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Op-Ed World Culture & Society

Why Tongan language has no word for human rights

Auckland, New Zealand

Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau is Tongan, and a senior lecturer at the Centre for Pacific Studies, Te Wānanga o Waipapa at the University of Auckland, New Zealand

Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau examines the gulf between modern and traditional Tongans and why the language has no term for human rights.

It strikes me that Tongan people are sharply divided into two camps by the English language and the global knowledge embodied in it. The first group is the minority English-speaking group. Knowledgeable of the ins and outs of today’s globalised world, they are ‘modernists’, educated, have been overseas and include many in government, the public service and the professions. It is they who push for democratic change and seek to ratify human rights treaties like CEDAW (the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations Against Women).

The other group, the majority of Tongans, are the ‘traditionalists’. Mainly Tongan-speaking, they have traditional beliefs in the society being made up of the king at the top, then the nobles or chiefs, then the commoners at the bottom. They speak little or no English, not enough to engage politically in modern ideas of government. They follow the advice of their religious and political leaders. For them, democracy is new and foreign, and their knowledge is largely gathered from hearing discussions on the radio, at kava parties, village weaving or ngatu-making gatherings, church or family gatherings.

The knowledge gulf between the two camps is huge, resulting in traditionalists not fully appreciating Western-derived concepts like human rights, which go beyond Tongan society to the universal human society. When the government announced its intention to have CEDAW ratified, more than 10,000 people petitioned the king that it was contrary to Tongan culture and religion. The king stopped the ratification.

Human rights conflict with cultural ‘rights’

In Tonga, indeed in much of Polynesia and the Pacific, human rights conflict with cultural ‘rights’, or the cultural roles, of Pacific peoples. Tongan people, a product of centuries of monarchy and social hierarchy, are never born free or equal, and Tongan has no word for ‘rights’ as in ‘to have rights’, nor a conventional way of saying that one has a voice in something. Tongan language now has totonu (rights), totonu ‘a e tangatá (the rights of humans) and ‘i ai honau le‘o (they have a voice), but these have developed as literal translations of the English expressions. Tongan pro-democracy activists are devising translations for concepts such as ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ so they can talk about them in Tongan. But these are not yet fully understood by most Tongans.

So, in a nation trying to introduce human rights and democracy, a first obstacle is to have Tongan words for these ideals. It is quite common for people who talk about democracy and politics to code-switch to English because there are no conventionalised ways of talking about these ideas in Tongan. In fact, the traditionalists are not being deliberately traditionalist. In the Tongan cultural context it is simply the way to be, because the Tongan world-view, as reflected in the language, lacks such liberal ideals as democracy and human rights principles.

I sometimes wonder whether Tonga’s democracy includes homosexual people. There are no words in Tongan for the concepts homosexuality, gay, gender or sexual orientation, let alone concepts like bisexual and transexual. These are concepts that Tongan people are exposed to only through the English language. They are not yet part of the traditional Tongan world-view.

Meet human rights half-way

Even considerations of the rights of women, who make up half of the Tongan population, may not yet be part of Tonga’s democracy. In the Tongan world-view, women and men have complementary collaborative roles which they adhere to in order to run the family. Men (fathers, husbands) rule and head the family; it is they who make the really important decisions. Women (wives, mothers) take care of children and run the domestic sphere of day-to-day life. So men and women are necessarily unlike and unequal, but their roles fit together to complete the holistic scheme of running the family.

Politically then, men have more power than women. This seems contrary to human rights, which says that men and women should have equal rights, hence CEDAW. As for children, their role in the family is to obey what they are told. Because children only do what they are told in Tongan culture, they have very little, if any, cultural rights, let alone any political influence in the family. Yet the United Nations has a document outlining the Rights of the Child. These are the human rights of children.

On Friday March 15, I was judging at the Polyfest Tongan Stage when the final day was cancelled in case of any risks to our children performers and their families, and to show solidarity with the Muslim community in their loss, which is also our New Zealand loss, our human loss. It brought home sharply what human rights are – the right to be free of all forms of discrimination and racial and religious violence. If Tongans can see that, then they will see it is ok to meet human rights half-way. Because, as poet John Donne wrote, “... never send to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee”.

- This article first appeared in the University of Auckland’s UniNews magazine.


Please allow me to remind the author of this article that Tonga's Constitution, which will be 144 years old come 4 November 2019, is the second oldest living Constitution in the world, and within it are entrenched: the declaration of freedom; freedom from servitude; freedom of religion; freedom of speech and the media; the right to a fair trial; Habeas Corpus; equality before the law etc which are basic human rights and fundamental freedoms that the Tongan people enjoyed long before the human rights instruments of the United Nations were drawn up and long before other peoples of Oceania and beyond had the opportunity to enjoy. Similarly the Tonga Fale Alea (Parliament) is as old as our Constitution and so the people of Tonga had practiced democracy, or some semblance of it, for almost a century and a half, and therefore to postulate that democracy and human rights and fundamental freedoms are new and foreign is a bit far-fetched in my humble view! Malo 'aupito. Lopeti Senituli

Martin Fatanitavake's picture

By analysing Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau's article, it revealed an important issue of interest for further discussion. My intention here is to share similar view on the issue and follow the author’s concerns, of which I hope without changing the author’s intention, the notion is the following, and I’ll try to keep it short and make it as clear as possible.

First, let me point out, that CEDAW was adopted by resolution 34/180 of the United Nation General Assembly on 18 December 1979, and entered in force on 3 September 1981. New Zealand was among one of the first lots to ratify CEDAW on 10 January 1985. Moreover, all clause of its contents was written in common language that serve them all, in ‘English text’. Despite all that, other Nations were trying their best to interpret, translate, transcript the Resolution grounded on perceptions and so on.

Our Nation states today is facing far greater challenging in several aspects; political, economic, social, culture and what have you. However, the prospect emerged as Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau is referring to is the notion ground on two camps lenses who have different perceptions on issues, which led to creates a division in our Nation. The ‘modern’ versus the ‘tradition’ belief are grounded on each side lenses modern vs tradition.

Now, as mention above, the intention and contents of a ‘resolution adopted by the UN regarding the content of, CEDAW for example was considered and determined by the influences of the English version, and therefore, ‘text’ would have to be design and frame according to English version.

Since the Security Council recommends United Nations memberships for Tonga on 28 July 1999, it was on the conditions that Tonga would have to uphold and observe the purpose of the UN Charters, the process to withhold and fulfil all the obligation contained in it; Peace and Security, Human Right, Economics development, Environment, Social development to name five all of which are important.

During the ratification process of the CEDAW in Tonga for example, our languages should have been played a major part in it. Unfortunately, it didn’t, and that has causing a major disruption in Tonga which led to divides our Nation. Why? because it’s the government responsibility, of which we all deserve a clear explanation to why and what etc.

Yet again, our Tonga languages was neither considered in the process of the adoption of the UN, Resolution, Human Rights which raise the question to “Why Tongan language has no word for human rights” – Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau.

The major concerns in this regard as Dr Melenaite /Taumoefolau points out, is the emerged of two camp of which I am referring to as two faces of the same coin regarding the issues of Human Rights. The modern on one side, the tradition on the other, their perception on the issues are grounded on their own interpretation – English – Tonga, Tonga – English with mix results, limited information or not at all.

While both sides have expressed their view according to their understanding, it appears somehow to have create an issue which lead to divide Tongan community at large not only in Tonga, but in NZ, Australia, UK and the US.

To emphasize interests and perceptions, to implement, formulate and adopting the new way grounded on possibilities and choices, of which ‘modern’ tends to focus on more on development conditions, in economics and social (Human Rights), aspects often at the cost of neglecting the traditional view which jeopardizing the view from our traditions camp through lacking of consideration, right determination, interpretation and including the deepening our knowledge and the meaning of our own ‘Tongan Languages’ in it, which has become to create major issue.

The modern side lenses in my view are determine and seek to introduce the new social patterns grounded on inductive generalizations perception that represents the view which typically determine, and choices influences by the few on the condition influences by their instruction; educative, modern language and what have you. On the other hands however, the ‘tradition ‘perception of which are spoken well in our languages, tend to concentrate on objective in maintaining the traditional view; their strategies, the hierarchy, their ways of lives through ear to ear through group discussion, kava bowls and other form. Nonetheless, without considering and realizing that ‘traditional,’ culture, religious, belief etc are of great importance and has values and remaining as a fundamental corner stone of our Nation State political system.

While it appears both sides have reasonable ground of argument, it appears somehow to suggests they both disagree on the fact that once introduction of ‘new’ are brought in to Tongan society without clarification, meaning, intention, interpretation of its contents, instigates to creates uncertainty which escalate differences resulting in the division in Tonga society. But Why? It’s because our Tongan languages does not have a say in the cultivation process of making policy of the UN.

When Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau referring to ‘new and foreign’ approaches, it means that our National languages does not involves in the creation of specific resolution. As the UN adopted resolution and ratify CEDAW, our formal languages were not part of the process at all, only English text. That has become a global issue to the extent and reveals to makes it difficult for other Nations, including Tonga of whom we are struggling to ratify, translate, interpret the intention and meaning effectively and put it in our own dictionary. As results, it creates divisiveness in our Nation.

In practical terms, the question is whether there are indeed good grounds to expect that by adopting of the new form, principles of democracy i.e. Human Rights (CEDAW) and alike as strongly determined and influences by the modern would or could significantly advance our position in a way, is another topic to discuss, but what we need for now, I hope that both camps will come together and finds better solution that brought us all together and trying to learned and have a clear understanding of the context of our society and deepening our understanding (knowledge) – on our Customs, Culture, Constitution etc grounded on our values and our own languages and make sense of it before anything else.

It appears somehow that our Nation languages was stuck in the middle because CEDAW TEXT for example, were written in the English version, not in Tongan version – and that the issue.

Last, even if our Constitution was the first, I have no doubt that it will not consider as part of the process involving in framing of UN policy initiative – CEDAW.

Fatanitavake Veikune