The Tower of Babel: Human Rights and the Paradox of Language

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Date and Time

January 16, 2014 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

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Open to the public.

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CISAC Conference Room

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ABOUT THE TOPIC: Key human rights instruments and leading scholars argue that minority language rights should be treated as human rights, both because language is constitutive of an individual’s cultural identity and because linguistic pluralism increases diversity. These treaties and academics assign the value of linguistic pluralism in diversity. But, this paper demonstrates, major human rights courts and quasi-judicial institutions are not, in fact, prepared to force states to swallow the dramatic costs entailed by a true diversity-protecting regime. Outside narrow exceptions or a path dependent national-political compromise, these enforcement bodies continuously allow the state to actively incentivize assimilation into the dominant culture and language of the majority. The minority can still maintain its distinct language, but only at its own cost. The slippage between the promise of rights and their actual interpretation carries some important political and economic benefits, but the resulting legal outcome does not provide the robust protection of diversity to which lip service is paid.  Importantly, the assimilationist nature of the jurisprudence is not indifferent to human rights. However, instead of advancing maximal linguistic diversity as a preeminent norm, the regime that is applied by judicial bodies supports a different set of human rights, those protecting linguistic minorities from discrimination, and promoting equal access of the group to market and political institutions.  The result is a tension between two human rights values: pluralism and equality.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Moria Paz is a Law and International Security Fellow at CISAC. She was an affiliate at CISAC from February 2012-July 2013. Before joining CISAC, she was a Lecturer at Stanford Law School and the Teaching Fellow of the Stanford Program for International Legal Studies (SPILS). Her current research examines issues of state control and freedom of movement through the entry point of travel documents. Earlier work examined the intersection between minorities, language rights, and international law. Moria received her S.J.D. degree from Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, she was awarded a number of fellowships, including at the Hauser Center for Non-Profit Organizations, The European Law Research Center, and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

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