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Twelfth Session of the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues
“Education, Language and the Human Rights of Minorities”
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Geneva, 28 November 2019

Distinguished President of the Council,
High Commissioner on National Minorities,
Co-chairs,
Excellencies,
Colleagues, Friends,

I am pleased to be present at the opening of the 12th session of this unique platform for dialogue and engagement between members of minorities and representatives of States, as well as international and regional organizations, global and local civil society groups and other actors.

I also welcome the thematic focus of this session, with its emphasis on the need for respect for minorities, and inclusion of their languages and cultures, in every aspect of education.

Dr. Fernand de Varennes, the Council's Special Rapporteur on minority issues, has pledged to present a report to the February session of the Council on "Education, Language and the Human Rights of minorities", which will also draw on the observations and recommendations of this Forum. Among other topics, it will address the recognition, protection and promotion of minority languages in education; teaching in minority languages; and the need to ensure equal access to quality education for members of minority communities, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

These are crucial topics. Learning environments that are respectful and empowering are key openings towards the full development of the individual, and towards her or his capacity to make informed decisions and fully participate in social, political, economic and cultural life.

They also lay the ground for very significant improvements in health and prosperity – improvements that are often carried into future generations. Evidence of education's unmatched power to improve lives continues to accumulate, particularly for girls and women.

But to unlock those powerful levers, the delivery of education must take place in a context of respect. From kindergarten to university, and throughout life-long professional and vocational training, educational environments deliver vitally important skills. In addition, the content and the processes of education also convey values.

Everyone has a right to education, as Article 26 of the Universal Declaration stipulates. And that education should be "directed to the full development of the human personality, and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms".

Those rights and freedoms include the right to learn and speak one's own language and embody one's own culture. These are basic constitutive elements of a life in dignity.

The respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms that Article 26 lays out will not be strengthened if the cultures and languages of schoolchildren and students are dismissed or denied.

Today, in a number of countries, children from specific – usually, minority -- communities are actively discouraged from attending mainstream schools.

Or they are denied the right to learn in their own languages. They may be humiliated, or even punished, for speaking in their mother tongues in playgrounds and recreational areas.

Their religious beliefs may be dismissed and disrespected. The value of their most ancient traditions may be denied.

Education should be about opening students up to the possibilities of the world -- and every educational institution should be a zone of dignity, respect and empowerment. Schooling should not become the means for imposing the norms and beliefs of one culture on the people of another.

It is sometimes argued that the provision of services in minority languages will encourage divisions and threaten social cohesion – or even national security.

But in reality, respect for students can only generate greater respect from them. Educational institutions that embrace the many cultures and languages of their students will produce students who understand that they are welcomed in and by the wider culture, and who have stronger educational achievements and self-esteem.

Education needs to empower young people to understand, enjoy and exercise their rights -- and to learn to live in a way that respects the freedom of others.

Mr President,

Despite tremendous progress in increasing the number of children who can benefit from education, in 2018, more than 258 million children and adolescents were out of school, Around 59 million of these out-of-school children are of primary-school age. Many of these children denied the opportunity of schooling are from minority communities that suffer severe discrimination and exclusion; a disproportionate number are girls.

This violates their fundamental rights as human beings – and it is counterproductive, depriving society of the benefit of their full development.  

I am also deeply concerned about the need to preserve and protect the cultural and linguistic diversity of our societies.

Today, of the world's 6,000 or so living languages, more than 40% are considered endangered.  And because language is such a vital vehicle for cultural transmission, this means entire cultures – and their vast stores of knowledge – are dying.

We need educational policies and programmes that preserve cultural diversity, which is beneficial to every society.

We must also honor the work of human rights defenders who continue to struggle for the respect of minority and indigenous languages, despite intimidation and violence.  I wish to underscore the importance of UN spaces for dialogue and exchange, such as the Forum on Minority Issues, where stakeholders should be able to participate in and contribute to in a free and open manner, without fear of intimidation and reprisals of any sort.

Excellencies,

UNESCO's "Education 2030 Framework for Action" aims to advance Sustainable Development Goal 4, including by enabling education systems to serve all learners -- including girls, members of ethnic and linguistic minorities, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities. It urges adequate funding and community involvement to ensure mother-tongue education for people belonging to minorities, and suggests a number of innovative uses for digital technologies in this context.

Teachers, civil society activists, officials and young people in our audience will be able to discuss these and other topics in the course of the next two days.

These are vital issues. We need to use the amplifying power of education in shaping new generations of people who fully grasp and embody the human rights agenda – because this is how we can build a world of sustainable development, and enduring peace.

Thank you