UN experts urge decade of action to aid survival of indigenous languages

GENEVA August 7, 2019 – In a statement to mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, UN human rights experts* are calling for a decade of action to protect and promote the use of indigenous languages, many of which are endangered:

“Indigenous languages are necessary for the enjoyment of human rights, as well as being a part of the rich linguistic and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples.

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However, indigenous rights experts are concerned that of the 7,000 indigenous languages around the world, many are endangered. Forty per cent of them are in danger of disappearing altogether.

This situation reflects historic State policies and ongoing discrimination against speakers of indigenous languages, and towards the assimilation of minorities and nation building. Over time, such policies can undermine and effectively destroy a culture and even a people.

Indigenous languages allow for the freedom of expression and conscience critical to human dignity, as well as cultural and political self-determination. They are also critical for the survival of our global society. Containing the wisdom of traditional environmental knowledge and cross-cultural communication, indigenous languages hold the keys to combating climate change, and living in peace.

Language is a right not a privilege. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognises the right of indigenous peoples to revitalise, use, develop and transmit their languages to future generations. Importantly this includes the right to establish and control institutions responsible for education, media, and governance.

We call on UN member States to recognise, protect and promote indigenous languages through legislation, policies and other strategies, in full cooperation with indigenous peoples, including adequate, sustained support for bilingual and mother tongue education.

We call on States to ensure access to health, employment, judicial and other public services in the languages of indigenous peoples, including through cyberspace and the internet.

We support the States that have encouraged the UN to declare a Decade of Indigenous Languages. Ten years would provide the time and resources necessary to reverse the historic destruction of indigenous languages and reclaim these languages for the future of indigenous peoples and the world community, alike.”

(*) The experts: The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a subsidiary body of the Human Rights Council. Its mandate is to provide the Council with expertise and advice on the rights of indigenous peoples as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and to assist Member States in achieving the ends of the Declaration through the promotion, protection and fulfilment of the rights of indigenous peoples. It is composed of seven independent experts serving in their personal capacities and is currently chaired by Ms Kristen Carpenter.

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council, with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. The Forum is made up of 16 members serving in their personal capacity as independent experts on indigenous issues. Eight of the members are nominated by governments and eight by the President of ECOSOC, on the basis of broad consultation with indigenous groups. It is currently Chaired by Ms Anne Nuorgam.

The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures 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.

The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples was established by the General Assembly in 1985. The Fund provides support for indigenous peoples’ representatives to participate in sessions of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Human Rights Council, including its Universal Periodic Review, and UN human rights treaty bodies. Its Board of Trustees is currently Chaired by Ms Claire Charters.