Rigoberta Menchú Tum
Nobel Peace Prize 1992

Letter sent by Rigoberta Menchú
on the occasion of the Proclamation
of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights
on June 6, 1996.

World Conference of Linguistic Rights

Dear participants,

In the first place, I wish to apologise for not being here with you in this important forum on the fight for the linguistic rights of all the peoples of the world, but unavoidable previous commitments have prevented me from coming. I would like to express my best wishes for the success of the Conference that begins today.

The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights that will be approved during these four days, is no doubt an important tool for the diversity of communities and linguistic groups -such as they are defined in the document- who are bravely fighting for preserving one of the basic expressions of their culture: their language.

I am convinced that language is the vehicle that permits thought to be in accordance with the knowledge and the world vision of a given culture, of a given people, who have inherited this from their ancestors and which, at the same time, makes it possible to pass it on to the new generations.

In language lies the main weapon of resistance of those cultures which for centuries have suffered the imposition of alien cultural values, as is the case of the native peoples of Latin America; the fact of just employing language for transmitting their thinking and knowledge implies that the contents of their culture is maintained despite the efforts made to destroy it. Since oral tradition is a feature of native peoples, language occupies a privileged place within our culture because, through it, it has been possible to preserve our historical memory which we pass from one generation to the other. Also, language is important because oral tradition is a basic aspect in the process of our upbringing and education.

In Guatemala, one of the main concerns of native peoples has always been the preservation of their languages which are as different as the great diversity of cultures existing in the country. It is true that we have lost a lot, but today there is a movement of recovery that I believe is very important for the survival of our cultures.(...)

As far as I can understand, the contents of the text acknowledges the importance of language as a basic cultural element; for this reason it is not discriminatory. That is to say, it does not establish privileges for any culture over another one but it simply establishes equal rights for all cultures in the use of their language. The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights is a tool that establishes regulations which, among other things, prevents the various existing languages, due to extralinguistic reasons, from being either marginalised or degraded, or even disappearing completely. It does so by establishing several international and regional agreements, declarations and pacts.

It is a well-known fact that, for centuries, the rights of native peoples have been negated and violated; they are neither acknowledged nor respected. It is also known that these peoples have not remained passive in the face of the discrimination and racism on which their exploitation is based. They have always found strength to resist oppression and marginalisation. They have played a main role not only in their history but in the very same history of the countries where they live and, thus, they have contributed to the universal historical process.

At the turn of the XXI century, it is extremely painful and immoral that the situation of many peoples is still a situation of discrimination, marginalisation and exploitation. So runs the life of native peoples. Their rights are neither acknowledged nor respected. This cannot go on. It is necessary to construct new spaces and mechanisms for intercultural relationship on the basis of absolute respect among cultures and peoples.

In the international sphere, a tendency can now be observed to construct and adopt juridical instruments in relation to the respect and validity of native peoples' rights. This tendency implies that the traditional silence existing in relation to the problems of native peoples has been broken. This has been possible thanks to our unyielding will and faith in our struggle. This does not mean that native people see a clear and open path towards an absolute solution to their historical problems or that their economic, political, social and cultural rights will achieve a state of full acknowledgement and respect.

Among the progress made at an international level and the national situation still present in many countries, especially in Latin America, there is a great gap which is characterized by constant violation, non-acknowledgement and a lack of respect for our rights.

This has to be considered very carefully and with great concern, for this evolution may determine to a large extent whether a constructive and cooperative dialogue may or not be established between the different cultures of the planet; it will also determine the possibility for building the space and the mechanisms for intercultural relationship on equal terms and rights for all peoples and cultures.

The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights is a very important step in the struggle to affain equality between cultures and peoples. The path that leads to the creation of a world convention will be long and full of difficulties. I am sure that the participants in this Conference will know how to define the suitable mechanisms to achieve this aim.

All the same, the Universal Declaration is a valuable contribution to the necessary work for constructing this intercultural relationship based on respect and an acknowledgement of cultural diversity, as well as for constructing multiethnic pluricultural and multilingual nations.

Guatemala, June of 1996