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It is our great pleasure to introduce Volume 12(2) of the Cambridge International Law Journal (CILJ). As is customary, this issue is thematically based on the CILJ’s Annual Conference: this year, the 12th Annual Cambridge International Law Conference was held from 24 to 25 April 2023 on the theme ‘Language in International Law’.1

There is an undeniably self-referential quality in a conference of international lawyers coming together to speak about language in international law. Language is our primary tool for communication and expression. It constitutes the international lawyer’s apparatus for the construction of legal arguments in the contexts of academy and practice. At the same time, international law is itself a language; a systematic means of communicating ideas, with its own vocabulary and grammar, used and understood by the more than 100 participants of this year’s CILJ Annual Conference.

International law has long been imagined as a ‘common language’ for international relations in a multilingual world that, despite globalisation, remains politically, economically, ideologically and culturally divided.2 Without negating the critical capacity of international law to provide a common set of reference points that enable international cooperation, the claim of its language’s universality is being put to the test – as are the dynamics and inclusivity of the ‘linguistic community’3 of ‘native language-speakers of international law’.4 Echoing (and sometimes directly engaging with) Anthea Roberts’s seminal conundrum ‘Is International Law International?’,5 Conference participants employed various language-related insights, references and techniques to unpack the purported ‘internationality’ of international law, reveal blind spots and prejudices in international law’s vernacular, challenge its anglocentricity, and contemplate the challenges posed by the inherent limits in the translatability and transposition of meaning in the multilingual spheres in which international law operates.

These are only some of the ways in which speakers and attendees engaged with the operation of the language (and languages) of international law. Questions that have long troubled language theorists have also found their way into international legal studies6 – and into our Conference. Does the language of international law have an inherent truth content (which can be extracted via the rules of treaty interpretation) or can language be easily played, deployed to argue for almost any proposition? Participants debated underlying theories and explored rhetorical and linguistic dimensions of international legal argument, in an attempt to elucidate the limits and power of language(s) in international law. Some grappled with the strategic use of language as a means for emancipation and empowerment, while others demonstrated how the language of international law can be coopted to perpetuate biases or legitimate dubious objectives. Others turned to conceptual tools from linguistics to gain fresh insights into language-related processes in international law, such as translation, interpretation and rule-making.

The Conference featured three keynote presentations by His Excellency Judge Georg Nolte (International Court of Justice), Professor Ulf Linderfalk (Lund University) and Professor Karen McAuliffe (University of Birmingham), as well as 12 sub-thematic panels engaging with language in international treaty law, international law and technology, international criminal law, international environmental law, international legal theory, human rights law, international trade law, international investment law and arbitration, and European Union (EU) law, as well as in the context of transnational business transactions. Beyond reifying the lasting imprint of the ‘linguistic turn’ across international legal studies, the vivid discussions that took place across these panels demonstrated that language, with all its forms, conceptions and modalities, is the interface between the body and psyche of international law. The (often underexplored) relevance of language goes far beyond isolated exercises in treaty interpretation. It extends to and affects the understanding of the discipline as a whole, as well as its role in framing the world; in other words, what international law is and what it can do (or rather, what we can do with it).

For lining up this wonderful mix of contributions, we would like to profusely thank the two Conference Convenors, Joana Ribeiro de Faria and Shahrima Tanjin Arni, as well as their team of Conference Assistants (Faruk H Avdić, Jingzi Chang, Rupal Chhaya, Thajaswini Coimbatore Balasubramanian, Aparna Raju and Elle Wintle). The success of the Conference was a testament to their shrewdness, professionalism, hard work and efficient cooperation. We also extend our gratitude to all the speakers, panel chairs and attendees for animating the Conference with their incisive presentations, comments and questions.

The production of this issue would not have been possible without our exceptional editorial team, comprising six Managing Editors (Sebastian Aguirre, Liyu Feng, Helin Laufer, Tejas Rao, Jennifer Tridgell and Gonzalo Vial) and 24 General Editors.7 As always, we are extremely indebted to our eminent Academic Review Board and ad hoc reviewers, who generously provide detailed comments and recommendations for each and every article, and ensure the high quality of the articles we publish. We are also grateful to Professor Eyal Benvenisti, our Honorary Editor-in-Chief, for his remarks in opening the Conference and for his constant support; to Dr Andrew Sanger, our Senior Treasurer; and to our Faculty Advisory Board: Professor Catherine Barnard, Professor Jorge Viñuales and Dr Kate Miles. Lastly, we would be remiss not to thank the outstanding team at Edward Elgar, particularly Ben Booth, Marina Bowgen and Nick Wilson. As our term as Editors-in-Chief comes to an end, we are happy to be leaving the journal in the very capable hands of our colleagues Helin Laufer and Liyu Feng. We extend our very best wishes to them, confident that the journal will continue to flourish under their leadership.


Volume 12(2) showcases a diverse collection of contributions to international legal scholarship focusing on language, whether as their object of study or method of inquiry. This special issue includes the remarks of two of the Conference’s keynote speakers and a selection of three of the finest papers presented during the Conference. It also publishes three articles that, while not presented at the Conference, offer stimulating perspectives on this issue’s theme, as well as a case note and a book review.

We are delighted to open Volume 12(2) with the publication of the keynote remarks presented by International Court of Justice Judge Georg Nolte. Judge Nolte reflects on the contribution of Hersch Lauterpacht, particularly through his role as Rapporteur for Institut de Droit International, to the role of language in the international law of treaty interpretation. He recounts how Lauterpacht and his colleagues at the Institut pushed treaty interpretation away from pure textualism and added an impulse to look beyond text to identify the intention of the parties. Judge Nolte elucidates an oft-overlooked episode of the intellectual history of international law and presents an important piece of the puzzle in the early formulation of the rules of treaty interpretation, which were eventually crystallised in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and now act as the bread and butter of international lawyers and adjudicators. In concluding, Judge Nolte appears sceptical towards certain theories that dismiss the usefulness of treaty interpretation rules as too malleable and liable to accommodate any preferred interpretation; he defends the sophistication of Lauterpacht’s methodology, improving the ‘orienting force of language’8 and ‘reduc[ing] the irrationality that is likely to result from self-interested actors playing with language’.9

Professor Ulf Linderfalk looks over the language used by the participants in international legal discourse from a different vantage point. Professor Linderfalk’s contribution investigates and rationally deconstructs ‘the concept of an international legal concept’. He distinguishes genre-specific concepts, referred to as ‘concepts of international law’, from other concepts used by international lawyers, and employs different theoretical perspectives (legal positivism, legal idealism and legal realism) to better understand the role of these genre-specific concepts in the formation of knowledge of international law. Professor Linderfalk posits that defining a concept as a ‘concept of international law’ presupposes and depends upon the perspective on the theory of law one adopts. Acknowledging that, he argues, would improve the rationality and productivity of international legal discourse.

Dr Jacqueline Mowbray’s article focuses on one of the central attributes of international law’s language: its multilingualism. Dr Mowbray identifies and dispels four myths about translation and its role in the multilingual international legal order, drawing on insights from other disciplines, including socio-linguistics and translation studies. She argues that these common misconceptions have practical effects on the operation of the international legal system, skewing it in ways that empower speakers of dominant languages at the expense of others and thereby calling into question the universality of international law and its ‘language’.

Dr Rachel Killean and Dr Rosemary Grey shed further light on the crucial role of language professionals in the operation of the international legal order, as exemplified by the experience of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Exposing the challenges posed by the use of euphemism and Khmer Rouge jargon by victims and witnesses during the ECCC proceedings, the authors illuminate how translation, interpretation and vernacularisation of legal concepts can indelibly shape multilingual proceedings before international courts and tribunals.

Dr Emily Kakoullis offers another perspective on linguistic and cultural challenges in translating and implementing international law, particularly international multilingual treaties. Sharing her primary empirical findings from Cyprus, and then comparing them with experiences from Greece, Bulgaria and Iceland, Dr Kakoullis discusses the challenges States face in interpreting and translating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its central concept of disability, and the consequent difficulties in putting the Convention into actual effect – especially in non-anglophone countries. In doing so, she draws attention to the significance of the domestic translation of international multilingual treaties as ‘a site of power games and discursive struggles through which resultant translated concepts can evolve differently from their original treaty text conceptualisations’.10

The divergent evolution of legal concepts when crossing boundaries and legal systems is also the core thesis of Professor Roman Uliasz’s contribution. Employing insights from legal and cognitive linguistics, Professor Uliasz explores the role of language as a carrier of legal concepts and identifies inherent risks in the transplantation of legal concepts. In doing so, he uses examples of the transplantation and reception of legal concepts from international and EU law into national jurisdictions, as well as their direct application in private transactions with an international element. He distinguishes between minor shifts in perceptions of concepts (which he does not regard as a problem to be resolved, but rather as a reflection of cultural diversity that ought to be acknowledged and appreciated), and distortions in the meaning of legal concepts based on the recipient’s legal culture that can engender legal uncertainty and have substantive repercussions in transactions and decision-making.

The final two articles draw together the concepts explored through the rest of the issue, deploying case studies to empirically test the role of the language toolkit in the international legal sphere. Nina Bries Silva and Dr Esteban Díaz Montenegro consider the use of language as a means of empowerment in the context of Colombian transitional justice. Through socio-linguistic, anthropological and critical discourse analysis tools, they offer an insightful analysis of the strategic use of a minority language by representatives (including lawyers) of Nasa, an Indigenous ethnic minority, before Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace, to strengthen their rights. Their findings, while still preliminary and exploratory in nature (due to the limited sample of official documents on which they are based) are highly instructive and, in the authors’ words, should be read ‘as an encouragement to use [interdisciplinary] tools in legal scholarship … “to scrutinise the language and power of law”’.11

In the last article of this special issue, Jack Wright Nelson offers an intriguing perspective on the potential role of large language models (LLMs), such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, in the context of international law. Against the backdrop of the unavoidable disruption of the legal field by LLMs, Nelson artfully illustrates their potential impact on treaty interpretation. He envisions treaty interpretation as a language game and tests his intuitions through a limited case study of how ChatGPT navigates that game. He suggests that, while the LLM can adroitly play and add more efficiency to the treaty interpretation game, biased training data and interpretative standardisation may outweigh its benefits, potentially rendering it another force for stagnation, rather than one of positive disruption.

In her case note, Dr Alexandra Grey places focus on language as a right, commenting on the 2022 decision of the Court of Appeal of the Australian state of New South Wales on Hamzy v Commissioner of Corrective Services NSW, which (inter alia) upheld the legality of the state’s English-only requirement for communications by certain inmates. Against an interdisciplinary body of literature on ‘linguistic justice’, Dr Grey scrutinises the Court’s treatment of the regulatory restriction on the choice of language for communications in a State-run facility, which ‘shows the difficulty of protecting choice of a language as part of freedom of expression both where the semantic import of that choice is undervalued … and where the lawful exception for a State to restrict the freedom by mandating a language for its public interactions is unduly expanded’.12

This issue concludes with a book review by Professor Christopher Bruner on the collective volume Innovating Business for Sustainability: Regulatory Approaches in the Anthropocene, edited by Beate Sjåfjell, Carol Liao and Aikaterini Argyrou and published by Edward Elgar in 2022. Professor Bruner offers a thorough overview of the need to reframe how development and sustainability are conceived vis-à-vis global crises, competently explaining the potent contribution of the book’s individual chapters, and of the book as a whole, to the international and interdisciplinary field of corporate sustainability. Professor Bruner praises the authors and editors for challenging the ways extant literature constructs corporate social responsibility and for shedding a ‘bright light’ on the so-far undertheorised relationship between reducing inequality and achieving sustainability. The book’s authors, editors and reviewer urge us to reimagine and reconceptualise our ways of understanding and addressing sustainability-related challenges, drawing attention to the power of international legal discourse in framing global problems and bringing this CILJ special issue to a fitting denouement.

7 September 2023

  • 1

    The full programme of the Conference can be found here: <https://cilj.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/CILJ-FINAL-PROGRAMME.pdf> accessed on 7 September 2023.

  • 2

    See eg Robert Jennings, ‘International Courts and International Politics (Joseph Onoh Lecture 1986)’ in David Freestone, Surya Subedi and Scott Davidson, Contemporary Issues in International Law (Kluwer, The Hague 2002) 26; Ian Brownlie, ‘The Reality and Efficacy of International Law’ (1981) British Yearbook of International Law 1, 1–2;

    Kritsiotis Dino , '‘The Power of International Law as Language’ ' (1998 ) 34 California Western Law Review : 397.

  • 3

    Term borrowed from

    Crawford James , '‘Reflections on Crises and International Law’ ', in George Ulrich & Ineta Ziemele (eds), How International Law Works in Times of Crisis , (OUP , Oxford 2019 ) 10, 14.

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  • 4

    Koskenniemi Martti , From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument , (CUP , Cambridge 2005 ) 567.

  • 5

    Roberts Anthea , Is International Law International? , (OUP, Oxford 2017 ).

    . A review of the book was published in a previous issue of the CILJ; see Orfeas Chasapis Tassinis, ‘The Self-Seeing Soul and Comparative International Law: Reading Anthea Roberts’ Is International Law International? (OUP, Oxford 2017) 420 pp.’ (2018) 7 Cambridge International Law Journal 185.

  • 6

    See eg Koskenniemi (n 4);

    Orford Anne , '‘In Praise of Description’ ' (2012 ) 25 Leiden Journal of International Law : 609, 617.

  • 7

    The full team can be found on the inside cover of this issue and on our website: ‘Editorial Board’ (Cambridge International Law Journal 2023) <https://cilj.co.uk/editors/> accessed on 7 September 2023.

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  • 8

    Nolte Georg , '‘Hersch Lauterpacht and Language in the International Law of Treaty Interpretation’ ' (2023 ) 12 (2 ) Cambridge International Law Journal : 160, 176.

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  • 9

    Ibid 175.

  • 10

    Kakoullis Emily Julia , '‘Language in International Treaties: Linguistic and Cultural Challenges in Translating and Implementing International Multilingual Treaties’ ' (2023 ) 12 (2 ) Cambridge International Law Journal : 235, 265.

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  • 11

    Silva Nina Bries & Montenegro Esteban Díaz , '‘In Other Words: The Strategic Use of Nasa Indigenous Language in Legal Settings’ ' (2023 ) 12 (2 ) Cambridge International Law Journal : 288, 304.

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    , quoting Jothie Rajah, ‘Legal Discourse’ in John Flowerdew and John E Richardson (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Critical Discourse Studies (Routledge, London 2017) 480, 490.

  • 12

    Grey Alexandra , '‘Lawful Limits on Freedom of Expression for Private Communications “In Public Life”’ ' (2023 ) 12 (2 ) Cambridge International Law Journal : 328, 328.

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