Cultural Genocide and the Global Language Crisis

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“Be outraged at language oppression and its effects and speak out.”

  • Alice Taff, Melvatha Chee, Jaeci Hall, Millie Yéi Dulitseen Hall, Kawenniyóhstha Nicole Martin, and Annie Johnston (2018)

We live in a moment of crisis for the world’s languages.

In almost every country on earth, people who sign and speak Indigenous and minoritized languages are being coerced into giving them up, and forced into using dominant languages instead.

If we care about creating a better world, we should care about this loss of languages because it springs from injustice. But additional aspects of this problem, which relate more specifically to language, should give us further reasons to be concerned.

When a person is forced to give up their language, they lose a part of their identity. When a community loses a language, they sever important ties with their past, and with historically accumulated knowledge encoded in language. The process of coerced language loss also has the capacity to negatively impact people’s health, and causes emotional and psychological suffering that stretch across generations.

Communities, activists, advocates and academics are thus working to resist this slow violence. However, they are engaged in an enormously asymmetrical struggle. Everywhere, the winds of history seem to blow against them. Current conservative estimates suggest that half of the languages on earth will have been eliminated by this century’s end.

For several years, I’ve researched and written about the language crisis in Tibet, and the complex contours of power and violence that manifest there to coerce communities out of their languages. Increasingly, I’ve come to think that in order to understand the language crisis in Tibet, or anywhere else, we need to better understand the links between language and genocide.


Language and Genocide

When Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, he defined it as a “coordinated plan of different actions” that aimed to destroy a human group.

Amongst the “different actions” that Lemkin described, he included many examples of attacks on languages, such as: the removal of a language from public space (e.g., the destruction of signs), the promotion of dominant languages in government institutions, changing personal and place names to dominant languages, forbidding the use of a language in schools or in printing, and the destruction of libraries.

And yet today, both the legal definition of genocide in the UN convention, and the general public’s common sense understanding of genocide, focus mostly on killing, and exclude connection between genocide and language. To connect genocide and language today is to invite ridicule.

How did this happen? Luckily, we have a paper trail.


Language was gradually pared away from genocide over the course of two years of debate in the United Nations, during the drafting of the genocide convention. Summaries of these debates have been collated by Hirad Abtahi and Philippa Webb in The Genocide Convention: The Travaux Préparatoires. The 2,000 plus pages of this two volume collection provide a detailed but not complete history of how the genocide convention took shape. I read it so you don’t have to.

These documents begin with records of the first introduction of genocide to the United Nations in November 1946. At this point, the concept was broad and vague. The resolution passed on December 11th 1946 that committed the UN to pursuing a convention on genocide described genocide simply as “a denial of the right of existence of human groups.”

Discussions at this point made only passing reference to language. For example, the delegation of Panama described the importance of condemning “persecutions for reasons of language, race or religion.” However, in the next phase, when a first draft of the convention was produced, language came into clearer focus as a contested component of genocide.


The First Draft

The first draft of the genocide convention, known as the Secratariat Draft, was prepared by three people: Donnedieu de Vabres, Vespasien Pella, and Raphael Lemkin. Disagreements between the three drafters focused broadly on the topic of cultural genocide. Throughout the remaining debates until the passing of the genocide convention in 1948, ‘cultural genocide’ was the concept that tied language to genocide.

In preparing the secretariat draft, both Pella and de Vabres rejected the concept of cultural genocide, while Lemkin defended it. Lemkin’s justifications returned repeatedly to the issue of language and such acts as “…prohibition of the opening of schools for teaching the language of the group concerned, of the publication of newspapers printed in that language, of the use of that language in official documents and in court, and so on.”

Despite this disagreement, cultural genocide, including a focus on language, were included in the secretariat draft in two ways. First, ‘linguistic groups’ were included among those protected by the convention from destruction, along with racial, national, religious and political groups. Secondly, the ‘acts’ of genocide enumerated in the draft included “prohibition of the use of the national language even in private intercourse,” and “systematic destruction of books printed in the national language …or prohibition of new publications.”

Member states were invited to comment on the draft, and the USA took the opportunity to express opposition to the inclusion of linguistic groups: “The inclusion of ‘linguistic’ groups is believed to be unnecessary, since it is not believed that genocide would be practiced upon them because of their linguistic, as distinguished from their racial, national or religious characteristics.”

Unable to alter the draft at this stage, the USA took another path to promoting its restricted vision of genocide. They proposed to set up an ad hoc committee to work on a new draft of the convention text to replace the Secretariat Draft. This proposal was approved on February 12th, 1948, over twelve months since the original resolution to proceed with a genocide convention, and the Secretariat Draft was relegated to a reference document for future drafting.


The Second Draft

The terms of reference that established the ad hoc committee to redraft the genocide convention specifically requested members to give special consideration to the question of cultural genocide. Though language was not explicitly mentioned, it was included in this directive by implication.

The Ad Hoc Committee met 28 times over the course of April 1948, discussing language in eight sessions. This stage saw the most intense discussions of language, particularly in the 14th meeting on the 21st of April 1948, which focused on ‘cultural genocide’.

Before the Committee began its work, the USSR submitted a statement outlining their position in support of including cultural genocide in the convention. Language was at the centre of their argument: “The concept of genocide must also cover measures and actions aimed against the use of the national language.”

One of the first tasks of the Committee was to decide on the groups that would be protected by the convention. With very little discussion, they settled on including “racial, national or religious groups.” Linguistic groups, which had been included in the previous draft, were excluded without discussion, and from this point on, languages were connected to genocide exclusively through the concept of cultural genocide.

Language was discussed occasionally during the debates leading up to the 14th session. For example, preempting arguments that would come up repeatedly during the debate, Venezuela requested clarification regarding the phrase “suppressing the language” that appeared in the working draft. Explaining this request for clarification, the Venezuelan delegation said, “Foreign groups settling in a country might be a danger to the culture of the country itself if their languages were not suppressed in order to defend the national language of the country…”

At the 14th meeting, delegations debated the question of cultural genocide for four hours. Mr Ordonneau, the French delegation, took probably the strongest position against the inclusion of cultural genocide. Although he began by insisting that the committee first agree upon the definition of cultural genocide, he then clarified that “…the French delegation would oppose the inclusion of any definition of cultural genocide in the proposed convention” (my emphasis).

Continuing, he clarifies France’s main objection: “One of the most delicate aspects of the question of genocide was that it raised the general problem of the rights of the State with respect to minority groups and the rights of minority groups with respect to the State. [S]ome of the acts which it was proposed to include in the concept of cultural genocide might have a lawful basis; for example, current legislation acknowledged the right of States to impose certain restrictions on the use of the national language of minority groups… The Committee should avoid stating the problem of genocide in such a way as to incriminate States exercising their powers in a normal way” (emphasis mine). This gets to the heart of the issue: states wanted to exclude cultural genocide from the convetion because they wanted to protect their right to linguistically and culturally assimilate minorities.

Nonetheless, the draft produced by the Committee contained an article specifically on cultural genocide, including a significant focus on language. It read:


In this Convention genocide also means any deliberate act committed with the intent to destroy the language, religion, or culture of a national, racial or religious group on grounds of the national or racial origin or the religious belief of its members such as…

  1. Prohibiting the use of the language of the group in daily intercourse or in schools, or the printing and circulation of publications in the language of the group;
  1. Destroying or preventing the use of libraries, museums, schools, historical monuments, places of worship or other cultural institutions and objects of the group.


In response to this draft, the USA tabled a statement explaining their opposition to the article on cultural genocide. This statement focused partly on language, stating that “the prohibition of the use of language … certainly should not be included in the Convention.” The representative of Canada also expressed “major objection,” claiming that it would “weaken” the convention and “…if the term were broadened to include the suppression of a minority-language newspaper or the closing of a school, confusion would inevitably ensue.”

Despite these objections, the draft, including the article on cultural genocide and its discussion of languages, was sent for consideration to the 6th Committee, the UN body responsible for considering legal questions.


Debating the Draft

It was ultimately the 6th Committee that severed the links between language and genocide, by deleting the entire article on cultural genocide during its 83rd session on October 25th 1948. Although cultural genocide was discussed repeateadly during the debates that led up to this moment, language itself received very little attention.

Again, the state’s ‘right’ to assimilate minorities was at the center of the debate.

The USA expressed concern about “the legitimate efforts made to assimilate …minorities,” while Egypt worried that including cultural genocide in the convention would “hamper a reasonable policy of assimilation which no state aimed at national unity could be expected to renounce.” France also defended its opposition to cultural genocide in these terms: “If that concept [of genocide] were broadened [to include cultural genocide], it would soon lead to intervention in the domestic affairs of states.” The Philippines made the links between this position and language explicit, stating that the concept of cultural genocide “…could be interpreted as depriving nations of the right to integrate the different elements of which they were composed into a homogenous whole, as for instance, in the case of language.”

In the single meeting that saw the article on cultural genocide deleted from the draft convention, only two delegations specifically supported its inclusion with reference to language. China stated that cultural genocide, “might be even more harmful than physical genocide, since it worked below the surface and attacked a whole population, attempting to deprive it of its ancestral culture and to destroy its very language.” The Byelorussian SSR delegation, meanwhile, only mentioned language in passing.

In advocating to delete the article on cultural genocide, the USA now took a new approach, claming that languages would be protected by individual human rights: “If the individual’s fundamental right to use his own language… were protected, that would be tantamount to protecting the group of which the individual was a member.”

Meanwhile, other states expressed support for retaining the cultural genocide article, but sought to remove reference to language. Pakistan, for example, advocated for an article on cultural genocide that prevented religious conversion and the destruction of physical heritage, but would not prevent language bans, the destruction of books, or the supression of publishing. Egypt also supported this position. Finally, Brazil not only supported the deletion of the article on cultural genocide, but also stated that if the article was retained in the convention that they would request the deletion of the sub-paragraph on language.

At the conclusion of the 83rd session, a vote was taken to remove the article on cultural genocide, passing 25 to 16 with 4 abstentions and 13 absences.


Final Words

After further debates around the wording of the convention, the 6th Committee passed their finalized draft to the General Assembly for approval. On the 5th of December, prior to the final vote that took place on the 9th, the USSR submitted a proposed amendment reinstating the article on cultural genocide. A brief debate followed, with some passing references to language.

The Venezuelan delegation, for example, described their “great hesitation” in accepting the part of the cultural genocide article “which had prohibited any ban on a group using its own language,” and claiming that “Countries whose population was composed of immigrants and for which the defence of their national language was a vital necessity, had felt similar doubts.”

The USA, meanwhile, felt that “The USSR amendment was to add an article which would place among crimes punishable by international law such acts as the prohibition of the use of a certain language in schools or in daily intercourse, as also in publications. The amendment was not, however, designed to guarantee the free expression of thought, irrespective of the language employed.”

The USSR amendment was rejected by 31 votes to 14, with 10 abstentions, thus decisively severing the ties between language and genocide, and producing both the legal and common sense definitions of genocide that dominate today.


Languages and Genocide Today

What can this history tell us about the global language crisis? For the communities I worked with in Tibet, would things be any different today if genocide had been defined differently? We will never know for sure, of course, but several things are worth highlighting.

To begin with, the outcomes of the genocide convention debates established a principle of impunity for all states to carry out assimilationist policies against linguistic minorities. This was not a coup for an extremist minority within the United Nations, but a position that was proposed, advanced, and voted for by ‘tolerant’ liberal democracies.

It’s impossible to say whether outlawing linguistic assimilation would have prevented the global language crisis we are now faced with. However, what is clear is that this crisis has been enabled by the pro-assimilatory stance established during the genocide convention debates.

Beyond the legal and political precedents established by these debates, there are also broader implications for how various publics around the world today perceive the global language crisis, and their moral and emotional reactions to it.

The genocide convention was intended to not only establish a new crime in international law, but to also define a practice that would “shock the conscience of mankind [sic]”. In severing language from genocide, the UN debates set a precedent where not only was linguistic assimilation legal, it also become acceptable. Today, we are outraged and appalled by genocide. We shrug our shoulders at linguistic assimilation.

Such resignation only amplifies the impunity that states everywhere today have to continue assimilating linguistic minorities. Overcoming this acceptance, and regaining our sense of outrage and moral assault are crucial to mobilizing the support that communities need in their struggles. Hopefully, retelling this history can play a role in that.

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