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United Nations

French language in International Law

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.

The rise of Asia
Image credit: table reproduced with kind permission from the author.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Louis B. Buchman

    All intellectual viewpoints are respectable but the reasoning here seems doubly flawed. Firtsly, it draws conclusions from only one set of figures, relating to only one international court, and to only one pool of participants (the staff) not the other participants (parties, counsels). Secondly, it looks to the past instead of the future. All demographic projections show that Africa is the fastest-growing region in terms of population, and that French-speaking African countries are growing faster than English-speaking African countries, thus forecasting a stronger use of the French language internationally in the years to come.

  2. Peter Laverack

    Thanks for the comment, Louis. On the first point, personnel from P1 to P5 are included in the data and the other points that you raise are covered in the full-length article. On the second point, it’s a valid observation, but an odd position to take. Is it really acceptable to prejudice the 5 billion people of Asia and Latin America now and in the future, as at some point in the future there might be more French speakers among the (currently) 1 billion people of Africa?

  3. Miart

    Je suis complètement en désaccord avec le contenu de cet article. Le droit occiental est divisé en deux grandes catégories: le droit continental représenté au plan international par le français, et le droit anglo-saxon. Si l’on ne retenait que l’anglais, seul le droit anglo-saxon serait représenté, les concepts juridiques étant très liés à la langue, ce qui serait précisément contraire à la diversité.

  4. Florin

    Hello! You have also overlooked the fact that the French language was preferred in the past because it is clearer and more concise than English. By using French many disputes could be avoided, this is why the French language is the language of diplomacy

  5. Anna D

    En tant qu’africaine, francophone, qui a appris l’anglais dès son entrée au secondaire car c’est une matière obligatoire dans l’enseignement secondaire de la plupart des pays francophones d’Afrique subsaharienne, en tant que personne qui a eu l’opportunité de travailler au Secrétariat des Nu à NY où l’anglais ET le français sont sont les deux langues de travail et qui a constaté que dans les faits, SEUL l’anglais est une langue de travail, je trouve ce billet, dégoulinant d’impérialisme linguistique anglo-saxon, maquillé sous des faux-airs de bienveillance à l’égard des laissés pour compte asiatiques et d’Amérique latine. La preuve? L’introduction qui débute avec une remarque voulant que l’anglais ait supplanté l’anglais dans le monde de la science.
    Dans les faits, l’anglais est la seule langue de travail utilisée dans les organisations internationales car la réalité est que les anglophones sont en général, peu portés à apprendre d’autres langues, imbus qu’ils sont de leur supériorité. Si l’auteur se préoccupe tant que ça de la non-représentativité des asiatiques et si l’on tient compte, par exemple, du fait que la Chine est l’un des pays les plus peuplés au monde, que beaucoup de ses ressortissants ont fait des études brillantes, que ce pays est membre du Conseil de sécurité des NU, que le chinois est l’une des langues officielles des NU, pourquoi ne pas rajouter cette langue comme l’une des langues de travail des TPI et autres institutions internationales? Oh, attendez, est-ce que la Chine se préoccupe de toutes ces juridictions pénales internationales?
    Si les pays francophones d’Afrique subsaharienne prennent la peine d’intégrer l’anglais dans les programmes d’études au secondaire, qu’est-ce qui empêche les anglophones du monde entier d’en faire autant avec toute autre langue étrangère? Oh, attendez, pourquoi le feraient-ils? Ne sont-il pas le nombril du monde.
    Ce billet se voulait intellectuel avec ses statistiques et ses sophismes, il ne l’est absolument pas. Au contraire, il est une aberration car on considère que le multiculturalisme sous tous ses aspects, est encouragé dans les organisations internationales.
    La langue est vecteur de culture. Quand on parle une langue, que l’on le veuille ou pas, on s’approprie des codes de la culture d’où est issue cette langue. Déjà que pour les non-occidentaux, c’est parfois désagréable de baigner 24/7 dans un environnement purement eurocentrique dans les organisations internationales, s’il faut en plus, venir uniformiser tout ceci au nom de la suprématie de la langue anglaise et tout ce qui va avec, comme codes culturels, on n’est pas sorti de l’auberge.
    Je terminerai avec ce poème qui résume très bien, ce que je viens d’écrire.

  6. Pananya L

    I want to write about the use of French language in international law in general (and saving the dominance of European reasoning for another occasion). I am from Thailand and, at least during my time, English was the only compulsory foreign language at school. Desiring to be an international law scholar, to read, write and speak in English are already a big challenge. Therefore, frankly speaking and with full respect, whenever I see the quoted French text in the English literature without English translation, I wonder if it is my task to use a translation app (or learn one more language). Many times, I just skip and probably miss many important points.

    It is insightful to hear different perspectives in the blog (indeed, after using google translate). I wonder how should we accommodate the changes in the world, respect diversity and break away from the Euro-centric view of international law. I am aware that English as an international language is a consequence of imperialism (so as other languages), but we may need some languages or some medium to communicate with one another. Should international law scholars be able to quote French in English literature as they deem fit, but try to provide translation (instead of letting an app translate, which may cause distortions in the meaning French intends to avoid)? Should I be encouraged to quote any language, be it Chinese, Thai, etc., into the text, but again with translation, so we can effectively communicate, respect the author, the audience as well as diversity? Or we can imagine the future where everyone just speaks her/his language and lets the task of making the messages understandable be in the hand of readers, by using an app or learning a new language?

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