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Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal declaration of human rights (UDHR). On the UN's website you can find translations of UDHR in 337 languages. Given Ethnologue's current claim of 6,912 living languages, there's a long way to go. But they claim it is the "most translated document in the world" (I'd've thought Genesis probably beat that). Recent additions include Seselwa Creole French, Sierra Leone Krio and Cook Islands Maori. And you can hear it read in 60 plus languages [1] on the World Voices site. They're mostly large languages, apart from Chamorro, Gaelic and Icelandic, and there are no Indigenous Australian languages - not surprising, since translating it would not be easy.

According to Amnesty Australia, "Australia is the only Western democracy without a Human Rights Act or similar human rights protection". They are running a campaign for human rights protection. Ditto Get-Up. An Amnesty supporter, Julian Burnside, writes:

"I once shared the formerly popular view that we don't need a Human Rights Act in Australia, but events of the past decade convinced me otherwise. They revealed that we cannot rely on our rights being protected by the common law. In Australia's constitutional democracy, the parliaments are able to set aside the common law if they choose to do so." Human Rights Defender 27,4, Dec. 2008-Feb.2009: p.9.


So, to language rights. These have come to attention recently with the decision by the Northern Territory Government to introduce a standardised curriculum into primary schools which will make it difficult to run properly managed bilingual programs using Indigenous languages as the medium of instruction. "The first four hours in English", a few words uttered by a Minister in Parliament, can change irrevocably how Indigenous children experience school, and the use of their languages in school, and will probably cause the irreversible loss of their first languages.

The Minister could not have made a decision so quickly, if Australia accorded recognition to Indigenous languages officially. She would have had to consider the educational evidence for and against using the Indigenous language as a medium of instruction, and there would have been public debate before the policy could be implemented. This would have been an excellent thing, because there is no magic bullet for improving Indigenous children's knowledge of spoken and written English. It has many many causes, from massive hearing loss, to poverty, to truancy, to lack of good ESL teaching, to failure by Governments to spend equitably on Indigenous communities. But bilingual education isn't one of the causes.

There's a stupid opposition made in the media between 'a rights agenda' and 'basic services'. As if pushing for recognition of human rights somehow gets in the way of providing basic services. In fact, what recognition of human rights does is require governments to reflect a little before forming policies which damage human rights.

UNESCO has a general site on language rights. Here's Australia's position as I see it. Corrections, improvements etc gladly received!

So, Australia HAS ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which contains rather vague protection for Indigenous languages.

Article 26
All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 27
In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language

Australia has also ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and cultural Rights, article 13 of which gives a right to education which "shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." Language rights might sneak in there. Or they might sneak into Article 15 "The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone: (a) To take part in cultural life".

But Australia has not ratified later attempts to spell out explicit protection for language rights. Along with most countries it did not ratify C169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) put forward by the International Labour Organisation. This provides extensive protection for rights to use Indigenous languages. [2] Only 20 countries have, mostly Latin American.

In 2007 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed 61/295 2007 Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples [.pdf], which contains weaker protection for lndigenous language rights.

Article 13
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.

Article 14
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.
2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.

Along with a few rich recently colonised countries (Canada, New Zealand and the US - CANZUS [.doc]), Australia did not ratify this. Yesterday the Federal Attorney General, Robert McClelland, said yesterday in the inaugural Evatt lecture that

"And we support the principles underlying the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We are consulting with Indigenous organisations and other key stakeholders on an appropriate public statement to reflect this.”


However, we ARE a signatory to the 2001 adoption by the 31st UNESCO General Conference of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity [.pdf]. So we have agreed to work towards policies recognising:

Article 5 - Cultural rights as an enabling environment for cultural diversity
Cultural rights are an integral part of human rights, which are universal, indivisible and interdependent. The flourishing of creative diversity requires the full implementation of cultural rights as defined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Articles 13 and 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and cultural Rights. All persons should therefore be able to express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue; all persons should be entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity; and all persons have the right to participate in the cultural life of their choice and conduct their own cultural practices, subject to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Article 6 - Towards access for all to cultural diversity
While ensuring the free flow of ideas by word and image, care should be exercised so that all cultures can express themselves and make themselves known. Freedom of expression, media pluralism, multilingualism, equal access to art and to scientific and technological knowledge, including in digital form, and the possibility for all cultures to have access to the means of expression and dissemination are the guarantees of cultural diversity.

It's understandable in one respect why language rights are not binding. Poor countries with many languages cannot afford the cost of ensuring that everyone can give and receive information in their mother-tongue. But Australia, GFC aside, is a very rich country, and we could be doing a lot more towards making policies that recognise these rights, as was pointed out in 2005 by Tom Calma, then Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

We could do with recognising the rights of Indigenous children to have their first language as the medium of instruction in schools if their parents want this. The more so since if accompanied by decent ESL teaching, it will probably improve their acquisition of standard English. Make sure McClelland's 'appropriate statement' includes this... You can have your say at his consultative website.


[1] Albanian, Amharic, Apache, Arabic, Armenian, Basque, Burmese, Cantonese, Chamorro, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, English, Ewe, Finnish, French, Ga, Gaelic, German, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hausa, Hebrew, Hindi, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Igbo, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Latvian, Magyar/ Hungarian, Malay, Mandarin, Mina, Mongolian, Nepali, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Sesotho, Shona, Sinhalese, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Swiss, Tagalog, Tibetan, Tigrinya, Tswana, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese, Wolof, Yiddish, Zulu

[2] 1989 C169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169)
Look at all these wonderful rights. We can at least dream.
Article 27
1. Education programmes and services for the peoples concerned shall be developed and implemented in co-operation with them to address their special needs, and shall incorporate their histories, their knowledge and technologies, their value systems and their further social, economic and cultural aspirations.

2. The competent authority shall ensure the training of members of these peoples and their involvement in the formulation and implementation of education programmes, with a view to the progressive transfer of responsibility for the conduct of these programmes to these peoples as appropriate.

3. In addition, governments shall recognise the right of these peoples to establish their own educational institutions and facilities, provided that such institutions meet minimum standards established by the competent authority in consultation with these peoples. Appropriate resources shall be provided for this purpose.

Article 28
1. Children belonging to the peoples concerned shall, wherever practicable, be taught to read and write in their own indigenous language or in the language most commonly used by the group to which they belong. When this is not practicable, the competent authorities shall undertake consultations with these peoples with a view to the adoption of measures to achieve this objective.

2. Adequate measures shall be taken to ensure that these peoples have the opportunity to attain fluency in the national language or in one of the official languages of the country.

3. Measures shall be taken to preserve and promote the development and practice of the indigenous languages of the peoples concerned.

Article 29
The imparting of general knowledge and skills that will help children belonging to the peoples concerned to participate fully and on an equal footing in their own community and in the national community shall be an aim of education for these peoples.

Article 30
1. Governments shall adopt measures appropriate to the traditions and cultures of the peoples concerned, to make known to them their rights and duties, especially in regard to labour, economic opportunities, education and health matters, social welfare and their rights deriving from this Convention.

2. If necessary, this shall be done by means of written translations and through the use of mass communications in the languages of these peoples.

Article 31
Educational measures shall be taken among all sections of the national community, and particularly among those that are in most direct contact with the peoples concerned, with the object of eliminating prejudices that they may harbour in respect of these peoples. To this end, efforts shall be made to ensure that history textbooks and other educational materials provide a fair, accurate and informative portrayal of the societies and cultures of these peoples.

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