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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The importance of sign languages to foster human rights: an OHCHR perspective

23 September 2021

UNOG online event for International Day of Sign Languages

Statement by the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Nada Al Nashif

23 September 2021

Dear colleagues and friends,

Human rights is about speaking truth to power. Participation and self-representation are at the core of human rights, and language is at the core of participation and self-representation.

For too long we have seen power to influence or deny the use of languages as a means to disenfranchise populations and identities. This includes, in some instances, Nation-States forbidding the use of language for certain minorities as a way of imposing a hegemonic vision of the State with “signing” communities being excluded by oralist traditions.

Embracing the variety of ways of communication, we must end all practices that impede inclusive communities, embracing this diversity.

This is why we must acknowledge the deaf community both as a language minority and a disability constituency. We have a collective duty to ensure that they can be part of our societies on an equal basis with others, free of discrimination.

States should recognize national sign languages as official languages, to allow these communities to have equal standing in public debate and to participate in the decisions affecting them – fully empowered to exercise their human rights.

Clearly, sign language interpretation is also essential to ensure fully accessible channels of communication for signing communities. That is why “We sign for human rights” in 2021and why we supported the negotiations of the resolution recognising the International Day of Sign Languages and ensured that the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy provides for accessibility, including in communication.


During the COVID-19 crisis, once again, signing communities around the world are excluded from life-saving communication. Information on prevention measures, access to health services, food, and financial support, as well as on restrictions imposed in the emergency context are largely provided without sign language support.

Likewise, domestic- and gender-based violence support services, such as hotlines to denounce violence, largely ignore the realities of the signing communities, potentially exposing them to higher levels of risk.

This has been an area of advocacy for our Office in multiple countries. For example in Uruguay, where we advocated for video calls through mobile apps to include sign language.

If we are to recover better from the pandemic, sign interpretation services, including remote sign interpretation, need to be at the centre of efforts to make communication inclusive. Legal recognition of sign languages and their incorporation in policies, particularly those impacting media, can help to ensure national implementation of these services.


The United Nations aims to lead by example, guided by the Disability Inclusion Strategy and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We can establish clear procedures to access sign interpretation services, being respectful of the language construction processes and local identities - at the office level, an example is the introduction of a sound reasonable accommodation system with a policy, a procedure, a budget and an accountability mechanism that we will continue to improve and monitor for effective and inclusive impact.


Strong and resilient communities are a pre-requisite for the realisation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Deaf persons and signing communities can only be an equal part of our societies, if the conditions necessary for them to use their language are met.

To this end, I strongly call on States to invest in sign language interpretation services, working together with organisations of signing persons with disabilities, setting quality standards that are respectful of the cultural identities of such communities. Regulating service provision is needed, both in public and private spheres for truly inclusive communications and to ensure that no signing person is left behind.

Thank you.