Linguistic Isolation: A New Human Rights Violation Constituting Torture, and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment

Linguistic Isolation: A New Human Rights Violation Constituting Torture, and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment

Abstract: Sixteen-year old Uzbek, Sunnat (not his real name), was seized in Afghanistan following the attacks on September 11, 2001. He was transported to the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2002. Despite being cleared for release, Sunnat waited eight years to find a country that would take him.

Sunnat was placed in a cell among other detainees in the general prison population. He spoke neither Arabic nor English, the linguae francae of the prison and the only languages spoken by the detainees in neighboring cells. Consequently, for much of his time in Guantanamo, Sunnat talked to no one. He awoke each morning and cried. Sunnat could, of course, reach out and communicate through eye contact, hand signs and facial expressions. However, Sunnat never had meaningful conversations with his neighbors.

Absence of meaningful human contact is a characteristic of isolation and a source of suffering caused by isolation. Sunnat suffered a new and unique form of isolation, known as linguistic isolation or isolation by language barriers.

In this article, I use Sunnat’s story as a lens through which to see how linguistic isolation is a form of isolation that warrants special attention in the detention context as a human rights violation. Similar to physical isolation, isolation by language barriers may rise to the level of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or CID. Academic literature on isolation, including literature in the legal, social sciences and international fields, has only cursorily acknowledged the experience of being isolated by language in detention, and has not identified the experience as a distinct type of isolation. Consequently, this essay is original work.

In comparing linguistic isolation to forms of physical isolation, this article will also create a framework where linguistic isolation is recognized as a distinct form of isolation similar to solitary confinement, incommunicado detention and administrative segregation. In addition, the article will identify circumstances outside Guantanamo where isolation by language barriers also exists, such as in immigration, asylum and refugee detention centers. The article concludes with suggestions for remedying situations of linguistic isolation. After the article was posted on SSRN this spring under a different title, it was reviewed for its groundbreaking thesis by the New Yorker and the Economist.

Published: November 24, 2013