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Language and the Right to Decide

Published: September 23, 2011, Author: Rÿser Rudolph C.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) met three days ago to engage in an “interactive dialogue” with James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Vital Bambanze, Chairperson of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to consider how “language and culture” influence protection of the identity of indigenous peoples. Anaya’s mandate is to investigate and report on four interconnected areas of Human Rights concern to the promotion of Indigenous peoples’ rights: promotion of good country practices, reports of progress by countries, reports on specific cases of alleged human rights violations experienced by indigenous peoples and specific thematic studies on topics that arise from time-to-time. Though such meetings are not dramatic enough to capture the attention of a wide swath of official or civil society, they are important to the process of developing new rules of conduct in relation to indigenous peoples by states’ governments.

While no one really knows how many indigenous languages remain extant in the world, a popular consensus holds that there are about 6000 languages used in as many nations around the world. For languages to remain vital and functional in the lives of peoples they must have social, economic, political and cultural uses. In other words, languages must be understood to be a dynamic part of culture and society.  The tendency in academic and states’ government circles is to force narrow standardization and limitations on diversity to promote the “unified state ideal.”  This tendency is counter to the natural circumstance of diversity among human cultures–including languages. Despite clusters of agreement between officials in international meetings calling for “protection” of language diversity and cultural diversity, the institutional focus of states’ governments is just the opposite.  It is in the nature of the state to limit and or eliminate diversity in favor of unified standardization.

The UN Human Rights Council asks James Anaya and Vital Bambanze to advance an agenda of “diversity” even as each state member in the Council represents a government that is obliged, by virtue of the way a state is organized, to oppose such diversity.

Anaya urged the Council to promote indigenous languages by noting that such an effort requires “acceptance and revitalization.”  Can states actually carry out such a policy as a practical matter and still promote the universalization of narrow standards that define the state?  Vital Bambanze represented the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples conclusions by arguing that states must stop “discrimination against indigenous languages.” Lester Coyne, Senior Regional Aboriginal Health Coordinator and Chairperson of the Native Title Land Clearance in Australia also participated in the dialogue. He argued that states’ governments should enshrine language rights in state legislation.

Javier Lopez Sanchez, Director General of the National Institute of Indigenous Languages in México argued that there are “people who were adversaries of diversity, the mono-cultural attitudes of national States.” His view was that while there is a need for states’ governments to act to recognize language and diversity among indigenous peoples, indigenous peoples themselves have a responsibility for maintaining their language and cultures as dynamic aspects of society.

States’ government representatives from México, Australia, Guatemala, Norway, Canada, Bolivia, Nepal, Chile, Peru, Brazil and the European Union generally offered defensive statements about actions their governments had taken to protect indigenous languages and protect indigenous peoples’ human rights. Usually government officials described financial assistance to indigenous communities to promote languages. Virtually all of these representatives described “legal” measures to protect indigenous peoples.

Probably the most important part of the “dialogue” that did not actually receive much attention concerned the “right of indigenous peoples to participate in decision-making.” It seems to this observer that language and diversity really do depend on indigenous peoples themselves exercising the power of self-determination without interference from the state. Without this condition being met, the state will remain the biggest threat to the cultural and linguistic diversity of indigenous peoples.  That means states must share power and negotiate in good faith with indigenous peoples.  Absent the power to decide without external threats from imposed commercial development, imposed educational systems, and imposed cultural pressures indigenous peoples’ capacity to maintain languages and cultures will remain under threat. Yes, it is appropriate that states’ governments try to establish mechanisms to protect indigenous languages and culture, it will be more effective for states to establish rules and mechanisms that reduce or eliminate interference in the lives and territories of indigenous peoples. Preventing imposed changes while promoting mutual cooperation and recognition of indigenous peoples’ authority to decide their own future will help achieve the outcomes the UN Human Rights dialogue hopes to accomplish.

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