- December 30, 2021
“I have the right to the original spelling of names and surnames” – interview with Dr. Łukasz Wardyn
Dr. Łukasz Wardyn, legal expert of the European Foundation of Human Rights, was a guest at Studio Wilno on December 30, 2021. The topic of conversation was a campaign run by EFHR titled “I have the right to the original spelling of names and surnames”. The discussion was focused on what the campaign is, how it works and whether Poles in Lithuania want their surnames written in the original form. It went as follows:
- This is Mirosława Januszkiewicz. Welcome to Studio Wilno. The names and surnames of all Lithuanian citizens, regardless of their nationality, are written in official documents in accordance with the Lithuanian alphabet. The campaign conducted by the European Foundation of Human Rights is called “I have the right to the original spelling of names and surnames”. What it is, how it works and whether Poles living in Lithuania want their surnames written in their original form is the topic of today’s conversation with Dr. Łukasz Wardyn, legal expert of the European Foundation of Human Rights. Good evening. Hello, Sir.
- Good evening.
- The campaign has been running since August. How many applications have been submitted so far?
- As of today, over 20 applications have already been submitted and there are at least 7 being processed right now.
- That does not seem like a lot though, does it?
- That is rather subjective. Considering that in the last few years we have had only isolated cases, this is a undeniable surge of interest in the original spelling of names and surnames among national minorities in Lithuania. For us it is also a sign that our initiative is bringing tangible results.
- What people usually come to you – Poles or Lithuanians?
- The European Foundation of Human Rights has won over 130 court cases in the last years of its activity. Unfortunately, most of them were cases of Lithuanian women who married a foreigner and asked for help here. We can see that there are more and more similar cases and the attitude of the judiciary towards them is changing. That is why we find that we have now come to the point where we need to motivate the minority to action.
- You used the word “unfortunately”. Is it a pity that Poles are not the majority?
- Well, that’s what the whole campaign is about. From the very beginning, the goal of the foundation was to rouse the minority from lethargy related to the over 30-year period of transformation and the continuous struggle. Sometimes at one point you simply lose faith and do not want to try anymore.
- We are fighting now though, so why are Poles this hesitant? What are they afraid of?
- It depends on their age. When it comes to young people, unfortunately it must be said that they do not seem to care anymore, since even at Polish schools their names and surnames keep getting misspelled. Things don’t look like they used to, when there were paper school registers, for example.
- Right, back then the surnames were spelled correctly.
- Now, unfortunately, we have online classes in a version that is neither lithuanized nor Polish – it is something in between. I think that might be one of the main reasons along with having gotten used to the twisted versions of names and surnames. When it comes to the elderly, we run business with Lithuanian citizens and they may be concerned about how such a change would be perceived, as well as what costs it would bring.
- So are they afraid of some kind of discrimination and how the surname will sound in Polish?
- Yes, as they say: “If I change my surname, my takings might shrink. Lithuanians will not do business with me as much.” People often tell us that they would not like to make a change at this point and they would rather wait until they retire. This is how we get to the third category of people: those who are already retired and claim: “It is already so late. I still have to get my land back, I still need this and that…”
- And then a tombstone is the only thing left?
- And then everyone is just fighting for the spelling on the tombstone…
- There is probably no need to fight at that point though, the time had been wasted. I would also like to ask if the attitude of the judges has changed, since you mentioned that it is slightly different now.
- We are seeing an immeasurable change over the past six to seven years, when I for example started my case that was brought to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. There has been a complete shift in approach when it comes to understanding.
- There is no such surprise anymore?
- There is more and more understanding, which can also be noticed in the judgements themselves. They are bolder and refer to the lack of regulations of this legal scope in Lithuania, as well as to the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. We already have judgements concerning national minorities, which also refer to the conventions for their protection. Those are all far-reaching consequences when it comes to internal legislation and understanding of human rights, because the right to correct spelling of one’s name and surname is indeed a human right.
- How many cases have been categorically rejected?
- None. As of today, there have been no rejected cases, which does not apply only to Vilnius, but also cities such as Panevėžys, Šiauliai and Kaunas, as well as some smaller towns. That is why we can say that this change is structural.
- What kind of changes can a person count on? We have a lot of letters that are different from the Lithuanian and Latin alphabets.
- Everything that concerns double letters, for example “Anna”, “rz” as in “Małgorzata”, “sz”, “cz” or letters such as “w”, “x”, “q”.
- Is there a chance for the Polish letters?
- We are starting with Polish letters right now as part of the current campaign. We are taking into account the recent rule of the Supreme Court of Lithuania, which obliged the Registry Office to register diacritics, so we are starting to fight for them too.
- So people who participate in this campaign will have a chance for their names or surnames to be spelled with letters such as “ś”, “ń”, “ł”?
- Yes, that is what we will fight for.
- What is the procedure like? Where should one begin?
- It is good to start by contacting the European Foundation of Human Rights and filling in the forms either by e-mail or by phone.
- But you do have to fill in some documents – it is not possible to do everything by phone, is it?
- Yes, there is a form that can be sent to us electronically (e.g. by e-mail) or even as a photo on WhatsApp. From a formal point of view the necessity to contact us may end upon completing the form. Of course, it is also worth asking your elderly ancestors for some documents.
- To confirm the original spelling, right?
- Yes, for example pre-war documents or marriage certificates from grandparents or great-grandparents. However, even if they cannot be found due to circumstances arising from the war, the foundation searches for these family documents in the archives for free – as a bonus, you might say.
- In churches as well?
- At first, we search in the archives. People would rather need to come to the churches themselves, since our power of attorney allows for trouble-free searching only in the archives. We find interesting information about people who come to us. They do not usually have the time or knowledge of procedures, but we already have them. I think that the mere reason to have this information about ancestors should be enough to motivate these people to either change or go back to the original spelling of their names and surnames. My children, for example, have all been named after their grandparents and great-grandparents. I think there are many people in the Vilnius region who honour their ancestors this way, which could also help to settle the matter.
- Should the applicant attend the court hearing? Is their presence necessary?
- There is no need to.
- Is it only one hearing or are there several of them? How long does it take?
- It depends. Of course, it would be nice if said person was present. They would appear more credible and since the spelling is an individual component of human dignity, being present in court would add a personal element to it. However, there is no such necessity.
- Does it cost anything?
- As for the costs, they are zero. Everything is covered by the European Foundation of Human Rights including procedural costs along with a lawyer, costs for extracting data from archives, and ultimately any costs of proceedings and applications.
- What comes next? Do we receive a notice of a positive settlement of the case? What should we do then?
- Not if but when we receive it, which is a matter of time, we can wait for new documents. If we are in no rush to exchange them, there is no need for immediate replacement.
- Can we still use the old document or do we get any certification in case of, for example, a doctor’s appointment?
- We have a change of marital status records: first, the birth certificate, then the marriage certificate.
- So it can be done one by one?
- Yes, it is not necessary to replace these documents overnight, although if you have fought for that name or surname for months, some might want to do so.
- What about property rights? Could there be any inheritance problems?
- This is the most interesting thing, since one of the main reasons why people do not want a change is the title deed related to the return of property. However, these documents actually have the names of the ancestors in the original version, right? There are no problems here, because the history of our names and surnames in a written form is available at the registry office. Nothing else will change, just like in the case of a maiden who decides to get married and take her husband’s surname. No major problems are to be anticipated.
- Well, the campaign is all about keeping people informed. I know you have reached out to Polish organizations – what is the reaction? Are there queues already?
- The foundation sent a request for a meeting to all Polish minority organizations here in Lithuania. We know that now is a very difficult time in terms of meetings and not all organizations can meet online. For example, yesterday I participated in the general meeting of the Association of Polish Scientists of Lithuania, where I presented this aspect and there were people interested in the change as well.
- Can you handle it? Will you keep up if requests suddenly start appearing one after the other?
- There will be no problem with that. We have enough processing capacity to take care of it. The most important thing is to have those people, because the point is to show that there is interest. I remember when I was in Zakopane and met the former president. I asked him about the spelling of names and surnames and he replied: “Why worry about this? Nobody will want to change it anyway.”
- So you need to show that this is not the case.
- I think it is high time to show that, after these fifteen years, things are different and our initiative is bringing tangible results. We are supported by politicians, members of the Lithuanian parliament, scouts, representatives of the media and entrepreneurs.
- So these steps start to get bigger and bigger then.
- Well, you can see the positive attitude in people who understand that the change has occurred. They can look at those 130 families who have changed their names and surnames and therefore see the light at the end of the tunnel.
- Why are you doing this? I know it started with your family, with the change of your wife’s first and last name. Why do you keep doing this? After all, you have already organized everything around you.
- It is about establishing certain standards of international law and human rights in Lithuania, which are still lacking. Lithuania is one of the few countries (along with Latvia) that does not respect human rights in this regard, that is, the rights of national minorities to the original spelling of names and surnames. Of course, in some member states we have smaller or bigger problems, but those are quite minor. The point here was for Poles to be able to return to their roots, because surnames are the foundation of our existence and they represent who we are. If someone tries to change it and we do not fight, everything else doesn’t really matter anymore.
- Right, as we already have this possibility, we should take advantage of it. Thank you so much for the interview and for coming to the studio.
- Thank you very much.
- My guest today was Dr. Łukasz Wardyn, legal expert of the European Foundation of Human Rights. Poles in Lithuania have been fighting for the correct spelling of surnames for over thirty years. Today, change is practically at hand. In this situation, it is probably worth realizing that great patriotism begins with single steps, such as, for example, changing the spelling of your surname to the original form. Thank you for today. Goodbye.
Translated by Sandra Krajnik within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.