In 1999, a public hearing on “Languages and Human Rights” took place at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands. A panel of five experts in communication, language rights, and international law heard test cases of threats to linguistic rights. They included the Amazigh language spoken by the Berber communities of North Africa, used in the region for at least 2,500 years. The tribunal heard how Amazigh was being side-lined in public services, education, the media, and the administration of justice.

At the end of the hearing, the panel concluded that all the test cases represented serious, generalized, and systematic violations of linguistic rights around the world to which governments and non-governmental organisations should pay urgent attention.

The Berber are the Indigenous peoples of North Africa. The 2016 census in Morocco estimated the number of speakers at 28% of the population. However, Amazigh associations contest this and instead claim a rate of 65 to 70%. This means that the Amazigh-speaking population could well number around 20 million in Morocco and around 30 million throughout North Africa and the Sahel.

The administrative and legal system of Morocco is heavily Arabized, and the Amazigh way of life and culture are still under pressure to assimilate, despite the 2011 Constitution officially recognizing Amazigh identity and language.

In a recent report, the NGO-network IFEX looked at the impact of Amazigh language insecurity on civic participation in Morocco. Noting that while the country has made significant strides in recognizing and promoting Amazigh by establishing a legal framework to support its development, inconsistent government commitment hinders its growth. In practical terms, this makes it difficult for Berber people to communicate with government institutions, engage in public affairs, and find jobs.

In an interview, Dr. Abdullah Bouzndag, an expert in sociolinguistics at the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, commented, “Access to information is a fundamental right for Amazigh speakers nationwide, acknowledged by all international human rights conventions. Unfortunately, it is often inadequately provided for in government and public services, even though its inclusion does not require significant financial resources.”

On a positive note, digital technologies have helped to improve this situation. The IFEX report says, “Web 2.0 has sparked a revolution in making information available in the Amazigh language, particularly among the youth. They can now easily communicate in their native tongue through social media platforms and digital channels like YouTube. As a result, there has been a notable increase in awareness of the Amazigh identity across all levels in Morocco, including within official institutions and Amazigh political movements, leading to significant progress and achievements.”

The Amazigh peoples have a rich oral literature that includes poetry, myths, fables, songs, proverbs, sacred rituals, and tales. In the context of digital technologies and increased dependence on cyberspace, many aspects of Amazigh oral culture which were previously ignored have now emerged into new digital spaces.

This bodes well for the future of the language and is a wonderful example of digital justice: prioritizing the participation of people who have been excluded from media and technology and enabling them to tell their own stories – as individuals and as communities.

Photo: Amazigh Imdukar, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons