Between Elitist Conversations and Local Clusters: How Should we Address English-centrism in International Law?

Between Elitist Conversations and Local Clusters: How Should we Address English-centrism in International Law?

[Justina Uriburu is a Ph.D. Candidate in International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and a Researcher at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy.]

The question of English-centrism

In his memoir titled A Life Beyond Boundaries, Benedict Anderson provides a testimony of his intellectual journey and his experience in academia. He navigates through different dimensions of scholarly life: the rise of area studies in the United States, the experience of fieldwork, the framework and styles of comparative research, and the ways to cultivate the sense of difference and strangeness that enable intellectual curiosity. As a multilingual scholar who lived and travelled across several countries, including Indonesia, Siam, and the Philippines, by the end of the book Anderson laments the transformations he sees happening in academia. He says that “more and more scholars in different countries feel that unless they write in American [English] they will not be recognized internationally, and at the same time American scholars become lazier about learning any foreign languages except those they have to acquire for the purposes of fieldwork”, and fears that, after all, the warnings of political scientist Karl Deutsch may have been right: “Power means not having to listen!”.

The importance of the relationship between language and international law cannot be overstated, not least because of the discipline’s universalistic pretence. The choice of language significantly determines the way in which international law is made, interpreted, and applied, what knowledge is produced by scholars, and the participants of the conversation. As Anthea Roberts accounts for in her ground-breaking book Is International Law International?, international law has not remained alien from the domination of English, which has become “the common tongue for international education, international conferences, international publications, international meetings, and international dispute resolution”. Roberts explains that although decisions to turn to English are often based on wishes to increase the scope of readership and audiences, this turn has obvious distributional consequences as native English speakers are disproportionately privileged.

The problems posed by participating in a discipline that has established its historical domination through violence, and that is governed by socio-economic privileges and from core locations has long been raised by peripheral voices, which have put forward normative projects of critique and change. Nowadays, the entrenched biases of the discipline are being increasingly confronted and challenged, including the inequalities that English-centrism generates in the international legal academy and profession. To mention some recent and powerful reflections, Alonso Gurmendi and Paula Baldini Miranda da Cruz posited that peripheral scholars are underrepresented in academic publications at least partially because of their different communication cultures. The struggles faced by teachers and students for whom English is not their first language have been further addressed in two outstanding symposia on teaching and researching international law hosted by Opinio Juris and Afronomics. Tran Viet Dung explained how Vietnamese law students have to rely on poor translations of foreign textbooks to study international law. Mohsen al Attar highlighted how language barriers become tighter in the context of the pandemic. Students who are non-English native speakers and are currently pursuing degrees in English-speaking countries have been forced into virtual learning and have been deprived of the “natural acculturation processes that presence on a campus and in a classroom facilitates”.

The difficult question remains as to how we should react to English-centrism. So far, this phenomenon has been met with different responses, which have varied from defences of an English and French duopoly, the predominant use of first languages, to calls for multilingualism. While the two first approaches are problematic in their own right, the third faces the problem of the (absence of) possibilities that aspiring international lawyers across the globe have of studying languages. In this blogpost, for a start, I describe some of the problems and dilemmas posed both by defences of an English and French duopoly and the use of first languages. Then, I would like to introduce a particular way of understanding the relationship between languages and international law that differs from traditional defences of multilingualism to finally draw some tentative proposals that I think that could contribute to the fight for a more equal and inclusive discipline.

Protecting French

A significant part of the resistance to the consecration of English as international law’s lingua franca manifests in calls to protect French. Indeed, some international lawyers have strongly reacted against the shift toward English-only policies. Archetypical examples include the complaints raised upon the European Journal of International Law’s abandonment of a dual French/English policy and the opposition faced by the proposals to drop French as a requirement to work in the International Criminal Court (see Roberts pp. 261, 268). Defenders of a dual policy usually justify their position on one of two grounds: either that French has historically shaped the discipline and should therefore be protected or, under an instrumental approach, that the use of French is a way to resist the hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon legal culture. In addition, the working languages of the International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea continue to be English and French. The same goes for international institutions, like the United Nations Secretariat, or academic hubs such as the Institut de Droit International and The Hague Academy of International Law. It is thus commonplace to hear that mastering English and French enhances professional opportunities.

However, foregrounding English and French as the discipline’s main languages is unlikely to contribute to a more diverse, equal, and representative discipline. First, those who defend this approach fail to account for the question of inequality. Language courses are beyond the reach for most students across the world and even when nominally affordable, the opportunity cost of mastering a third language —especially at a level that would allow one to engage in academic discussions— may still be too high. Many law schools struggle with an even more fundamental problem: how to introduce students to materials in English —which are, to make matters worse, often prohibitive due to the cost of journal subscriptions and legal databases. In this context, for a start, foregrounding English and French does not contribute to diversity, but instead reproduces an elitist and mostly European-dominated profession. Moreover, it is at least questionable to affirm that one will fail to capture and protect international law’s heritage for not knowing French vis-à-vis the many other languages that are part of the discipline’s history. Such assertions avoid not only problematising the painful dimensions of that same heritage, but also the fact that international law also developed outside Europe. Finally, even for those who have the opportunity to master a third language, the study of French becomes a promise that will unlikely deliver. The chances of being hired at international tribunals or entering the select club of lawyers that plead before them continue to be determined by other factors; mainly, graduating from an elite university.

First languages

Another form of resistance against English-centrism translates in the exclusive use of native languages. As put by Anderson,

“[t]here are thousands of excellent scholars in many countries, politically opposed to American hegemony, who, as a matter of principle, write only in their mother-tongues either solely for their compatriots or, if their languages have a wider readership (e.g. Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, French, Arabic and a few others), for a limited transnational public. Many others write in their mother-language for apolitical reasons: they can express themselves best in the language, or they are too lazy to master another. There is nothing terribly wrong with any of this, and much that is good. But it does risk the obvious perils of not being exposed to the views of good foreign readers, or of falling into narrow-minded nationalism”.

This is a course of action that international law scholars sometimes follow. For example, some non-native English scholars read and write exclusively in their first languages, and national groups sometimes opt to speak in their country’s language in international conferences in which such a decision means addressing only their compatriots and leaving the rest of the audience aside. In addition to the reasons mentioned by Anderson that may motivate such decisions, one should add that this kind of approach can strengthen bonds between national or regional groups. Yet, it is not cost-free. The lack of dialogue with foreign audiences and literature risks turning domestic settings of discussion into parochial forums. Having disabled interactions with external parties, they forfeit the critique that comes from collective and diverse deliberations, as well as the possibility to participate in global discussions of their concern.

I believe I can exemplify this with a problem affecting my home country, Argentina. The frequent use of Spanish materials in classrooms makes it difficult for students to follow the current discussions on international law. These materials are usually produced by scholars working in significantly less privileged conditions than their peers from the Global North, operating under very different rules guiding the progress of academic careers (notably, not centred around publishing in top international journals), with a severely restricted access to bibliographic materials, and who face language barriers themselves. Despite the existence of incredibly valuable work, the risk is, as put by George Galindo, that “students are normally deprived of the sources that most influence international legal theory and practice, such as international judicial and arbitral awards, diplomatic practice, and international legal scholarship in its different varieties”. Furthermore, the sole use of local materials can further entrench the belief that specific topics can only be addressed by national voices. While this may sometimes be the case, such a position overlooks the fact that, as Alejandro Chehtman has argued, texts are not always assigned with the purpose of taking their arguments at face value, but instead they can be used in a class to be critiqued or to demonstrate how international law reproduces certain structures of power or specific discourses. While the predominant use of Spanish in a profoundly unequal society and under-resourced universities is very much imposed upon teachers, this choice is often accompanied by the absence of efforts to produce high quality translations of the relevant texts into Spanish and to seek ways around the language barrier, as well as, importantly, little acknowledgement of the price that students are paying for that decision.

Multilingualism revisited

There is a third type of reaction that proposes a multilingual discipline based on the virtues of pluralism broadly understood. While some scholars have described multilingualism as a vehicle to perfect the drafting or interpretation of international law, these are not the only virtues that yield from it. To describe a different understanding of multilingualism, I would like to return to Anderson one last time. Throughout his book, he refers to a proverbial frog that spends its whole life under half a coconut shell, who “sitting quietly […] begins to feel that the coconut bowl encloses the entire universe”. Anderson portrays the learning of languages as a way to escape the coconut shell and to start seeing the sky that lies above the frog’s head:

“It is important to keep in mind that to learn a language is not simply to learn a linguistic means of communication. It is also to learn the way of thinking and feeling of a people who speak and write a language which is different from ours. It is to learn the history and culture underlying their thoughts and emotions and so to learn to empathize with them”.

Anderson, I understand, defends multilingualism in a way that transcends instrumental or technically oriented goals. In his eyes, multilingualism appears as a means to acknowledge difference, and to attain openness and self-relativization. These are critical sensibilities in a discipline that while hardly (or, indeed, impossibly) universal has a ubiquitous presence in our everyday lives.

How can we work towards a discipline that accommodates the existence of different languages, and one in which the sense of difference and strangeness is the norm and not the exception? It may be central that international legal scholars from the core start reading and actively engaging with works written in languages other than English and French —most often meaning that they would need to learn such languages first. This would be especially important for those scholars from the core doing research on non-English or non-French locations or communities. As pointed out by Marina Veličković, scholars from the core doing work on post-conflict settings without knowing the local language(s) risk overlooking scholarship produced in those languages, and ultimately speaking over local voices. Moreover, it would also help if scholars from the core started conceiving classrooms as places that transcend professional training, and that instead constitute fertile spaces to cultivate empathy, tolerance, and humbleness. With that spirit, for instance, they could engage with the linguistic biases and blind spots of the assigned class materials. This individual approach could be complemented by other top-down initiatives. For example, universities from the core and with strong financial positions could offer language courses for their students.

Unfortunately, the question of inequality that limits the possibilities of many (if not most) aspiring international lawyers from non-core locations to study multiple languages remains. With this consideration in mind, other initiatives —which admittedly would not be addressing the heart of the problem but would rather level the playing field— may be worth considering. Universities, institutions, and regional international law societies could, whenever possible, make simultaneous translations available for conferences or events to enable the participation of peripheral actors. The virtual platforms where much of the discussion and reflection of recent events occurs could encourage the use of different languages. Furthermore, it could be important to retrieve the value of translations, a distant yet mighty cousin of multilingualism. Indeed, efforts could be directed to delivering high quality translation of English works that have had a significant influence on international legal theory and practice. For those seeking to pursue a professional career, it could be the time to resume discussions about the potential reforms of the qualifications required to apply for positions at international tribunals or international organizations —notably, as has been suggested in past occasions, substituting existing English and French policies for English plus another language.

To conclude

There are no straightforward answers to address such complex, sensitive, and (for many of us) personal questions. As I continue to learn to challenge my assumptions and to avoid perpetuating power structures and systemic biases, these reflections are far from being a final product. What seems clear is that resisting English-centrism through calls to protect French or the seclusion in first languages will unlikely take us to a discipline governed by equality and inclusiveness. Rather, the focus should be placed on scholars and institutions from the core, who have a long way to go in their exposure to different languages, a question that directly impacts their engagement with different ways of thinking and their acknowledgement of others. Actions in this direction could have a transformative potential in a discipline that, when it comes to language, often seems trapped in a false dilemma, oscillating dangerously between English-dominated conversations and national or regional clusters.

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