Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
20 November 2020

How should we address English-centrism in international law?

Justina Uriburu, PhD Researcher at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, reflects on the impact of language on international law.

Justina Uriburu, PhD candidate and researcher at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, has contributed a piece to Opinio Juris, a global outlet for discussion between academics, practitioners and legal experts. Her piece Between Elitist Conversations and Local Clusters: How should we address English-centrism in international law? analyses the role of language in shaping international law. In her interview, Justina Uriburu explains how her academic journey has foregrounded her critical appraisal of the language question. Her experience connects to the journey of many scholars worldwide, across disciplines – including Albert O. Hirschman whose “odyssey within words and languages” largely influenced his scholarship.


What drove you to write the piece?

I wrote this piece as a reaction to many past experiences related to the language in which international law is read, written, and discussed. I rarely knew how to react in those situations, as their varying contexts meant that they encompassed different tensions that were difficult to unpack. Let me illustrate this with some examples. My first encounter with international law was in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Once I left to pursue my LL.M. in the United Kingdom, I could patently perceive how different classrooms in Buenos Aires and the Global North were. I understood that studying international law in Argentina and only with materials in Spanish would unlikely allow students to enter into an enriching dialogue with the international law communities around the globe, especially those located in the core. However, I knew it was not right to give in to the domination of the English language. For a start, this course of action presupposed that students across the world have access to learning English. More often than not, the question of which language to use in the periphery is not a choice, but a fact that is imposed upon students and teachers. Besides, there are powerful reasons as to why we should not surrender to English-centrism. Crucially, learning languages allow us to acknowledge difference, and to attain openness as well as self-relativisation. Languages convey a unique way in which people think and feel, and carry a particular history and culture.

I then moved to Geneva, where I am writing my PhD in English, albeit in a bilingual institution based in a francophone city. I could not help but feel uneasy when I heard people lamenting the decline of the use of French language at the Graduate Institute. I wondered if they knew how much peripheral students struggle just to master English at the level required by academia, as well as the implications that such laments had; notably, why should we mourn the absence of French and not the absence of other languages or multilingualism more generally. Thanks to a recommendation from a colleague from the International Law Department, Phil Saengkrai, I read Benedict Anderson’s beautiful memoir A Life Beyond Boundaries, in which he narrates his intellectual journey. In the book, he touches on the global domination of English in academia. His thoughts inspired me to articulate the problems that the question of language entails for the discipline of international law, as well as to explore some avenues for reform.


How do you see the role of languages in shaping research in international law?

The relationship between language and international law is central: the choice of language largely influences the way in which international law is made, interpreted, and applied. It also determines what knowledge is produced by scholars, and who will participate in the process of knowledge production. At present, the consecration of English as international law’s lingua franca strongly shapes the content and dynamics of the discipline and, significantly, it constitutes visible inequalities in both academia and practice. For a start, non-English native students, scholars, and practitioners face an additional burden as they have to learn a new language to participate in international law. As a result, they are disadvantaged from the start: they have to invest a more considerable effort in reading and writing than native speakers do, which in turn impacts their performance and prospects to publish. Others have suggested that the research that non-native English scholars sometimes promote —and consequently the literature that may want to engage with (often whole bodies of non-English literature)— is occasionally dismissed by academic institutions or international journals as not representative enough for the discipline. This does not tend to be the case with articles or books that mostly rely on English sources and literature.


How should we react to what you call “English-centrism”?

In international law, this phenomenon has usually been met with responses that range from the defences of an English and French duopoly to the proposals for predominantly using first languages or the calls for multilingualism. In my piece in Opinio Juris, I describe the problems and dilemmas posed by the first two approaches. In a nutshell, foregrounding English and French does not contribute to diversity, but instead reproduces an elitist and mostly European-dominated profession. Moreover, the exclusive use of first languages risks turning domestic settings of discussion into parochial forums. Against that background, I build on Anderson’s understanding on multilingualism —an approach that is different from instrumental defences of multilingualism—, and I set the focus on scholars and institutions from the core, who have a long way to go in their exposure to different languages, something that directly impacts their engagement with different ways of thinking and their acknowledgement of others. I believe that it would be central that they 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. Unfortunately, when advocating for multilingualism, 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, I mention other initiatives that, instead of addressing the heart of the problem, would level the playing field.


Which authors and initiatives have been of inspiration to you for this piece?

As I mentioned, Benedict Anderson’s testimony of his journey in academia has been incredibly inspiring to reflect upon the question of languages. Moreover, there is a rich tradition of critical international scholarship, most notably from the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL). This network has denounced the problems posed by participating in a discipline governed from core locations and informed by socio-economic positions and privilege. Various initiatives have been launched to address the deeply ingrained, and sometimes inherent, biases of international law. The newly founded TWAIL Review is a formidable example, as it builds on the premise that conventional forms of academia cannot adequately reflect the experience of international law and its impact in the world in its entirety. It is a platform that innovates in content and form. It has a policy of open access and its editorial team is representative of gender and geographical diversity, and aims to one day publish in more languages than English. My piece is a humble attempt to join these efforts, with the spirit of collectively reimagining and working towards a more equal and inclusive discipline. Finally, yet importantly, I have relied on the conversations with my colleagues from Argentina who are continually reflecting upon how to participate in ‘global’ conversations with scarce resources and while preserving local sensibilities, my mentors from the International Law Department, and friends in international legal academia, who struggle with these questions themselves.


READ MORE about the Centre’s research project in which Justina Uriburu is involved: Diversity on the International Bench: Building Legitimacy for International Courts and Tribunals. Led by Andrew Clapham and Neus Torbisco Casals, it is part of the Centre’s research pillar on “Democratic practices, mobilisation and accountability”.