Language Law and Policy of the Federal Government of Ethiopia: Implications for Fair Trial and the Rights of Non-Amharic Language Speakers Accused
Ethiopia is a multilingual country with a federal form of state structure. The 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE Constitution) gave equal recognition for all Ethiopian languages, but has chosen Amharic to become the working language of the Federal Government. In order to accommodate the needs of non-Amharic speakers in the provision of public services, the Constitution and other laws such as the Criminal Procedure Code, require the use of interpreters. Particularly in criminal proceedings, non-Amharic speakers are entitled to be assisted with a ‘qualified’ interpreter to meaningfully participate in the cases. In practice, it is observed that accused people who do not speak the working language of the federal government are unable to effectively understand or get prompt and detailed information regarding the nature and effect of the case brought against them. Even if they know the case, they are not able to effectively explain their defences to the court or associated bodies, and thereby defend their rights. This study reveals that non-Amharic speakers are not effectively served according to the legal standards. This problem subsists mainly due to the absence or limited number of interpreters, as well as the use of untrained interpreters. Despite some efforts to address the problem, the federal government has not yet laid down any formal mechanism by which people with limited and/or no Amharic language proficiency are properly served in criminal proceedings both before and during trial. This study proposes the federal government to establish court interpreter training institutions and to standardise court interpretation by allocating the necessary budget; lay down a formal mechanism such as enacting detailed laws and working manuals for assigning interpreters; providing other local languages the status of working language; consulting interpretation technologies and working in collaboration with different stakeholders.