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

European Journal of International Law, Vol 25 (No 2), 2014

20 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2014

Date Written: November 17, 2014


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, as this article 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 actively to 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 pre-eminent 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.

Suggested Citation

Paz, Moria, The Tower of Babel: Human Rights and the Paradox of Language (November 17, 2014). European Journal of International Law, Vol 25 (No 2), 2014. Available at SSRN:

Moria Paz (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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