Linguistic preservation and legal rights: An analysis of the status of Indigenous language rights under international law

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Hannah Weston


Indigenous language, Language rights


The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages, in recognition of the continuing importance of traditional languages to Indigenous peoples around the world. The integral role of language means that its endangerment causes loss of culture, identity, and connection to land. For many Indigenous people, this also represents assimilation, disadvantage, and trauma borne of generations of systemic discrimination and genocide. This paper firstly examines the effects of language endangerment in the Kimberley, then discusses the inadequacy of the international human rights regime in protecting Indigenous languages and the rights attached to them. The few rights that are enshrined in binding international instruments have not been adequately enforced, with international judicial and quasi-judicial bodies treating them merely as a matter of procedural fairness instead of as inherent human rights. Furthermore, the current international rights regime is based on colonial perceptions of justice and fails to recognise Indigenous peoples as nations. If the international rights regime is to offer true protection to language rights, structural transformations that address the colonised nature of the international system must transpire.

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