African Languages in International Criminal Justice: The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and Beyond

Type Working Paper
Title African Languages in International Criminal Justice: The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and Beyond
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2015
In a 2013 lecture, renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a long-time promoter of
the expanded use of African languages and author of literary works in his native Kikuyu,
bemoaned the absence of local languages in the justice systems of African countries. 2
Ngugi pinpoints a challenge common to countries across the African continent. A 2010
UNESCO publication reports that only 63 African languages (out of an estimated 1,000-
2,000 spoken on the continent) are used in justice systems, and only 26 countries allow
African languages in legislation.
3 With only an estimated 10-15% of the African populace fluent in official European languages,4 the potential for linguistic alienation in
formal domains of law and justice is clear.
Ngugi described the scene in a typical African court, where the applicable law is written
in a European language and the officials of the court conduct proceedings in a European
language. If the accused can speak only an African language, he or she will require an
interpreter. ‘The defense, prosecution and the judge occupy a linguistic sphere totally
removed from the person whose guilt or innocence is on the line…This was the way it
was in the colonial era; this is the way it is in the postcolonial era.’
When one transfers this scenario into the ‘higher order’ of international criminal courts
and tribunals, the difficulties are compounded. The stakes of the trials are very high:
defendants are charged with crimes deemed the most serious by near universal agreement
– namely war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – as expressed through
various treaties and conventions. The official languages of the courts are those spoken in
the world’s most powerful states, past and present. These are, not coincidentally, the
same states that had previously imposed their control over large swathes of the globe
through an imperial enterprise, or those that continue today to exert influence through
less direct means, including foreign assistance. Persons participating in an international
criminal justice procedure must either use a language of the court – with which they may
have had limited educational or practical contact, if any at all – or communicate through
an interpreter.

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