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On Human Rights Day, call for greater protection of linguistic rights

This statement was originally published on pen-international.org on 10 December 2014.

On Human Rights Day, PEN International calls for greater protection of linguistic rights, cultural diversity and minority languages. PEN International has long recognised the vital role that language plays in identity, communications, social integration, education and development and has continued to defend linguistic rights of writers, journalist and others across the globe.

It is estimated that without measures to protect and promote minority and endangered languages, half of the 6000-plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century, with 96 per cent of these languages spoken by a mere 4 per cent of the world's population. Through campaigns, projects and events, PEN International works with Centres around the world to highlight the importance of mother-tongue education and translation as a means of spreading the unique culture of every language.

In May 2011 PEN International's Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee launched the Girona Manifesto, a tool to aid the dissemination and implementation of the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights (UDLR), 15 years after leading a coalition of local and international civil society organisations to developed the UDLR at the 1996 World Conference on Linguistic Rights in Barcelona.

PEN International actively monitors and campaigns on cases of individual writers at risk from minority language communities who face oppression for their writing and for the use of their own language including:

Kurdish poet, linguist and academic, Mülazım Özcan, is currently standing trial on charges of "membership of an illegal organisation". The charges are thought to be linked to a lecture he gave on Kurdish language and literature at the BDP Political Academy.

Tibetan internet writer, co-founder and editor of the Tibetan language website Chomei, Kunchok Tsephel Gopsey Tsang was convicted of "disclosing state secrets" on 12 November 2009, currently serving a 15-year prison sentence. Chomei website, which promotes Tibetan culture and literature, was created by Gopey Tsang and Tibetan poet Kyab-chen De-drol in 2005 and since then has been closely monitored by the authorities.

Iranian journalist with the Azeri-language weekly Yarpagh, Said Matinpour, was arrested at his home in the north-western city of Zanjan on 28 May 2007 and convicted of 'espionage' and 'spreading propaganda against the system' and sentenced to eight years in prison in a closed trial by a Tehran Revolutionary Court.

This year, for Human Rights Day, PEN International is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Ilham Tohti, a writer, academic and member of China's minority Uyghur community. Tohti is one of the best-known scholars on Uyghur issues, and is a co-founder of the website Uyghur Online, which was designed to promote understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

Tohti, who has been a target of frequent harassment by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on Uyghur rights, was arrested in January 2014, he was formally charged with 'splittism' on 20 February 2013 amid a crackdown on Chinese Uyghurs who are critical of the government. He was convicted in September 2014 after an unfair trial in which he was denied adequate legal representation; Tohti's appeal against his conviction and sentence was rejected in November 2014.

Two weeks later, a Chinese court sentenced seven of Tohti's students in western Xinjiang region between three and eight years in prison also on charges of 'splittism'. The students were accused of contributing to the website run by Tohti.

PEN believes that Ilham Tohti is held for peacefully exercising his right to free expression and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

For more information about PEN International's work on promotion and protection of languages click here.

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