT, Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur, thanked the delegation for their openness in the dialogue and their comprehensive and carefully crafted replies, saying they had endeavoured to answer every question raised in as full a manner as possible.  Challenges ahead included resolving the problem of people with undetermined citizenship, although the Committee said the ongoing reduction of that number was a positive trend.  The new draft law declaring incitement to hatred a punishable crime and other amendments was commended by the Committee.  Other concerns included upholding the rights of minorities, particularly the Russian-speaking community, and the lack of a national human rights institution.

ANNE-LY REIMAA, Under-Secretary on Cultural Diversity, Ministry of Culture of Estonia, thanked the Committee for the constructive discussion which gave the Government very important feedback which it would use to develop its policies and legislation.  Estonia looked forward to receiving its concluding recommendations.

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