What’s your FILA (Favorite International Law Acronym)?

by Duncan Hollis

A while back, a commentator (aptly named Irritated) complained about my use of acronyms in a post on treaty priorities of the Obama Administration.  I understand the frustration of the uninitiated.  That said, the reality is a facility with acronyms appears to have become part of the job description for international lawyers.  I have no idea when or how this phenomenon started (a fun law review topic I’m sure), but you cannot work as an international lawyer today without using (and sometimes creating) acronyms of all sorts.  Many simply serve as shorthand references to longer-titled institutions or instruments (think UN, NATO, WHO, WTO, UDHR, ECHR, ECtHR, ICJ, IJCICC, or IMO).  In other cases, acronyms supplant the practice of referencing a treaty by the location of the final negotiations; a practice that proved problematic once cities like Vienna began to play that role repeatedly.  So today, it’s not the “Vienna Convention” anymore, but the more specific VCLTVCCR or VCDR.  Sometimes, an international law acronym sounds like a real word, such as PIC, or actually replicates a real word, like the START treaty currently being renegotiated or the older SALT treaties or many SOFAs that exist today.  And then there are competing acronyms; the earlier reference to UNCLOS has little appeal to its opponents, who prefer to refer to that treaty as LOST

So what are my FILAs?  Actually, I tend to appreciate acronyms that suggest a drafting committee had a sense of humor about their project.  I’m pretty sure, for example, that in devising a POPRC, the treaty-makers were not merely creating a very interesting example of international delegation, but also hinting at their preferred musical genre.  My own personal favorite though is the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. I have it on good authority that one of the negotiators got other representatives to sign off on his preferred acronym–CPUCH–for that treaty despite a peculiar pronunciation he neglected to share with them (hint — read the initial C softly and give the CH that follows a hard reading to get an unfavorable description of the final treaty product).  Of course, I claim no monopoly on FILAs.  Thus, I’d welcome reader comments on other favored or hated acronyms, not to mention examples that give some levity to an otherwise serious field.


6 Responses

  1. Perhaps it’s my age, but I prefer to use the term “acronym” in its most common or original sense, namely, for letters or initials that combine to make a “word,” thus UN, WTO, UDHR, ECHR, etc., would not qualify as acronyms, but NATO and WHO (and FILA) would.

    Those initials above that are not, strictly speaking, acronyms, are referred to as abbreviations, although the Wikipedia entry on same notes that these are also referred to (rather inelegantly) as “initialism” or (even more awkwardly) “alphabetism.”
    P. O’D

  2. the  Draft Articles on Responsbility of International Orgnizations  (DARIO) is one of my favourites acronyms. Although also I found funny to use Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIT.

    Congratulations for your blog!!!

    Best regards


  3. Patrick beat me to the punch on the distinction between acronyms and abbreviations.  In the international realm, however, one language’s acronym may be another language’s abbreviation (see, e.g., use of “UNO” (pronounced “oo-no”) in French vs. “U.N.” in English).  Even within the same language I have noted some using the acronym pronunciation while others sound out the letters for the same treaty or institution, as, for example, with the UN Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (CISG) and also the American Society of International Law (ASIL).

    I am not sure that international law beats the “alphabet soup” that is the federal bureaucracy, especially State and the Pentagon.  For example, can readers decipher this? “S, P and the NEA PDAS will RON with POTUS at USUN Geneva; ETA 2200.”

  4. How about the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (D.R.I.P)? 

  5. As I do, in line with Andres Delgado, appreciate the utter joy stemming from the acronym “BIT”, I am certain he shares my concern about the titles of academic presentations such as Mary Hallward-Driemeier´s “Do Bilateral Investment Treaties Attract Foreign Direct Investment? Only a Bit…and They Could Bite”, (though by all means, otherwise, a fine paper)

    My favourite, though, is IOSCO (I guess, like many of the acronyms here, whether you know it or not is kind of a litmus test). I don´t know how to say it, but I have heard it pronounced like “yosko”.

  6. Global administrative law “GAL”

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