What about the “Declaration of Linguistic Rights”?

Logo of UDLRThere are probably not many people who have heard of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (UDLR). The whole concept of linguistic rights is not widely known or discussed outside of some “MINEL” (minority, indigenous, national, endangered, local) language communities and language experts and activists. During this International Year of Languages, and with an upcoming Symposium on Linguistic Rights in the World (Geneva, 24 April), it would seem to be an ideal moment to ask where we are going with the UDLR and the whole concept.

The story behind the UDLR apparently is that it was initiated in September 1994 by the International PEN Club’s Translations and Linguistic Rights Committee and the Escarré International Centre for Ethnic Minorities and Nations, and culminated with its adoption at the World Conference on Linguistic Rights held in Barcelona on 6-9 June 1996. UNESCO was asked for its support, and apparently accorded it. However the UDLR has not been ratified by the UN General Assembly and does not have the status in international law that something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has.

Speaking of the latter, language is mentioned as a factor not to be used to limit application of the rights enumerated therein:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. … (UDHR, Article 2; my emphasis added)

However, this is not quite the same as – or at least does not have the same emphasis as – “linguistic rights,” which concern individual and community rights to use a language. Hence the motivation to write something like the UDLR.

The point is perhaps clearer in considering the extreme opposite – “linguistic genocide” – which refers to deliberate efforts by a government or power to prevent, limit, and ultimately eliminate the use of a specific language, and may be regarded as a type of cultural genocide.

There is an interesting discussion of the latter and international law in the advanced version of an expert paper on children’s education and human rights prepared for the upcoming 7th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (21 April-2 May in New York). The paper was submitted by Lars Anders-Baer (prepared in cooperation with Ole Henrik-Magga, Robert Dunbar and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas) and entitled “Forms of Education of Indigenous Children as Crimes Against Humanity?” According to the authors, cultural genocide was not explicitly included in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (adopted by the UN in 1948, the same year as the UDHR) for various reasons. However the authors find that there are still ways that this international agreement can be used against cultural genocide, and linguistic genocide.

Nevertheless it seems that while the field of international law and human rights is a complex and evolving one, there are some significant gaps when it come to languages. Specifically there are apparently no explicit protections of linguistic rights such as proposed in the still unofficial UDLR of 1996. But is the ULDR the best way to fill these gaps? One expert suggested that it might need a rewrite before it could hope for international ratification. But there has to my knowledge been no such discussion. It would be a shame if the International Year of Languages were to pass without any serious consideration of picking up this initiative.

A small positive step would be to begin by focusing on the rights of children, as the abovementioned article does. In a different context I’ve also called attention to the punishment of children for speaking their mother tongues in Africa (a practice that has been known in many other parts of the world as well). An earlier example is Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s “Declaration of Children’s Linguistic Rights” published in 1995 (originally in 1986; thanks to Joan Wink for calling my attention to it):

  1. Every child should have the right to identify with her original mother tongue(s) and have her identification accepted and respected by others.
  2. Every child should have the right to learn the mother tongue(s) fully.
  3. Every child should have the right to choose when she wants to use the mother tongue(s) in all official situations.

At the very least, perhaps this short formulation and the longer UDLR could be publicized more in order to help raise awareness about linguistic rights issues.

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