Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Interpreters in Conflict Zones

We saw, in the previous post, an example of how the interpreters engaged by the military as Professionals in wars and their aftermath (occupation and ‘peacekeeping’) are often in fact Native Translators without proper training. Even armies that have a core staff of Expert Interpreters don’t have enough of them, and they may be taken off guard by the need to translate unfamiliar languages. We also saw how risky the interpreters’ job can be. The number killed in Iraq, more than 360 (see below), is staggering.

During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, the United Nations interpreters based in Sarajevo were under the command of a Canadian officer, Major Roy Thomas (he has since retired). After his tour of duty was over, he was shocked at how his interpreters, all locally recruited and mostly untrained, were left abandoned to their fate even though some of them were regarded as traitors by their own people for having helped out. He tried to alert the higher-ups up to their plight, but to no immediate avail although the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario did give a scholarhip to one of them. Later it took a campaign in the United Kingdom Parliament to make the British government treat its army’s Iraqi interpreters decently.

But now there are signs of some awakening. The following came recently from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

29 April 2010

We should protect interpreters in conflict zones!
Written Declaration No 442

This written declaration commits only the members who have signed it.

In conflict zones, interpreters are on the front line. No register records interpreters’ deaths, but it is believed that, between 2003 and 2008, 360 were killed in Iraq.

Interpreters – frequently ill-informed about their duties and rights – have inadequate (physical and legal) protection. With their families, they are often left unprotected in post-conflict situations and no priority whatsoever is given to their asylum requests.

Lacking any official status, interpreters run serious risks. While the Geneva Conventions recognise the need for linguistic mediation in order to protect the rights of individuals, the rights of interpreters, for their part, are not dealt with in any way.

We hereby:

- call on member states to provide better protection for interpreters during and following conflicts;

- remind member states of the need to be scrupulous in their application of the few provisions of international law that do exist in order to provide interpreters with better protection, inter alia by assimilating them into other categories of staff mentioned in the Geneva Conventions;

- emphasise the neutrality and impartiality of interpreters, whose safety should be ensured in conflict zones in the same way as that of ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] staff.

Then follow the signatures of 40 members of the Assembly from different countries and political parties.

Let’s hope it does some good.

Major Roy Thomas (Canadian Armed Forces). United Nations Military Observer Interpreters in Sarajevo. Language International (UK), 7:1.8-13, 1995.

Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. Document 12239.
My emphasis in the quotation.

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