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The Highland Line: why it's a wise decision not to invite a political figure to deliver the Sabhal Mor Ostaig this year

It was possibly wise for Skye's Gaelic college not to invite a political figure to deliver its Sabhal Mor Ostaig (SMO) Lecture this year.

After all when Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, travelled to Skye in April 1999 to deliver the 10th lecture, he did so amidst charges by his political opponents that it was a blatant piece of electioneering during the campaign for the first elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Indeed since it was launched in 1990 high profile politicians have frequently headed to the Sleat Peninsula to share their thoughts with the college and invited guests.

Irish President Mary Robinson delivered a memorable lecture in 1997, while every Scottish First Minister (Donald Dewar, Jack McConnell and Alex Salmond) with the sole exception of Henry McLeish have been invited.

Donald Dewar died on October 11, 2000 a few weeks after delivering the lecture and there wasn't one in 2001. By the time the next one was held, Henry McLeish's stint as First Minister (October 2000 to November 2001) had been prematurely ended in the "Officegate" expenses row.

Doubtless SMO did not want to appear favouring one side or the other in the run in to the referendum. But as it happens Gaelic seems to be one of the few Scottish issues which has not become a pawn in the independence debate. Perhaps because all four of Scotland's main political parties can claim some credit for what has been achieved so far in the attempts to save the Gaelic language. Just as they can share the responsibility for what hasn't been.

The first lecture was given by Highland historian Jim Hunter. The second was by Lord Gus Macdonald, the boss of STV who went on to be a Labour Government minister. Others included Shetland fisheries leader John Goodlad and Donnie Munro, a founding member of Runrig who went on to become SMO's director of development. The lecture became a prestigious event which has been televised in the past.

This year's choice was arguably the one that provided the most global perspective, while retaining relevance to the cause of the Gaelic language. SMO is to be congratulated on the choice of Rita Izsák, the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues.

She spoke in detail on what defines a minority, whether it be on the basis of religion, ethnicity or language, and on the work that has been done and the legislation that has been implemented to protect minorities and their rights across the globe.

She knows a wee bit about prejudice and discrimination. Her father's family was forcibly moved under post-war population transfers from Czechoslovakia (present day Slovakia) to Hungary due to their Hungarian ethnicity in 1947 and her mother is of Romani origin. She has been working on human and minority rights for a decade.

During that time she was at the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre and was a consultant with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Open Society Institute, the Roma Education Fund, and the Association for Women's Rights in Development.

She also worked as a Human Rights Officer with the Somaliland National Youth Organization in Hargeisa (Somalia). Also with the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe in Srebrenica, in Bosnia where thousands of Muslims were massacred in 1995, mainly men and boys. She was the Chief of Staff of the Social Inclusion State Secretariat of the Hungarian Ministry of Justice and Public Administration, and between 2011 and spring 2013, Ms Izsák was the President and CEO of the Tom Lantos Institute in Budapest.

This last body, the Tom Lantos Institute (TLI), is an independent human and minority rights organisation with a particular focus on Jewish and Roma communities and other ethnic or national, linguistic and religious minorities. It aims to "bridge the gap between research and policy, norms and practice".

The TLI was established in Hungary in May 2011 by the decision of the Hungarian Government and the U.S. Senate to honour and continue the legacy of Tom Lantos, a Hungarian-American and the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the United States Congress. He had been a powerful voice for human rights and civil liberties throughout his life.

Rita Izsák said of SMO: "Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is a true gem and should serve as a model for all linguistic communities on how language and a community should be preserved and advanced. I feel privileged to be part of your community, at least for today, and to be able to benefit from the beautiful view and the friendly atmosphere."

She obviously thought the challenges facing Gaelic should be put in a wider context.

She said minority languages were still under threat globally and needed to be protected by the law, and that their speakers still were not being given the chance to be educated in their native language.

She said: "In some countries the use of minority languages has been deemed a threat to national unity and an attempt by minorities to reinforce territorial or separatist claims and has consequently been restricted or banned. Any restriction on the use of minority languages and freedom of expression must be fully justified and proportionate. Attempts to prohibit or abolish the use of minority languages constitute a gross violation of minority rights."

But never far from her world are reminders that too often unspeakable human cruelty has denied the most basic of rights: "To talk about minorities is indeed timely and as important today as it has always been throughout history. In 2014, we sadly remember the Rwandan genocide that took place 20 years ago, killing hundreds of thousands in just a few months. And this year, we also hold a Holocaust Memorial Year reminding ourselves in Hungary how 70 years ago the tragic deportation of Hungarian Jews has started."

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