French is the language of diplomacy, German the language of science, and English the language of trade.
Whereas German has been displaced by English in science, French continues to occupy a privileged position in international diplomacy. Its use is protected by its designation as one of the two working languages of the United Nations (UN), the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and ad hoc UN-backed tribunals. At these courts and tribunals, documents and oral submissions may be presented in French or English and must be translated into the other language, at great expense.
Since the entrenchment of French, population and economic growth in the developing world, combined with the now pervasive use of English, have changed where and how languages are used. This justifies—or one might say necessitates—an assessment of whether French should continue to enjoy its privileged position within international law.
On a generous measure, French is the sixth most spoken language globally with 220 million French-speakers (including ‘partial-speakers’), ranked only after Chinese Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic. By comparison, there are approximately 1.5 billion people who speak English, of whom 339 million are native English-speakers.
One might conclude that using two working languages brings diversity. But the data below on the national origin of personnel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) suggests otherwise. At international courts and tribunals, one hears both French and English, coupled with an expectation that personnel are able to converse in both. One can imagine a Venn diagram consisting of an English-speakers’ circle of 1.5 billion people and a French-speakers’ circle of 220 million. The use of two working languages encourages the ICC and other bilingual courts to draw their personnel from the overlapping portion.
This French-English bilingual club is an exclusive one with very sparse membership in Asia and Latin America. According to the French Government, only 1.16% of the 220 million French-speakers are in Asia and Oceania. This amounts to a mere 2.6 million people among the 4.3 billion people of that region. Similarly, only 7.66% of French-speakers are found in the Americas and the Caribbean, i.e. 16.9 million people.
With these statistics in mind, it is little wonder that the ICC reports a serious underrepresentation of personnel from Asia and Latin American at each of its pay grades, P-1 to P-5 (as at March 2014). The underrepresentation of Asians is severe. At the P-1 grade, the ICC attracted a dismal zero employees from Asia.
Conversely, the Africa and Western Europe groups are overrepresented at each grade. Again, this may leave little wonder, as these are the regions where French-speakers are concentrated: 39.87% of whom are in Europe and 36.03% are in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean. English-speakers, on the other hand, are more globally spread.
The use of the French language looks to be at least a partial cause of the inequitable participation at the ICC, and the deficit in cultural diversity and different values, ideas and ideologies that results. The current bilingual arrangement risks imposing the thoughts and culture of only a narrow pool of humanity onto the international community, calling into question the legitimacy of the ICC and other bilingual courts.
If English were the sole working language, the ICC would be free to recruit from a pool of 1.5 billion people, without regard for whether candidates happen also to speak French. It is also arguable that the ICC having a well-oiled, bilingual French-English machine risks a disproportionate allocation of resources to African jurisdictions. If the system of international criminal law were more open to those who speak English plus any other language this might spur the broader allocation of investigative resources across the globe.
Of course, there are arguments for retaining French, such as the current workload of the ICC focusing on Francophone Africa. But, if French were discontinued as a mandatory second working language, it can still be used when needs must. Article 50 of the Rome Statute allows any of the six UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) to be used as a working language if the court case dictates.
Whereas the bilingual French-English system may once have aimed at diversity, it now appears to produce the opposite effect. Remaining reasons for retaining French might stem from a desire to maintain the status quo, national prestige, or motivations of national interest. These factors should not take priority over the interests of the international community at large.
Featured image credit: The Allée des Nations in front of the Palace of Nations by Tom Page. CC-BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.