Britain obstructs action on minority rights: Council of Europe wants to extend its authority into a contentious area, but some members are suspicious

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN is one of four states opposing a new international framework for minority rights, according to officials at the Council of Europe. The organisation, grappling with the problems of the Russian minority in Estonia, believes a deal could help to damp down disputes in eastern Europe.

Senior officials favour a tough, legally binding protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which would lay down basic rights for minorities. This could be accompanied by a convention with measures to promote minority issues, such as language and education.

However, four states, including Britain, are wary of the whole exercise. There are a number of concerns, including how to define a minority, and the issue of recent immigrants. Britain has reservations about how a new law would affect the Scots, Welsh and Irish in the United Kingdom. France, Greece and Turkey are also in the 'hard core,' say officials. France is worried about Corsica.

The Council of Europe's main role has been as a guardian of human rights in Western Europe, through the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court of Human Rights, part of the associated judicial machinery, has supra-national powers. Britain has fallen foul of it several times, notably over prisons and the treatment of terrorist suspects.

The Council lacks political clout and is often seen as the poor relation of the European Community, which is a separate body. But since the end of the Cold War the Council has admitted new states. With the patchwork of ethnic minorities in central and eastern Europe, this has forced it to focus on new questions.

Experts at the Council's Strasbourg headquarters this weekend examined a revised Estonian law on aliens. An earlier version was denounced by Russia as 'apartheid', discriminating against the country's 600,000 ethnic Russians, more than a third of the population.

Estonia's President, Lennart Meri, held back the law and sought guidance from the Council of Europe and the Conference on Security and Co- operation in Europe (CSCE). The Council said the law contained 'deficiencies' and 'inconsistencies' and asked for it to be revised. If the legal experts cannot accept the amended law, Tallinn may raise the issue again.

Estonia has become a test of the Council's new role. Russia, a non- member, initially tried to prevent the Baltic state joining the Council. Andrei Kozyrev, Russia's Foreign Minister, wrote to Catherine Lalumiere, the Council's Secretary General saying that 'hundreds of thousands of people are in effect deprived of citizenship' in Estonia. The move, seen as old-fashioned muscle- flexing, was counter-productive.

However, in an implicit warning to Estonia, the Council's parliamentary assembly passed a motion last month saying that states which did not respect the duties of membership might face punishment and could possibly be suspended. The legal protection of minorities surfaced when the Council's representatives voted on Slovakia's application for membership last month. Hungary raised concerns about Bratislava's treatment of its ethnic Hungarian minority and threatened to block membership. This was averted after last-minute telephone calls between Budapest and Strasbourg. But the Hungarian minority in Romania is likely to be raised when Bucharest's application is considered.

The problem may be trickier in Latvia, which is preparing a citizenship law. It has a substantial Russian minority, and ethnic Latvians may even be a minority in their own state. But Council officials say Latvia has been 'more intelligent' and taken outside advice.

A new protocol to the Convention on Human Rights would help to clarify the duties of member states. But some prefer a more diffuse approach to the minorities problem, using an outline convention whose details could be sketched in later. Jozef Moravcik, Slovakia's Foreign Minister, said last week he favoured a Central European agreement 'with specific features only for this region'.

The CSCE and its widely respected minorities commissioner are likely to play a role in the protection of minorities, though it is regarded as unsuitable to take the lead. 'The Council of Europe is more flexible than the CSCE,' said Mr Moravcik. 'To reach consensus in the CSCE is very difficult.' But it remains uncertain whether legal measures can be agreed and whether anyone will respect them.

The issue has caused tensions. 'They advised us to forget history,' said Mr Kull of the Council's advice. 'We can't agree with the experts of the Council of Europe in this issue. They want us to be obedient to Russia. The West is itself afraid of Russia,' an Estonian politician said last week. Amending the law was painted as a defeat for Estonian sovereignty.

Mr Lennart defends his actions. 'By recognising the supremacy of the European legal system, not only in word but in deed, we have won new friends,' he said.