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Historical Background

    Languages play a vital role in both UNESCO Constitution and its past and present programmes, which has no equivalent in the other specialized agencies of the United Nations system.

    In fact, languages are referred to in the first article of the UNESCO Constitution on two occasions: in paragraph 1, where the Organization is called upon to counteract any language-related discrimination, since it “is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture … without distinction of race, sex, language or religion”; and, in paragraph 2, where language (literally the “word”) is seen as a medium for disseminating the ideas that should be promoted across political divisions – UNESCO will “to that end recommend such international agreements as may be necessary to promote the free flow of ideas by word and image”.

    Finally paragraph 2(c) states that the Organization must “maintain, increase and diffuse knowledge … by giv[ing] the people of all countries access to the printed and published materials produced by any of them”, advocating the importance of translation in access to knowledge across linguistic barriers.

    These articles have been reflected in the Organization’s various programmes throughout its existence and have given rise to numerous operational initiatives aimed at promoting languages and multilingualism in a range of fields.

    In January 2006, UNESCO set up a strategic monitoring body (the Task Force on Languages and Multilingualism, chaired by the Director-General) and an operational monitoring structure (the network of focal points for languages) to ensure synergy among all sectors and services concerned by languages. Through this well-designed combination, strengthened and revivified from February 2008 by the creation of an Intersectoral platform on language and multilingualism (IPLM), the Organization is working internationally to promote the principles enshrined in or derived from standard-setting tools relating to languages and multilingualism, and locally to develop coherent national and regional language policies, in conformity with its mid-term strategy.

    The most recent achievement of the Intersectoral Platform on Language and Multilingualism is the implementation of the International Year of Languages, following its proclamation on 16 May 2007, by the United Nations General Assembly that also designated UNESCO as lead agency.

    To ensure its role, UNESCO elaborated an intersectoral strategy defining the objectives, the functions, the content and the means of its action during the year. The strategy monitoring is ensured by the UNESCO Intersectoral Platform for Languages and Multilingualism, coordinated by the Culture Sector.

    As a result of this mobilization strategy, UNESCO Secretariat was notified of some 200 activities in different domains implemented during the year.