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  Global Views
Interpreters in Conflict Zones Still Defenceless
By Krzysztof Wereszczynski
Special Contribution
The interpreters in conflict zones still wait for an international recognition of their status in a form of declaration of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Such official document would increase the public awareness of the significant functions exercised by interpreters during and in post-conflict situations worldwide. It would also provide them a legal shield in some critical situations. Until now, the legal status of interpreters involved in armed conflicts has not been specifically regulated in international humanitarian law; unlike other categories of staff explicitly mentioned in the Geneva Conventions e.g. journalists who have been given several measures of legal protection. Although the provisions of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949 recognize the rights of individuals (e.g. prisoners of war) to make use of the services of ‘competent’ or ‘qualified’ interpreter, the rights of the person entrusted with such service are not defined in any way. In post-conflict situations, interpreters attached to the international mission within or outside the United Nations system are usually covered by the provisions of the so-called ‘status of forces agreements’ (SOFAs) or agreements that may be considered SOFAs which constitute the legal framework under which the military and civilian personnel operate within a given country. In such a case, interpreters can enjoy certain privileges and immunities, including the immunity from the criminal and civil jurisdiction of local courts in relation to the performance of their official duties and exemption from local taxation. Nonetheless, whether locally hired or brought in from abroad, interpreters are permanently exposed to numerous threats, acts of intimidation, blackmail, as well as they are subject to overwhelming stress. Local interpreters and their families may also be a target of attacks when troops leave. Their homes and cars may also be bombed. Despite extreme conditions of work, many interpreters are treated unfairly. They receive inadequate pay for services rendered and no or inadequate insurance packages are provided by the employers to cover illness, repatriation, disability or loss of life. They are required to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, and be on-call during the remaining time. The interpreters also experience lack of satisfactory post-conflict protection e.g. denial of asylum and immigrant visas to the country whose military forces have been helped, insufficient social support and lack of permanent employment in the recipient country, lack of free access to psychological counselling.

Moreover, many interpreters are recruited as ‘language assistants’, ‘language specialists’ or ‘fixers’ in conflict zones which means that they will perform additional functions than purely interpreting, such as, for instance, analysing communications, gathering intelligence or arranging meetings with local leaders. This compromises the principles of neutrality and impartiality of interpreters. On the other hand, the local population treats these ‘language assistants’ as mere traitors, collaborators, and apostates who deserve to die. The rising number of murdered, injured or kidnapped interpreters clearly indicates that their protection is insufficient. It is enough to quote that 360 interpreters were killed and more than 1200 were injured in Iraq helping the United States forces between 2003 and 2008. The death toll among interpreters involved in the multinational military operations in Afghanistan will be certainly higher.

Although the road to achieving a better protection for interpreters is long, the first steps have already been taken. In January 2009, the members of the 34th Assembly of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) adopted a resolution in Nice, in which they recognized the vulnerability of interpreters in conflict zones and decided to launch a project aimed at supporting and protecting interpreters in various ways, in particular:

— informing interpreters through the website of the association of ‘their right to fair treatment and protection, but also of their obligations as neutral/non-partisan intermediaries’, as well as of the professional values and ethical principles (Res. no. 402);
— promoting training modules online for interpreters in zones of crisis and war, offered by the School of Translation and Interpretation (ETI) in Geneva, Switzerland;
— sensibilizing employers, international trade unions, non-governmental organizations, public bodies and international organizations e.g. ILO to the necessity of better protection of interpreters during and following conflicts;
— working out the global terms of a new social contract for interpreters in conflict areas;
— convincing the General Assembly of the United Nations and/or the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to adopt a declaration ‘recognizing and protecting the neutral and impartial status and integrity of all interpreters’ (Res. no. 402).

On 29 April 2010, the members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe signed a declaration in Strasbourg, which is regarded as the first international document that publicly acknowledges a lack of any official status held by interpreters and calls on the member states to ensure better protection for interpreters both during and after conflicts, similar to that of the International Committee of the Red Cross staff, stressing the need of their neutrality and impartiality.

The next important step towards an international recognition and protection of the profession of interpreters in conflict zones would be an appropriate political declaration of the General Assembly of the United Nations which with its current 192 member states is the most representative organ in the world.

Krzysztof Wereszczynski
University of Bialystok, Poland






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