Language and the UN Declaration of Human Rights


In the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the word “language” appears only once - in Article 2, as an example of a “distinction” which may not be used to deprive people of their rights. And that’s it.


However, other “human rights” include compulsory elementary education (Article 26). This is bizarre in itself, since while children love to learn, virtually the worst way of getting them to learn is to force them.


Furthermore, even though “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children”, there is nothing specific to say what language this education must be given in.


The upshot of this is that if children try to skip school because the teacher speaks a different language, failing to stop them could technically be considered a human rights abuse!


Yet at the same time, refusing to teach children in their own language can cause that language, and much of its associated culture, to die out. This has led to allegations that “schools are every day committing linguistic genocide.”


There are other means of education besides school, such as home education. Not all governments permit home education, and those that do keep quiet about it. In any case, even for home education, the national official language is usually compulsory.


When the apartheid regime in South Africa decided in 1976 that black students must be taught in Afrikaans, not English, this was rightly met with protests. Yet the media ignores countless other students who are refused their preferred choice of language of instruction. It seems that only those who take part in “fashionable” protests get heard.



From Article 2:


“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”


From Article 26:


  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.


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