On December 11, 2019, the Permanent Missions of Spain and the Republic of Fiji to the United Nations, together with the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), hosted a panel discussion on the urgent need for enhanced legal and physical protection for translators and interpreters in high-risk settings. The event was co-organized on behalf of the world language community by Red T, a nonprofit advocating for laws and policies that promote the safety of linguists at risk.1
For the first time, the occasion brought together not only representatives from the major translator/interpreter (T&I) associations across the globe, but prominent humanitarian organizations whose support Red T was able to secure, including PEN International, Amnesty International’s Language Resource Centre, and the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). In addition to ATA, the other T&I associations represented were the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, International Association of Translation and Intercultural Studies, International Federation of Translators, and the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters.
Risks and Vulnerabilities
In addition to discussing steps for mitigating risks and vulnerabilities, the panel also focused on what can be done to help translators and interpreters in conflict zones gain the international recognition and protection they deserve. The impressive list of panelists included:
- María Bassols, ambassador and deputy permanent representative, Permanent Mission of Spain to the United Nations
- Bill Miller, director of regional operations of UNDSS
- Maya Hess, founder and chief executive officer of Red T
- Betsy Fisher, director of strategy at IRAP
- Lucio Bagnulo, head of translation at Amnesty International’s Language Resource Centre
- Simona Škrabec, chair of PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee
- Caroline Decroix, vice president of the Association des interprètes et auxiliaires afghans de l’Armée Française
- Abdul Qaiyoum Najbullah Habibi, a conflict-zone interpreter
- Moderator: Linda Fitchett, chair of AIIC’s Conflict Zone Interpreter Project
The precursor to the panel discussion was a roundtable held at the UN in April 20182, which explored the risks and vulnerabilities experienced by translators and interpreters working in conflict situations.
In her opening remarks, Moderator Linda Fitchett expressed the hope that the UN will move toward an international response to address the need for protecting translators and interpreters in conflict zones.
Ambassador Maria Bassols noted that Spain, a staunch supporter of a broad humanitarian agenda, believes that translators and interpreters play a critical role in international relations and enhance knowledge within the international community. The big question, though, is how to fit the issue of protection for this group into the UN agenda. While pointing out that visa programs are national programs run by sovereign states, Bassols also observed this does not mean that international criteria cannot guide these policies. She stressed, however, that there is a lack of information about the numbers involved and that more solid data is needed to take any further steps within the UN. Such steps could include the establishment of a UN working group or “group of friends” (an informal group of states formed to support the peacemaking of the UN), and even a resolution, although this last measure would require tremendous effort.
UNDSS Director Bill Miller, whose department protects people who “require extraordinary protection in the service of others,” explained that 44 areas around the world are now classified as high risk and above, and that translators and interpreters are key in helping bridge the gap of misunderstanding behind the social and nativist drivers that create high-risk areas.
Maya Hess then expanded on the fact that T&I protection is virtually absent in the current international legal regime, and that it can only be inferred. However, Hess stated that “ample and gruesome evidence has shown that inferential rights are not sufficient, especially since linguists affiliated with troops, humanitarian organizations, and the media often operate on the frontlines and in other violent settings.” She pointed out that this lack of protection is further compounded by “the diminishing relevance and protective power of the Geneva Conventions due to changes in the traditional model of warfare,” including “the growing tendency to outsource wars to private defense contractors whose profit motives supersede interpreter welfare.” To address these factors, Hess proposed various solutions, including:
- Establishing a UN working group focused on this thematic.
- Appointing a special rapporteur who would investigate and draft a report on the scope of the issue.
- Drafting a document similar or iterative to the Montreux Document3, which outlines applicable law and best practices for private military and security companies in war zones.
- Proposing a UN resolution that would articulate T&I rights and establish a normative framework for future protection. Hess noted that such a resolution would shift the paradigm of how conflict-zone linguists are perceived and treated—a shift that, in turn, would save lives.
Protecting Our Linguists
IRAP Director of Strategy Betsy Fisher addressed interpreter safety and offered some important statistics. For instance, she noted that 216 documented interpreters have been killed in Iraq. Family members not only face direct, personal, and credible death threats from those in their local communities, but are also seen as security threats by their employers. In one case, a contract interpreter placed a call to an insurgent at the direction of his employer and was subsequently suspected by his employer of having misplaced loyalties, specifically because of this phone call.
After noting that relocation programs are rife with backlogs, delays, and inexplicable red tape and essentially amount to merely remedial measures, Fisher described specific steps that can be taken in conflict zones to ensure the safety of translators and interpreters. For example, occupying forces must find ways to protect the identities of linguists, including:
- Providing on-base housing so that linguists cannot be identified on their way to work.
- Allowing linguists to wear masks, use pseudonyms, and relocate within the country.
- Keeping accurate information about who has worked for them.
Next, Simona Škrabec spoke about PEN International’s efforts to protect and relocate translators living and working in war zones and other high-risk settings. Škrabec noted that PEN’s main focus is freedom of expression and that linguists, who serve as “pillars of peace and mutual understanding,” are especially vulnerable and exposed by virtue of their abilities. Some of the translators PEN International has helped resettle include:
- Mohammad Habeeb, one of the most prominent translators in Syria, who was imprisoned for nine years due to his criticism of human rights violations committed by the al-Assad regime.
- Ashur Etwebi, a well-known Libyan poet, novelist, and translator, who was forced to leave his home after an attack by militia and resettled in Trondheim, Norway.
- Amani Lazar, a translator and writer from Syria, who was in a particularly vulnerable position as a woman in a war-torn area close to ISIS-held territory.
Lucio Bagnulo, head of translation at Amnesty International’s Language Resource Centre, also spoke about the idea that freedom of expression cannot exist without translators and interpreters. After observing that language enables Amnesty InternationaI to do its work and that the importance of translation and interpreting cannot be overstated, he noted that the international community still does not have access to an instrument that provides translators and interpreters with protection at the international level. He similarly highlighted the need to provide support to translators and interpreters who work for non-governmental organizations, noting that these linguists face as much risk as those employed by occupying forces.
French attorney Caroline Decroix described her battle with the French government to protect Afghan interpreters who worked for the French army. The French government was in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 and employed approximately 800 Afghan nationals, largely as interpreters under fixed-term contracts. As the French forces started to withdraw in 2012, several criteria were introduced for relocating these linguists to France, including assessing the threat level to the person concerned, the quality of services rendered, and the ability to integrate into French society. Under these criteria, only 73 people were accepted, and under revised criteria submitted three years later, only 100 more were accepted. In the fall of 2018, 51 additional families were admitted to France under a third procedure. There are a number of cases still pending, which points to the need for a harmonized response from the UN, since selection criteria for relocation vary from one country to another and create inequality within the interpreter community.
Finally, the panel heard from Abdul Qaiyoum Najbullah via video recording. Najbullah worked for the U.S. and Canadian armed forces from late 2007 to 2013. He took on this work because he saw it as a way to provide for his family while helping bring peace to his homeland. In 2010, however, his parents were murdered due to his collaboration with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and he was forced to flee. He paid a human trafficker to take him to Germany, a journey that lasted over seven months and at times involved greater risk than working for ISAF in Afghanistan. The rest of his story is best told in his own words:
“After arriving in Germany, I found one of my Canadian team members I worked with in Afghanistan. I was facing deportation from Germany to Austria and Hungary because of the Dublin Treaty and asked him for help. He promised that he would take me to Canada. After that, Joe Warmington, a journalist from the Toronto Sun, started writing articles about me. Red T read my story, got involved, and helped me. I was stuck without money in a refugee camp in southern Germany and needed to get to the Canadian Embassy in Berlin for a visa. Red T contacted the German Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators and asked them to bring me to my visa interview. Together with Joe Warmington, they kept my case in the news and on social media. All this worked—I got my visa and landed in Canada on April 15, 2016.”
The Need for an International Response
The panel concluded with additional contributions from policy experts and a lively discussion. The overall message to attending member states was, to use Hess’ words: “The time has come for an international response to what is an international problem, and we call on the UN to firmly place the protection of linguists on its Protection-of-Civilians agenda.”
- To learn more about Red-T, visit www.red-t.org.
- Gunderson, Lucy. “ATA at ‘Protect Translators and Interpreters, Protect the World’: A Roundtable at the United Nations,” The ATA Chronicle (July/August 2018), 7, http://bit.ly/UN-roundtable.
- The Montreux Document is the result of an international process launched by the government of Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross. It’s an intergovernmental document intended to promote respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law whenever private military and security companies are present in armed conflicts. It was ratified in Montreux, Switzerland, in September 2008. For more information, see http://bit.ly/Montreux-Document.
Lucy Gunderson, CT is an ATA-certified Russian>English translator specializing in human rights, legal documents, and academic translation. She is also a past chair of ATA’s Divisions Committee and a former administrator of the Slavic Languages Division. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.