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#ProtectLinguists event at the UN Headquarters in New York

Monday 3 February 2020 - 3:50pm

United Nations Headquarters (left) | Credit: Neptuul

The United Nations designated 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Over the year the UN raised awareness of the threat indigenous languages face across the globe. Simona Škrabec, Chair of PEN's Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, joined a panel held at the UN headquarters in New York which concerned the protection of translators and interpreters.

#ProtectLinguists Event at the UN Headquarters in New York

On 11 December 2019, a panel discussion was held at United Nations headquarters in New York to raise awareness of the pressing need for greater legal protection of local civilian translators and interpreters in conflict and post-conflict zones.

The #ProtectLinguists event was co-hosted by the Permanent Missions of Spain and the Republic of Fiji as well as the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), with the cooperation of the world language community. Red T, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the protection of translators and interpreters in high-risk settings, spearheaded this initiative to further Red T’s vision of "a world in which translators and interpreters can work free from persecution, prosecution, imprisonment, abduction, torture and assassination."

As explained in the event’s concept note issued by the hosts:

"By definition, translators and interpreters (T/Is) play a critical but largely invisible role. However, in conflict and post-conflict zones, where they facilitate communication between local communities and foreign stabilisation and peacekeeping forces, journalists, humanitarian actors and other organisations, this invisibility is compromised. T/Is are exposed to the dangers of war but lack the legal protection afforded combatants. Compounding this risk, they are targeted by insurgent groups as traitors for collaborating with foreign entities. As a result of this unique harm, tens of thousands of T/Is seek resettlement in the countries of their former employers or, if their asylum applications are denied, become refugees elsewhere."

In her opening speech, Dr. Hess, founder and CEO of Red T, pointed out that the treatment of T/Is:

"has created a moral and practical challenge of massive proportions. And although many states are collectively involved in a single mission, there is no harmonised response. Some states approach asylum requests on a case-by-case basis, whereas others have instituted special immigration programs. But eligibility parameters vary widely and these programs are replete with red tape, long wait times, backlogs, and opaque security assessments. Couple this with extreme vetting under the cover of national security as well as restricted immigration due to rising nationalism, and you end up with a lot of broken promises—whether in the form of visas dangerously delayed, or denied outright."

Hess added that:

"it is not only interpreters working for foreign forces who are targeted. Literary translators as well as linguists hired by journalists, NGOs, visiting dignitaries, and foreign corporations face similar challenges. In a seminal case that registered in the consciousness of the language community, a reporter was kidnapped together with her local interpreter in Baghdad. While she was released after 82 days, the body of the interpreter was found abandoned with two bullets to his head—his life clearly considered of lesser value."

Hess noted that interpreter protection is virtually absent in the current international legal regime and that linguists are not specifically mentioned in legal doctrine and international practice except in cases where others have a right to their services. In the name of the world language community, she proposed various avenues to enhance the protection of T/Is, for instance:

  • the creation of a working group on this thematic issue within the UN structure
  • the appointment of a Special Rapporteur by the Human Rights Council to investigate the situation, gather data and draft a report along with possible solutions
  • a next iteration of the Montreux Document, which covers obligations regarding private military and security companies in war zones
  • a UN resolution or similar legal instrument that:

"would articulate translators and interpreter rights and establish a normative framework for future protection. It would explicitly recognise that linguists in conflict situations face the ongoing risk of threats and violence. It would call on states to publicly condemn attacks and, to counteract impunity, it would urge them to ensure accountability by dedicating resources to investigate and prosecute perpetrators."

In her speech, Simona Škrabec, the chair of PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, explained PEN’s efforts to protect and relocate translators living and working in war zones and other high-risk settings.

"PEN International’s main concern is the freedom of expression. War after war, all over the world, writers were and still are exposed to repression and violence. They are often forced into silence or into exile if not murdered outright. In the last decades, however, it’s not only writers who have been silenced by violence. For years now, PEN’s Case List has included other highly endangered and persecuted human voices. Since writing has become an extremely dangerous skill, it is no surprise that among these voices, PEN International experts also often find translators and interpreters. Possessing the capacity to communicate with other cultures and the outside world makes linguists vulnerable and exposed.

"Probably the most important feature of PEN’s work is its global reach. The organisation has the capacity to offer an immediate response which is crucial in saving lives. Unfortunately, in some instances, violence wins out.

"That is why PEN knows how important it is to enhance the legal framework to protect the most exposed groups from politically motivated repression and violence. Protection may range from solidarity actions, direct assistance and campaigns for individuals, to capacity-building programs through civil society and, importantly, advocacy for structural change.

"After almost one hundred years of activity, PEN International can attest that individuals such as persecuted writers and translators are pillars of peace and mutual understanding. By protecting these kind of voices—whether of translators or poets, interpreters or bloggers—we are "making space" for freedom and peace. Let us not forget how important this mission is.

"This is why PEN International is joining Red T and the world language community in urging the United Nations to issue a Resolution or a similar international legal instrument to protect translators and interpreters in high-risk settings worldwide."

The event closed with an urgent appeal to all member states for inclusion of linguist protection in the United Nation’s Protection of Civilians agenda.


  • Linda Fitchett, Chair of AIIC Conflict Zone Interpreter Project, as moderator
  • H.E. Ambassador Ms. María Bassols, Deputy Permanent Representative of Spain
  • Bill Miller, Director of Regional Operations for the UNDSS
  • Dr. Maya Hess, CEO of Red T, on behalf of the world language community
  • Betsy Fisher, Esq., Director of Strategy, International Refugee Assistance Project
  • Dr. Simona Škrabec, Chair, Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, PEN International
  • Lucio Bagnulo, Head of Translation, Amnesty International’s Language Resource Centre;
  • Maître Caroline Decroix, Vice Présidente, Association des interprètes et auxiliaires afghans de l’Armée Française.

Other language and academic organisations were present in a unified show of support, among them the major international translator and interpreter associations (AIIC, FIT, IAPTI, ATA, WASLI) as well as academia (CIUTI and IATIS), along with two conflict zone interpreters via video link.