Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Message from Probal Dasgupta to the 15 Dec 2008 conference at the Unesco Secretariat on "Esperanto: an equitable language"

Message from Probal Dasgupta to the 15 Dec 2008 conference on "Esperanto: an equitable language" (Unesco secretariat, Paris)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great privilege to be able to say a few words to you today. We thank the Polish Delegation and the Lithuanian Delegation for co-organizing with us this conference on "Esperanto: an equitable language" which flags off the birth sesquicentenary of the initiator of Esperanto, Lejzer Ludwik Zamenhof. It is natural for this conference to keep in view the UN’s International Year of Languages 2008 and International Year of Reconciliation 2009, as well as Unesco’s International Year of Linguistic Rights Awareness 2009. This is evidently a moment at which the themes of language rights and of peace and reconciliation converge – on the pioneering figure of Zamenhof, who saw working towards a linguistically equitable world as an important precondition for peace and reconciliation.

As you surely know, Unesco was institutionally responsible for putting Esperanto and its initiator Zamenhof on the world’s official cultural map. However, in 1954, at the moment of Unesco’s Montevideo resolution that brought Universal Esperanto Association into the UN system – or in the Zamenhof centenary year 1959 – or even in 1985, when Unesco reaffirmed its positive appraisal of the Esperanto community’s contribution to intercultural understanding – the international community had not yet fully realized what Zamenhof’s pioneering work would mean for the rest of us.
If I may consider the content side first, only in recent years has the international community begun to realize that economic disparities alone do not underpin resentment, hostility and war; that unequal access to linguistic, cultural and cognitive resources affects human well-being and international stability; that conserving linguistic and biological diversity on this planet is essential for a non-macdonaldized future. These realizations formed the core of Zamenhof’s message and drive the Esperanto movement’s agenda to this day.

To move from content to form, the civil society initiative that Zamenhof launched – the Esperanto movement – did not simply address the system of nation-states at the level of lobbying. His initiative nurtured a community based on shared cultural values, cherishing an alternative life-style not driven by consumerism, and opposed to any blind endorsement of nation-states and their agendas. It is now widely recognized that the work of cherishing values vital for the qualitative future of life on this planet calls for civil society leadership at the international level. Correspondingly, the international community – and Unesco in particular – are moving towards a reconfiguration that gives civil society voices equal time in public policy decision-making.

Thanks in large part to the effort led by Unesco throughout 2008, the public today understands more clearly the importance of conserving endangered and marginalized languages and protecting the interests of their speech communities. This is as you know an issue that the Esperanto movement has been intimately concerned with since Zamenhof’s time. In the context of Universal Esperanto Association’s activities on this front – work done jointly with Unesco since 1954 – I would like briefly to underline three points.

First, UEA’s approach to issues of equity has not been one of disruptive, complaint-focused agitation designed to upset the work of others. Esperantists have been among the crucial architects of the positive approach based on rights and entitlements. A young Australian diplomat, the Esperantist Ralph Harry, wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the basis of which the final text of the declaration was negotiated. UEA adopted human rights provisions in its constitution in 1947, a year ahead of the UDHR itself. We make a point of being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It gives us pleasure to note that civil society activism in general is now moving towards rights and entitlements.

One of the entitlements of the world public is equitable access to the cultural and literary heritage of humankind. UEA, in response to Unesco’s call for concrete steps to promote intercultural understanding, sponsored a book publication programme from 1961 onwards – the East-West series. This particular basket of major translations is emblematic of the much larger set of translations available in Esperanto in general. The point to note, and this is my second point, is that the set of translated cultural texts published in Esperanto is apparently the most equitable set of translations available in any single language today. Public opinion in the Esperanto community actively backs equitably distributed translations as a goal, unlike the community of publishers or readers in English or French or German.

My third and last point has to do with public policy research. When UEA realized that sociolinguistics on its own would not take up the serious study of language choice in public policy any time soon, its academic wing, the Research and Documentation Centre, launched the journal Language Problems and Language Planning, which since 1969 has successfully established language policy research as a major scholarly endeavour with educational and political teeth. This is a domain where UEA works closely with educationists, linguists, political scientists, economists and other stakeholders who do not share our interest in Esperanto. We work for the interests of all the speech communities of the world, not just for the dissemination of Esperanto. Ladies and gentlemen, it is no accident that our top poets tend to be speakers of Hungarian or Icelandic or Catalan. You should think of the community of Esperanto speakers are a sort of caucus or coalition representing these interests. I end by thanking you for taking time out to give us a hearing at this crucial juncture – when the international community has placed serious and fair management of the linguistic and cultural resources of humankind on its practical agenda. It is a great pleasure for us to work with you all.


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