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Promoting the language rights of indigenous peoples

At least 43 per cent of the 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered, according to estimates by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Of these, many belong to indigenous peoples.

“When a language dies a culture and a form of understanding of the world dies together with it,” said Javier Lopez Sanchez, Director General of the National Institute for Indigenous Languages. “Language is culture. It’s a fundamental tool to understand the world and how social organizations work at all levels. Through language and culture human beings are able to interact.”

Both language and culture are interdependent pillars on which the identity of a people is maintained. They provide cohesion within and outside communities.

This was argued by participants in a panel discussion on the role languages and culture play in promoting and protecting the well-being and identity of indigenous peoples held at the September session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Their aim was to identify measures taken by States to validate and revitalize indigenous languages.

Opening the discussion, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang, noted that the loss of indigenous languages was a tragedy on a global scale.

“As indigenous languages die, so too do integral parts of indigenous peoples’ cultures, a process that often involves violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights to culture, language and even self-determination,” Kang said. “Without the appropriate linguistic terminology available to express indigenous philosophies and concepts, indigenous peoples lose some of their ability to accurately define themselves in accordance with their traditions and to convey these traditions to future generations. At the same time, the world loses some of its cultural history and human knowledge.”

In most indigenous societies, learning is mainly conducted through oral tradition, making maintenance of language a vital part of education. In 2009, the Expert mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples presented to the Council a study on indigenous peoples’ right to education (PDF). The experts advised Governments that indigenous peoples should have the right to education in their own languages, even where indigenous individuals lived outside their indigenous communities. Further, they noted that the teaching of indigenous languages in mainstream institutions would help prevent discrimination against indigenous peoples.

At the Human Rights Council panel discussion, participants stressed that indigenous peoples must ensure that their Governments enact appropriate existing legislation guaranteeing and protecting their rights. However, they added, referring to legal frameworks was not enough. Mind-sets have to change for people to accept linguistic diversity and enable the survival of indigenous languages.

30 September 2011