100 lawsuits for using the Hungarian language in Romania

Want to know how you can get in trouble for using your mother tongue in Europe, in the European Union, in the twenty-first century? Come to Transylvania and find out – because using the wrong language in Romania can be quite costly.

Very little progress has been made in Romania concerning the right of minorities to use their mother tongue in public institutions. Rights relating to language in Romania, in practice, are simply not upheld.

The Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, also known by its Hungarian acronym as RMDSZ, has advocated and struggled since the Romanian revolution in 1989 for the rights of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania. One would think, that since Romania has a president who is himself a member of an ethnic minority – President Klaus Werner Iohannis is a Transylvanian Saxon, which means he’s a member of Romania’s ethnic German minority and was, before becoming leader of the National Liberal Party, the leader of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania – that he would also be a staunch advocate of ethnic minority rights.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Not only is Iohannis not an advocate but he seems to be a determined opponent of language rights. Over the summer, when the Romanian Parliament voted the Administrative Code, the president challenged the proposed law before the Constitutional Court. He attacked not just the new articles regarding language rights but also the ones that were included in a 2001 law (215/2001). According to the president of Romania, national minorities should not have the right to use their mother tongue in institutions of public administration, even if they constitute more then 20 percent of the population in a town or village. He specifically disagreed with the paragraph stating that municipal councillors could speak in their mother tongue in the meetings of the local council, provided that there is simultaneous translation available. We fail to understand why this would somehow harm the majority. We assert that Romania, and especially its president, should respect the law, and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which was adopted by Romania.

Lawsuits regarding Hungarian inscriptions

Instead of implementing and expanding linguistic rights, we see the opposite trend in the region, a tendency to curb them. Legal proceedings against the use of Hungarian-language inscriptions in Szeklerland has reached an absurd level. Currently, local authorities face more than 100 lawsuits pursued by the state’s local representative, the prefect, to eliminate Hungarian inscriptions from historic buildings, administrative buildings, schools and so on. The trilingual (Romanian, Hungarian, English) letterhead of the County Council of Covasna was one such lawsuit.

No tolerance for bilingual signs

According to Romanian law, multilingual signs are compulsory when the minority population constitutes at least 20 percent of the population of the settlement. It is not, however, forbidden to also display multilingual signs in areas where an ethnic minority population is less than 20 percent. But that, too, has been challenged. It seems that Romania is the only country where what is not forbidden by law is still illegal. In a settlement called Aranyosgyéres (Câmpia Turzii, in Romanian), the local council decided that although the Hungarian population makes up only 8 percent of the local population, they would nevertheless put up multilingual road signs. First, the prefect took the local council to court for this, and when he lost, another citizen took up the case, giving us another beautiful illustration of the Romanian legal system. With the second legal challenge, the local citizen won, in exactly the same court where the prefect had lost. The result: the multilingual signs had to be taken down. Not a day goes by in this country without vandalism of multilingual road signs featuring the Hungarian language.

Use of the Hungarian language in justice

The lack of bilingualism in the judicial system remains a serious problem for Hungarians when they need to deal with legal issues of any kind. One of the main problems arises from the fact that in Hungarian-inhabited areas the judges, public prosecutors and policemen are all Romanians, and their working language is exclusively Romanian. In 2013 in Covasna County, for example, out of 55 judges, only five were Hungarian-speaking, and among the 50 public prosecutors, only two spoke Hungarian. In the local police force, 95 percent spoke only Romanian. While the law clearly states that minorities have the right to speak their mother tongue in proceedings related to police and justice, in practice this becomes extremely difficult. In courts, the language of the proceedings is Romanian, even if the parties involved speak no Romanian at all. Translation may or may not be available, and if it is, it comes at a fee. All documents related to cases are in Romanian only. In fact, all information offered in courts and in the judicial system is solely in Romanian. All of this poses a serious impediment to Hungarian speaking citizens’ access to justice and equality before the law in Romania.

Use of the Hungarian language in healthcare

In health care, patients have the right to receive information about their conditions in a language they understand. Healthcare and social care institutions are obliged to hire personnel who speak the language of the minority in administrative units where the percentage of the minority exceeds 20 percent or their number is greater than 5,000 persons. However, this law – as many other laws in Romania – is not applied. Recently, in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, in Romanian) a little girl was ridiculed by a doctor in the hospital for not speaking Romanian.

Medication sold to Hungarian patients lacks Hungarian inscriptions. The inscriptions, very often on medication that can cause serious complications or, if misused, can put a person’s life at risk, are solely in Romanian. Description of the possible side effects and the required dosage is not available in Hungarian. Medical advice, medical consulting and medical safety procedures in Hungarian are available only if there is Hungarian-speaking medical personnel. It is very difficult for patients to communicate with Romanian doctors and medical personnel who don’t speak Hungarian.

Linguistic rights of pupils

Hungarian pupils continue to be at a disadvantage in comparison to Romanians. Some of these disadvantages derive from misapplied legislation, or lack thereof, often in cases where the solution would only require minimal effort. For instance, exam rules are only available in Romanian, even for small children at the elementary school level. There were reported cases of mistranslated exam subjects at national level contests, thus proving that even when there is Hungarian translation, little effort is made to ensure intelligibility.

International criticism of Romania’s failure to apply laws regarding the rights of ethnic minorities

Linguistic rights are basic human rights recognized by all international forums and also considered inalienable cultural rights. International organizations and human rights forums have published criticism of the practices of the Romanian state. The Council of Europe, the United Nations, and the U.S. Department of State have all stated that Romania does not respect the rights of the ethnic minorities. But Romania continues to declare loudly that it treats its ethnic minorities in an exemplary manner. From the examples above, just a few of the many, one might argue that Romania has become an example of how not to treat citizens.

The response

Some 1.2 million EU citizens signed the Minority Safepack Initiative of the Federal Union of National Minorities, known as FUEN. Among the signatories were 300 thousand Transylvanian Hungarians. You can understand why we want a European law to protect our rights because we are fed up with the 100 lawsuits, with the 20,000 euro fines for flying the Szekler flag, with the re-nationalization of the Székely Mikó Reformed College and with the state’s blocking of UNESCO’s recognition of our cultural heritage.

Title image: Village sign in Romanian, Hungarian and Szekler cuneiform writing


Author: Csilla Hegedüs