Linguistic rights protect the individual and collective right to choose one’s language or languages for communication both within the private and the public spheres. They include the right to speak one’s own language in legal, administrative and judicial acts, the right to receive education in one’s own language, and the right for media to be broadcast in one’s own language. For minority groups the opportunity to use one’s own language can be of crucial importance, since it protects individual and collective identity and culture as well as participation in public life.
Although Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ensures that linguistic minorities can use their own languages in their community, problems often exist at national level. Whilst states are permitted to adopt a national language, and may adopt more than one, they cannot discriminate against minority languages that are not officially recognised. States have often restricted official use of minority languages due to the idea that it is ‘necessary’ to use only specified languages. This can create a distinction between groups that do have their languages recognised – who are often ‘majority’ groups – and those that do not. This is exactly what anti-discrimination measures aim to prevent. Yet it has taken a long while for restrictions on language to be viewed as discrimination, and the protection afforded to minority groups is still inadequate.
Restrictions on language rights can also impede minority groups indirectly. Rules may prevent those who do not speak the national language from running for political posts, thus contradicting international obligations guaranteeing free elections. They may also result in court proceedings being grossly unfair, as they can be conducted in a language which certain people are not familiar with. During consultations with the state, minority groups may also suffer as the government may insist that discussions are carried out in the national language, often resulting in lack of dialogue and understanding for the minority. Children may also suffer as they may be taught in a language with which they are unfamiliar. Governments have even restricted the use of certain names, thereby not allowing minority groups to enjoy traditional cultural practices and breaching their right to a private and family life.
Regional and international instruments which protect linguistic rights:
- http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a2 Article 2 Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm#art27 Article 27 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/z1afchar.htm Article 2 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights
- http://www.hrcr.org/docs/American_Convention/oashr3.html Article 1 American Convention on Human Rights
- http://www.hri.org/docs/ECHR50.html#C.Art14 Article 14 European Convention on Human Rights