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Linguistic Justice in International Law: An Evaluation of the Discursive Framework

Abstract

Claims by minority groups to use their own languages in different social contexts are often presented as claims for “linguistic justice”, that is, justice as between speakers of different languages. This article considers how the language of international law can be used to advance such claims, by exploring how international law, as a discourse, approaches questions of language policy. This analysis reveals that international legal texts structure their engagement with “linguistic justice” around two key concepts: equality and culture. Through a close examination of the way in which these concepts function within international legal discourse, the article suggests that this conceptual framework may sometimes constrain, as well as enlarge, the possibilities for justice for minority language speakers. Thus while international law may provide a language for challenging injustices in the linguistic sphere, limitations inherent in this discourse may also restrict its emancipatory potential.

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Notes

  1. “Linguistic justice” is a term which is increasingly used in the literature on language policy, to indicate that language policy raises questions of justice: [10, 39].

  2. In the Minority Schools in Albania opinion [22], for example, the Permanent Court of International Justice held that the treaties required that the Greek minority in Albania be allowed to maintain their own schools, to instruct their children in Greek language and culture.

  3. See, in particular, art 2(1).

  4. See, in particular, art 13.

  5. See, in particular, art 28.

  6. See, in particular, art 10.

  7. See, in particular, art 32.

  8. The Oslo Recommendations were developed under the auspices of the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities, to encourage states to adopt best practice measures in relation to minority rights issues. They are not formally binding, but are persuasive as a statement of best practice.

  9. See also article 19 of the UDHR, article 10 of the ECHR, article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

  10. For example, the Human Rights Committee has criticised the Dominican Republic for restricting freedom of expression by prohibiting broadcasting in languages other than Spanish: [34, para 462].

  11. See, eg, the UNESCO Endangered Languages Programme and the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages.

  12. See, eg, the 1976 UNESCO Recommendation on Participation by the People at Large in Cultural Life and Their Contribution to It.

  13. See, eg, ICCPR, arts 14(3)(a), (f).

  14. See, eg, ICESCR, art 13; ECHR, art 2 of the First Protocol; [5].

  15. See, eg, ILO Migrant Workers Recommendation 1975, arts 7(a)(1), 21 and 22.

  16. See, eg, ICCPR, art 25; [20, 26].

  17. See, eg, ICCPR, arts 17 and 23; ECHR, art 8.

  18. This interpretation is supported by the dissenting opinions of Nisuke Ando and Rajsoomer Lallah. These members objected to the Committee’s finding on this point on the basis that there was no specific targeting of the Afrikaans language: the law in question “puts the Afrikaans language exactly on the same footing as any other native languages spoken in Namibia” (dissenting opinion of Nisuke Ando) and no “more favourable treatment was being given to other unofficial languages” (dissenting opinion of Rajsoomer Lallah, para 8).

  19. Eagleton cites the example of “police canteen culture”. He suggests this view of culture is one which would cover “everything from hairstyles and drinking habits to how to address your husband’s second cousin”: [14, p. 32].

  20. Roger O’Keefe has demonstrated that the Committee now also considers article 15 to refer to culture as a way of life: [25, pp. 916–923].

  21. See, eg, arts 8–10.

  22. This is not to say that the Charter is “wrong” to do this. There may be good, practical reasons why the Charter limits the obligations it imposes to identifiable, “traditional” languages. But failure to appreciate the dynamic nature of culture narrows the scope of our vision with respect to both the problem, and the possible solutions, associated with language policy in this area.

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Correspondence to Jacqueline Mowbray.

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Mowbray, J. Linguistic Justice in International Law: An Evaluation of the Discursive Framework. Int J Semiot Law 24, 79–95 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-010-9177-6

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Keywords

  • Linguistic justice
  • International law
  • Legal discourse
  • Equality
  • Culture
  • Power