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UN human rights expert calls for recognition of rights of users of sign languages as minorities

International Day of Sign Languages

23 September 2020

GENEVA (22 September 2020) – Sign languages are fully fledged natural languages. Their users have their own rich cultures and identities and are entitled to the full range of human rights as members of a linguistic minority, a UN human rights expert said.

Fernand de Varennes, UN special rapporteur on minority issues, issued the following statement ahead of International Day of Sign Languages on 23 September, which marks the importance of sign language in the full realization of the human rights of people who are deaf.

"The International Day of Sign Languages was adopted by consensus at the UN General Assembly on 19 December 2017 to commemorate the date that the World Federation of the Deaf was established in 1951. This an organisation that aims at the preservation of sign languages and deaf culture as pre-requisites to the realisation of the human rights of deaf people. The International Day of Sign Languages is a unique opportunity to support and protect the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all deaf people and other sign language users.

After my appointment as UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, and a few weeks before the UN General Assembly resolution, I announced at the 10th annual UN Forum on Minority Issues in Geneva that users of sign languages are to be considered as members of a linguistic minority.

This message will be reinforced in my annual report to the General Assembly in October containing a detailed study of the four minority categories recognised in the UN system. This more fully sets out the significance and scope of these categories, explains why users of sign languages are clearly also members of a linguistic minority, and therefore why they cannot be limited only to being persons with disabilities.

As members of linguistic minorities, users of sign languages have unique identities and cultures associated with their own languages, and are entitled to the full and equal protection of international human rights in relation to respect for and use of their languages.

I call on governments to continue the process of recognition and accommodation of the human rights of sign language users as members of linguistic minorities. This is needed particularly in the field of education and access to health care and other public services without discrimination.

On this important date, I also urge States to raise awareness of the importance of sign language in the full realization of the human rights of people who are deaf, and to work closely in partnership with national associations of deaf people as well as other deaf-led organisations."

ENDS

Fernand de Varennes (Canada), was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues by the Human Rights Council in June 2017. He is tasked by the UN Human Rights Council with promoting the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, among other things. He is Extraordinary Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Pretoria in South Africa; Cheng Yu Tung Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong; and Visiting Professor at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland-Galway. He is one of the world's leading experts on minority rights in international law, with more than 200 publications in some 30 languages.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For inquiries and media requests, please contact Ms. Marina Narvaez (+41 22 917 96 15 / mnarvaez@ohchr.org) or Ms Hee-Kyong Yoo (+41 22 917 97 23 / hyoo@ohchr.org)

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org), Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jlaurence@ohchr.org) and Kitty McKinsey (kmckinsey@ohchr.org)

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter: @UN_SPExperts.

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