Volume:6, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2014

The Right to Language and the Language of Human Rights Abuse: Educational Paradox of Post-conflict Bosnia
Besirevic, Zinaida [about]

KEY WORDS: Linguistic Human Rights, ethnonationalism, identity, dialogic discourse, Bakhtin, multivocality.
ABSTRACT: This paper examines how Linguistic Human Rights (LHRs) can be used as a tool of Human Rights violation in situations where arbitrary linguistic differences are created and enforced to serve ethnic divisions in a society. The researcher illustrates the point through “two schools under one roof” phenomena in postwar Bosnia, showing what deeper and lasting societal repercussions these educational policies have. Referencing Bakhtin’s theory of multivocality and dialogical discourse, the author shows how a reliance on a more ethical theoretical framework for reconceptualizing educational policies in the region can mitigate this subversive Human Rights abuse.

A claim to one's own language as a fundamental human right seems as intuitive and incontestable as a claim to one's identity. A mother tongue after all, IS an essential building block of one's identity. To claim or forfeit the right to it ought to be a matter of personal choice, not of national policy. Yet as much as identities have been politicized throughout history and especially since the rise of the Nation State, so have languages, whether they are official or unofficial, rarely spoken or forbidden. In devaluing a language, one devalues a community, implying there is something inherently inferior about it. Under the auspices of Universal Human Rights however, many such communities, have, in the past few decades, began to realize their linguistic rights. The battle though is all uphill against the hegemony of the dominant languages. In the light of that reality, it would seem absurd to suggest that there are situations where the reverse is true. Where linguistically homogenous communities seek not to be. Where through contrivances, a single language is being torn to create different languages. This paper examines one such instance, with an aim to demonstrate that the power of language and the notion of linguistic identity can be abused in more than one way to violate human rights. I present the case of postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and the political agenda to mutilate the language and the ideology behind it.

While the idea of language as a human right (LHR), is increasingly problematized, due to the lack of recognition and implementation of that Right, the issue gains an additional layer of complexity when the claim to rights is insidiously employed. Distinguishing between Language as a Human Right and Language of Human Rights is not just a matter of semantics. What will thus be highlighted here, is the nature and the extent of negative repercussions for Human Rights of individuals and communities that arise when under a guise of defending LHR, discriminatory and segregational policies are created. LHR is used as a tool for drawing divisions among people where none existed before. An example of such practice is the case of “two schools under one roof” in BiH. Before discussing this example, it is important to define what LHR.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart,” said Nelson Mandela, in the defense of what ought to be both a basic human right and a cultural imperative – the right to one’s own language. In spite of its intuitive appeal and ethical value however, the idea of language as a Right did not enter the scriptures of international legal dictates until very recent times, with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and subsequent, more directive and specific documents. In their basic prescriptive, Linguistic Human Rights (LHRs) secure individuals and communities the right to use their own language, no matter what status that language holds in the larger society. These rights stem from general human rights that prohibit discrimination, grant freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The most binding current protection for LHRs, is constituted in the Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates that:

“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language” (ICCPR, Art.27). 

However, granting negative non-discrimination rights often does not place any obligations on states. Indeed, another protective clause, forged by the Council of Europe in 1998, Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, is qualified to the point of obsolescence:

“In areas inhabited by persons belonging to national minorities traditionally or in substantial numbers, if there is sufficient demand, the parties shall endeavor to ensure, as far as possible and within the framework of their education systems, that persons belonging to those minorities have adequate opportunities for being taught in the minority language or for receiving instruction in this language” (emphases added - ZB).

Clearly, the issue of language as a Human Right remains controversial, yet the controversy does not end with the ambiguity of the legislative wording. While on the one hand there is genuine linguistic discrimination in many countries of the world, despite the aforementioned covenants, there are on the other hand, instances where the notion of LHRs is subverted to segregationist political ends. The UN 2004 Human Development Report links cultural liberty to language rights and human development, arguing that the most powerful means of “encouraging” individuals to assimilate to a dominant culture is to have their economic and sociopolitical status pitted against their mother tongue. “Such assimilation is not freely chosen if the choice is between one’s mother tongue and one’s future” (p. 33). There are many ways and methods of engaging in this type of “encouragement” and a particularly sinister one is the pretense of an appeal to LHRs, while the real aim is to use language as an arbitrary sociopolitical divider in a situation where no actual linguistic division exists. “The limits of my language means the limits of my world,” warned Wittgenstein and indeed it is such “world limitation” intents that seem to be at the core of segregationist educational policies and practices. The phenomenon of “two schools under one roof” in BiH, which I shall turn to shortly, is a striking example of the abuse of the spirit and purpose of LHR, as well as a dire education policy that stands to have disturbing consequences far into the future. What is at once tragic and compelling, is the fact that both the abuse of rights and the policy are constitutionally embedded, and that the constitution itself, has been crafted by the international community.

The notion of two schools under one roof has been created in southwest region of BiH, in the aftermath of a brutal four-year ethnic conflict. Local authorities composed of the parties previously at war with each other, created a school system where children of different ethnicities study in the same building (under one roof) but are segregated into separate classrooms, have separate school entrances, and are bused separately. Implemented in 1999, with international backing, the system exists only in the Bosniak and Croat Federation, one of the two political entities created in BiH through the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord. By encouraging children to attend schools in areas where their ethnicity was a minority, the “two schools” policy aimed to facilitate refugee returns and partly reverse wartime ethnic cleansing, which had left some 200,000 people dead and close to two million displaced. Integrated classrooms were supposed to follow, but for many schools that day never came. Thus was created, with the assistance of the international community, an impasse for postwar reconciliation and integration. The justification of this move was made by direct (ab)use of LHR as a vehicle for social segregation. Local population, which for centuries shared a single, identical language, stripped even of any dialectical nuances, had since the end of the war been presented with a choice of two languages, Croatian and Bosniak, to chose from and align with. What is of crucial importance here, is not only the fact that these languages differ barely in some word pronunciations, but that both come with a burden of wartime legacy and as such, carry appended to them, different interpretations of their common history. In other words, given that these two ethnic groups were in a bloody conflict with each other, each group has different story of who was to blame, who was the victim and who the perpetrator and how that victimization fits into the historical context of their ethnic community. Deliberate fabrication of language differences and an appeal to the Right to one’s own alleged language was thus used as a political ploy to perpetuate the ethnic conflict, ethnic divisions and abuses of Human Rights that come with forcible recruitment into a (fabricated) language group. That this is a serious issue demanding of any scholar, lawyer or activist in the Human Rights field, to pause over, becomes yet more glaring when placed into a context of genocide prevention. It is relevant to consider that the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2, prohibits:     II(e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group; and II (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (emphasis added).

When speaking of “linguistic genocide” we may likely be talking about England’s domination over the British Isles and prohibitions on Welsh and Scottish Gaelic languages. Or, we may be talking of “Russification” policies of both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union which imposed the adoption of the Russian language on the minorities they governed to quell rebellion. But we may, as the case in question demonstrates, also be talking about forcing separatist linguistic policies where they have no legitimate grounds. “Two schools under one roof” is a system that satisfies both of the aforementioned Article 2 conditions, and it is, for all intents and purposes, a brainchild of the international community. We may say, cynicism notwithstanding, that for the international community to be unresponsive to, and complicit in, genocidal practices is nothing new.

However, in the interest of turning a different page in our global commitment to protecting Human Rights, we must move beyond merely paying lip service to that protection. The initial effort of the Dayton Accord, which provided BiH with a segregationist constitution, was not ill intended, it was meant to freeze the military confrontation, and prevent violent conflict from resuming. As such, it was a "construction of necessity." A sociopolitical agreement forged out of necessity and despair, cannot be expected to shore up the most morally sophisticated aspects of a society. It should be of no surprise then, that such a construct would give way to malevolently opportunistic social currents, which feed precisely on necessity and despair, and thrive in murky waters. Nonetheless, Dayton Accord remained for years and to this day, the foundation upon which, the constitution of the country rests. While international policymakers, diplomats, and scholars applauded it, for it “allowed the international community to move from state-building via institutions and capacity-building to identity building" putting BiH "on the road to Brussels”, (Israeli and Benabou, p.380), those who are viewing the situation from the inside have a different opinion. Victims to the constitutional endorsement of arbitrary ethnic division, which Dayton has enabled, children of Bosnia are not only uncertain of what their future might bring, but are subject to segregationist educational rhetoric and schooling experiences that eerily resemble the Jim Crow era of the US. The time when everyone was “equal but separate.” Dayton Accord has enabled international actors, unaccountable to those Bosnian children, to shape the agenda of postwar transition, and engage in paternalistic conduct reminiscent of neocolonialism. Moreover, the “peace accord” has left each ethnic group discontent with the results and therefore antagonistic towards both the other groups, and the idea of integration, making the territorial and political situation continually unstable and fractious. Taking full advantage of that instability, segregationist politicians and educators have built a fertile platform for their discriminatory rhetoric on the vandalized notion of a Right to language. Through insisting on, and securing the right to educate “their” ethnic group, in the their fictitiously different mother tongue, they manage to disseminate entire curricular programs that differ vastly, depending on what ethnic group, and therefore what wing of the school building, one belongs to. Children therefore end up learning that there is only one truth, and it is our one, only one historical narrative and it is our one, only one ethnic group historically entitled to the common territory and it is our one, only one legitimate language, and it is our one. Educators, who are nationalistically inclined, serve this perverted use of LHR, well. “Man is who he is; he is raised in his family where he develops feelings of belonging and nobody should be against incorporating that kind of attitude in the school curriculum,” (BalkanInsight), explains a nationalist politician, speaking in defense of imposing a different, “ethnic” curriculum under a pretense that it reflects a different ethnic language. Since only one language exists in the region, this serves as no more than an attempt to normalize the notion of inventing an ethnic language so as to, post hoc, justify ethnic intolerance.

What is particularly important however is that research shows, that young people and children want integration, but nationalist political leaders oppose it. They see the education system as a political tool for reinforcing ethnic identity, and thus division. “They want children to come out of the rickety educational machine equipped to think of themselves exclusively within the framework of their ethnicity,” writes Alexander Hemon. “There is little space for ‘I,’ only for ‘we.’ What we expect from education is the unquestionable, unimpeachable, self-evident ‘we’ and, consequently, ‘they.’” In our endeavor to protect and endorse LHRs therefore, we have to be wary of the sinister practice of subverting Human Rights for purposes that in a fact violate them. Language is a powerful tool that not only shapes and constructs our social reality, but by virtue of shaping that reality also affects the development of our identity. Bakhtin's theory of dialogic discourse and multivocality of social contexts shores up the paradox of the BiH example I am talking about. What Bakhtin persuasively claimed is that both in the individual and in the society, many voices exist, and they operate with a differing degree of authoritativeness. When LHR is arbitrarily politicized it leads to politicization of identity, personal and social. This then, can result in grave consequences. If we follow Bakhtin’s argument further we find that for him, although each of us is unique, our identities do not develop by some idiosyncratic process. There is a shared modus operandi to our becoming. The modus is social and dialogical as “any instance of self-awareness is an act of gauging oneself against some social norm” (Voloshinov, 1929, 87).

Sociocultural theory, from which Bakhtin argues, sees language as a semiotic mediator, a critical tool in our development. The key point here, is that there is an inherent danger in the idea of language as a human right, since within the framework of sociocultural theory, language is not just a form it is a function, it acts as a mediating tool. Hence in the BiH case, using the language (the rhetoric) of LHR, State policy ends up violating Human Rights by forcibly dividing children across ethnic lines and educationally indoctrinating them accordingly. The violation argument is, that through forcing "our language" we will force our political discourse. This is precisely the sort of a social project that Bakhtin would warn against - a project of a single, authoritative, monologism, instead of a multicultural, multivocal, dialogism which every pluralistic society should endorse. For Bakhtin, and others like Nussbaum, who sees Human Rights as a realization of human capabilities, any culture has “plurality and argument; it contains relatively powerful voices, relatively silent voices, and voices that cannot speak at all in the public space” (1999, 8). If we strive for a healthy society that in its diversity supports human rights of its members and gives them an equal voice, then we have to recognize that silencing someone can be done not just by taking away a language, but forcibly bestowing upon them a "mother tongue" that comes pack and parcel with a divisive political agenda. Bakhtin, a socioculturalist, defends the position that the language we use constructs our identity and therefore language and discourse of our social context build what we think and how we accordingly act. In this Bosnian example, what Bakhtin and Nussbaum, given their theories, would point out, is that by pretended recourse to LHR, what the nationalistic political agendas are doing is silencing, marginalizing and polarizing multiple voices in the society and building a monologic, authoritative social discourse that will serve in building young people's segregationist identities. Those identities will be grounded in the false notion that they have a language different to their neighbor's, and that that language comes with both a different history and a different future. This indeed is tragic, considering how many communities in the world strive to realize the right to a mother tongue that IS different, but denied by the dominant culture. It is also dangerous because it is sinister, in that it silences and divides by pretending to be giving a voice. The important question of course is, whether there is hope for change? Bakhtin, in his theory leaves room for human agency, arguing how discourses have to become internally persuasive for an individual before they are integral to that individual's identity. This lets a ray of sunshine into the Bosnia example. Indeed, children from “two schools” exhibit that sense of agency, despite the social currents pulling them in a different direction."I really disagree with this way of school management, kids should be accepted no matter who they are and which ethnic group they come from," (BalkanInsight, 2010), one young student says. She is not “internally persuaded” by the subversive political agenda, Bakhtin might add.

 The case of BiH ethnonationalism and its contrived claim to LHR is a paradox of Human Rights and an illustration of how education can be a battlefield for societal insecurity. Language, as an essence of a community’s identity and self-esteem, when simply renamed to index a difference which, in a fact does not exist, legitimizes ethnic divisions and social exclusion and exacerbates insecurity. `Yet in emphasizing the social nature of consciousness and creativity of language use, Bakhtin allows for agency and change, personal or political. To live, for Bakhtin, is to engage in a dialogue within the social world made up of a many voices and perspectives. This dialogue transforms consciousness, as well as the shared social realm. We are left to hope that in BiH, it is the voices of the young students that will reshape the dominant social discourse.


  1. Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination, ed. M. Holquist, & trans. C. Emerson & M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  2. Hemon, A. (2012) National Subjects, Ethnic identity training in Bosnia and Herzegovina begins in the classroom. Accessed 10/28/2014. https://www.guernicamag.com/features/hemon_1_15_12/
  3. Nussbaum, M. C. (1999). Sex and Social Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Israeli, R. and Benabou, A. (2013). Savagery in the Heart of Europe: The Bosnian War. Context, perspectives, personal experiences and memoires.  Houston, TX: Strategic Book Publishing.
  5. Voloshinov, V.N. (1929). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1986 edition).
  6. BalkanInsight (2010). Bosnia: No End to “Two Schools Under One Roof”. Accessed 10/28/2014. http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/bosnia-no-end-to-two-schools-under-one-roof
  7. British Council Schools Online, “Bosnia: Two Schools Under One Roof” accessed 10/28/2014. https://schoolsonline.britishcouncil.org/two-schools-under-one-roof/primary
  8. UN OHCHR What are Human Rights? accessed: 10/28/2014. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/  
  9. United Nations MDG 2004, accessed 10/28/2014. www.un.org/millenniumgoals/reports.shtml

Besirevic, Zinaida, Ph.D. Candidate, University of California, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A.

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