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Original: English

Division for Social Policy and Development

Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

8-10 January 2008, New York

The Role of International Labour Organization in the Promotion and

Protection of Indigenous Languages

Morse Caoagas Flores


General Introduction

What would happen to the Creator’s law if the robin couldn’t sing its song anymore? We would feel very bad: We would understand that something snapped in nature’s law. What would happen if you saw a robin and you heard a different song, if it was singing the song of the sea gull? You would say, Robin, that’s not your language; that’s not your song.
Grand Chief Mike Mitchell

Mohawk Nation of Canada

Aboriginal Language Policy Conference 1988
Among the 300 to 400 million indigenous peoples who speak about 5,000 of the known 6000 languages world wide, language is considered as the cornerstone of culture and the ultimate expression of belonging as it is through language that culture is shared and transmitted, a unique world view is expressed and identity is moulded and recreated. For indigenous peoples like the Mohawk, language holds the past, present and future of the community whether expressed through prayers, myths, spiritual belief, ceremonies, law, poetry, oratory, or through everyday greetings, conversational styles, humour, ways of speaking to children, or through unique terms for habits, socio-cultural organization and values of the community.
However, indigenous languages like any language in the world do not and will not exist in a vacuum. Connected with language is the indigenous people’s intimate relationship with the land.1 For most indigenous peoples, this relationship is the main criterion which identifies them, that is to say, “they are people, the people of the land.”2 That special connection embodies a unique and essential cultural wisdom and intimate knowledge about the land, which contributes to the richness of the world’s cultural and biological heritage.3

Yet, it is estimated that on average, one language vanishes every two weeks and that half of the approximately 6,000 languages are expected to disappear within the end of the century and the majority of those will be indigenous languages.4 If that happens, indigenous peoples’ intimate knowledge of the environment and ecosystems will essentially vanish and unique expressions of the human experience of the world, which maybe held the key to answering fundamental questions of the future, is irrevocably lost.

Although, it is sometimes argued that when an indigenous language disappears (when there are no longer any speakers of the language) then the group itself does no longer exist as such which is of course not the case in many instances as of today. There are still indigenous communities who are able to maintain a strong community despite having lost the use of their traditional language and self-awareness as indigenous peoples (e.g. Ainu, Maori, the San of the Kalahari Dessert in Namibia and South Africa and most Aborigines in Australia). That is why linguistic criteria which were often used to identify and classify indigenous peoples is no longer a viable option as many indigenous peoples were prohibited to speak their languages thus losing their ability to use them at present.5 Using language as a criterion in identifying indigenous peoples posed a huge challenge as it may exclude many and would result into divided indigenous communities.
It should be noted that some of the reasons of armed movement and uprising of indigenous peoples in several countries, besides other fundamental rights, is the non-recognition of the indigenous languages by their government.6 The non-recognition and the prohibition of the use of indigenous languages in the education and work place has impacted the lives of many indigenous peoples, it has affected them from childhood to adulthood, in the creation of their identity and development of their communities.
Education, which was used as an instrument of assimilation in most countries, has resulted in the loss of many indigenous languages. There are generations of indigenous people who were taught that their languages are inferior to the national language thus created a negative social stigma of being indigenous as “inferior.” Some have tried to cover up their indigenous identities while others tried to preserve and keep their identity in private.
On the other hand, education has also the potential of saving and reviving indigenous languages that are at the brink of extinction as manifested in some countries and territories today. With the empowerment of indigenous movements and recent developments with regards to the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights at the national and international level,7 indigenous languages has become an integral aspect of indigenous peoples’ right to culture (a collective right. With the advent of mass media and telecommunication system (e.g. internet, television and newspaper), new possibilities to strengthen and revive indigenous languages is available, however, a great deal of caution has to be taken in order not to compromise the cultural and intrinsic value of indigenous languages.
ILO Legal Framework for Protecting Indigenous Languages
The situation faced by indigenous peoples and the irreversible extinction of their languages is indeed a concern for the International Labour Organization. The ILO has a long history of commitment in addressing issues affecting the lives of indigenous peoples, both in standard setting, supervision and technical assistance.8 In the normative field the ILO has adopted two instruments that specifically address Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (Conventions Nos. 107 and 169) and there are other ILO conventions, which are not specifically focused on indigenous peoples but are very relevant to their situation. In the technical cooperation field, the ILO is currently running PRO 169/IP LED,9 two programs that are working complementarily to advance and promote the rights of indigenous peoples and at the same time improve their livelihood through local economic development.

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