International Year of Indigenous Languages

Aktualisiert: 2. Mai 2020

This article presents the situation of indigenous languages and the rights of indigenous people in Bolivia. This blog is very well-timed, as this year the United Nations and the whole world celebrate the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL). The year is celebrated to raise awareness of the importance of preserving the diversity of cultures and languages and protecting the rights of indigenous populations. The year is organised by the UNESCO, based on the UN General Assembly Resolution 71/178, which called all countries to take action for promoting and conserving the indigenous languages and rights.

The article starts first by presenting the background and need for the IYIL. Then, the article reviews the most important international treaties regulating the rights of indigenous peoples. The main part of the article will cover the situation of indigenous languages and rights in Bolivia. Here the focus will be especially on the ability to use indigenous languages in legal proceedings, as well as, the presence of state violence against the indigenous people. These are crucial topics because of the poor situation of indigenous people and the neglect of their rights in Bolivia. Finally, the article draws conclusions and provides ITEI’s perspectives.

International Year of Indigenous Languages

There are various reasons which make protecting indigenous languages highly crucial and urgent today. Firstly, languages are our main way of communication with each other. But languages have a much bigger role than that. They are the way how we think, the way we learn, the way we remember and the way we express ourselves – our ideas and identities. Languages are also the means of social integration, spreading information and acquiring knowledge. Additionally, for the indigenous groups, language is a method to build group togetherness and preserve cultural identities – to pass down customs, traditions and shared histories. Moreover, preserving indigenous languages is crucial in terms of protecting human rights. This is because when an indigenous language is under threat, the human rights of the indigenous people are also under threat. Even more importantly, the freedom to express oneself in own language is a fundamental human right.

Currently, there are around 7000 languages in the world but the number is decreasing rapidly. Estimates vary between more than half and even up to 95% of world languages perishing before the end of 21st century – the vast majority of them being indigenous languages. To put it more concretely, the UN estimates that one language disappears every two weeks. This means that the world loses every second week one whole culture: with sets of knowledge, generations of memories and unique ways of self-expression. The death of indigenous languages is a direct consequence of colonialism, globalization and the domination of a few languages. Indeed, half of the world’s population speak only 23 different languages. At the same time, indigenous people – who make around 6% of the world’s population – speak over 4000 different languages. Simply, the world cannot afford such an extreme and rapid loss of languages due to its damage to our cultural and linguistic diversity.

The economic, human and territorial rights of indigenous people are often violated worldwide. This is often the case with development projects and indigenous rights conflicting against each other. For example, when national governments capture lands of the indigenous peoples for mining, logging, construction works, extraction of natural resources and/or other business opportunities. The indigenous activists often face persecution when defending their rights to land and natural resources. The state and private actors target to silence the indigenous populations by accusing them as terrorists, harassing, threatening, attacking violently and even killing them. The killings of indigenous right defenders have increased rapidly in the last years, with around 200 being killed worldwide in 2017 alone.

The international treaties protecting the rights of indigenous peoples

The rights of indigenous people are protected by multiple international treaties. The most important of these is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which establishes the universal minimum rights of the indigenous peoples. The UNDRIP treaty includes articles on individual and collective rights, cultural identity, and the linguistic, employment and educational rights of the indigenous population. Likewise, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has an essential importance for the indigenous peoples. This is because its Second Article states that everyone regardless of their differences – including language – is entitled equally to all the rights and freedoms written in the UDHR.

More specifically related to the protection of indigenous peoples and their rights in legal proceedings is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Most importantly, the ICCPR states that: “all persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals” (Article 14:1). Crucially, for the indigenous people suspected of crimes, this guarantees that everyone must be: “informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him” (Article 14:3a). Furthermore, the ICCPR demands that everyone should: “have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court” (Article 14:3f). Altogether these are vital conditions in ensuring that indigenous people have equal and fair court trials.

The international rules of Nelson Mandela, Bangkok and Havana set the universal minimum standards in regards to the humane treatment of prisoners – Mandela generally, Bangkok for women and Havana for juveniles. First of all, the rules state that the prison regulations, prisoner’s rights and obligations, as well as all other necessary matters, need to be provided in a language which the prisoner understands – with the help of an interpreter if needed. Furthermore, the rules guarantee the equal rights of prisoners, with the Second Nelson Mandela Rule explicitly stating that there should be no discrimination in prison treatment based on any factor, including language.

Indigenous languages and rights in Bolivia

Bolivia is a country with multiple indigenous languages and with a majority of the population having indigenous relations. Officially, 20% of the Bolivians are categorized as indigenous, while almost half (44%) self-recognise themselves as indigenous people. Approximately, 40% of the population speak indigenous languages and around 10% speak only indigenous languages. Currently, there is a total of 39 recognised indigenous languages from which 31 are either in trouble or dying. This is both due to the dominant position of Spanish and the prevalence of a few indigenous cultures – specifically, the Quechuas and Aymaras – over the others. Indeed, the majority of the indigenous population are either Quechuas (49.5%) or Aymaras (40.6%). The next three biggest groups are the peoples of Chiquitano, Guaraní and Mojeño, followed by numerous smaller groups – many of which are in danger of becoming extinct. In sum, Bolivia has rich cultural and linguistic diversity but rapid action is needed to preserve it. However, the state has completely dismissed this by not providing sufficient finances for the protection of indigenous languages.

There have been some developments in the rights of the indigenous population. The constitution features sections to protect the rights of indigenous people, the country’s new name, Plurinational State of Bolivia, recognises the country’s diversity and Bolivia has president with indigenous background. However, while the Morales regime has pursued to improve indigenous rights, the indigenous people still face lots of inequality and discrimination. The indigenous people remain economically deprived and they continue to be overrepresented in crime and unemployment rates. Moreover, many think that Morales has deceived the indigenous population for own benefit. Furthermore, the government has constantly violated the right of indigenous people to be consulted and to hold free, prior and informed consent in issues affecting them guaranteed by the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169. For example, the government has violated this by passing the Law 969, which allows the construction of a road through the indigenous areas, without the consent of the native population. Simultaneously, this is a direct violation of the UNDRIP – a treaty that Bolivia implemented first in the world.

The Bolivian justice system is famous for corruption, inefficiency and discrimination against the indigenous population and for providing a privileged position for the non-indigenous minority. Besides, the judiciary is badly underfunded and is struggling to process cases promptly. These institutional weaknesses affect above all the most vulnerable: juveniles, women and indigenous people – and especially, the indigenous women who face layers of discrimination. Furthermore, the conditions are particularly difficult for the indigenous people who do not speak any Spanish, Aymara or Quechua but who are instead are members of the smaller groups – such as Tacana or Movima. Overall, as we shall see next, the Bolivian justice system severely violates the rights of indigenous people.

The ICCPR treaty is not met adequately in Bolivia due to the lack of interpretation services and access to documents in indigenous languages in legal proceedings, such as court trials, police investigations and interrogations, and appeal processes. This is despite the fact that Law 269 obliges the state to provide interpretation and translation services for free – if it is not possible to undertake the court trial in the defendant’s preferred language. However, in practice, Law 269 is not often fulfilled, as there are numerous deficient cases. This causes many innocent people to end up in prison due to linguistic misunderstandings – defendants might not even understand what they are accused of or what they are entitled to during the process. Furthermore, the use of translation services causes delays in court trials meaning that indigenous defendants have to spend longer in preventive detention. On top of discriminating against the indigenous population, this also intensifies Bolivia’s problems of already high numbers of preventive detention prisoners and immensely overcrowded prisons.

The rules of Nelson Mandela, Bangkok and Havana are not met in Bolivia because of the same reasons: near non-existence of indigenous languages in prisons and the lack and irregularity of interpretation and translation services. Firstly, there are problems of prisoners not understanding the regulations, rights and obligations concerning them in prisons. This can then potentially lead to many further violations of the rights of indigenous prisoners. Secondly, there is no educational opportunities or rehabilitative programmes available in indigenous languages. This severely deteriorates the reintegration chances of the non-Spanish speaking prisoners. All in all, considering the above, it is easy to note that the conditions, set by the international treaties, are not fulfilled in Bolivia. Indeed, the reality is that the indigenous defendants and prisoners experience huge amounts of discrimination.

Throughout Bolivia’s history, indigenous people have experienced disproportionate amounts of torture and they have been one of the main groups of people targeted by state violence. Indigenous women have been even more severely impacted because they experience additional violence and ill-treatment based on gender. Moreover, correspondingly to the global situation, indigenous civil society activists experience lots of violence in Bolivia. This is particularly the case when protecting their human rights and territorial rights. For example, the indigenous marches and protests during the TIPNIS road conflict were violently suppressed by the military with the use of excessive violence. All things considered, the main point to derive from this chapter of the article is that despite all the fancy intentions and formal changes, the indigenous population are still disadvantaged in Bolivia.

Concluding thoughts

Preserving indigenous languages and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples is hugely significant because this way we conserve the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity and guarantee the universal realisation of human rights across all ethnicities. Taking action now is highly crucial because the world is witnessing severe violations of indigenous rights and facing a danger of extreme loss of indigenous languages. This is despite the various international treaties protecting the indigenous population – their languages and rights.

The situation is extremely alarming in Bolivia as the rights of one of the world’s most culturally and linguistically diverse country’s indigenous population are severely threatened. Out of the 39 indigenous languages, 31 are in danger of extinction and the indigenous people are still overrepresented in crime, unemployment and poverty rates. Furthermore, in terms of ITEI’s focus areas, the situation in Bolivia is abysmal. First, the linguistic rights of the indigenous peoples during legal proceedings and imprisonment are not fulfilled despite Bolivia having signed international treaties guaranteeing these rights. Second, indigenous peoples still experience disproportionate amounts of discrimination and state violence. Hence, a lot of action is needed to promote and improve the indigenous languages and rights in Bolivia.

ITEI works closely to support the indigenous peoples and we recognise that indigenous people are one of the most affected groups by torture, human rights violations and state violence. Throughout the years, ITEI has helped numerous indigenous campesinos, Quechuas in Sucre, Guaranís in the Alto Parapetí region and numerous indigenous people at the La Paz office. ITEI is deeply concerned about the situation of indigenous defendants and prisoners in Bolivia and urges the government to comply with the international treaties of UNDRIP and ICCPR, as well as with the rules of universal prison treatment (Nelson Mandela, Bangkok and Havana). Most importantly, this means that Bolivia must start providing regular and adequate interpretation and translation services for the indigenous defendants and prisoners.

26th of September 2019

Valtteri Nurminen, ITEI Volunteer

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