The Failed Promise of Language Rights: A Critique of the International Language Rights Regime

Major international legal instruments commit international law to protect language rights absolutely, irrespective of counter-pressures toward linguistic uniformity. This unconditional commitment to language rights is echoed in the writings of prominent human rights scholars, who argue that language is a constitutive element of cultural identity. This article contrasts the ideals of language rights with the actual record of their enforcement. It presents a detailed analysis of the 133 cases that have come before the European Court of Human Rights, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights dealing with language issues as they arise in
(i) education, (ii) court proceedings, and (iii) communications with the government. The analysis demonstrates that the decisions of international judicial or quasi-judicial bodies in language protection cases have consistently favored linguistic assimilation, rather than the robust protection of linguistic diversity that is formally espoused. Instead of strong language guarantees, only transitional accommodations are offered in the public realm for those as yet unable to speak the majority language. This jurisprudence treats minority language not as a valuable cultural asset worthy of perpetual legal protection, but as a temporary obstacle that individuals must overcome in order to participate in society. The legal decisions take a narrowly utilitarian approach to language, forcing the state to accept the use of minority languages only insofar as they facilitate communication with the majority and with the official bodies of the state. The paper concludes with a commentary suggesting that treating language interests under the rubric of human rights, however valid and worthy they may be, cannot be normatively defended.

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