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The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber’s Reading of “or” in the Myanmar Jurisdiction Ruling: On the Relevance of Linguistics to Interpretation

Published on October 2, 2018        Author:  and
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Linguistics continues to be a blind spot for international lawyers. Despite the self-perception that lawyers work predominantly with language, an in-depth inquiry into the actual science dealing with the phenomenon of language remains, to a large extent, a desideratum. Linguistics can, however, be very helpful in understanding the intended meaning of a word or phrase, as we will try to argue in this post. A good example of its usefulness and significance is provided in the recent decision of the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber on the Prosecutor’s request for a ruling on whether the Court may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of members of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh. In paras 52 ff., the Chamber had to interpret Article 7(1)(d) of the Rome Statute to establish whether the Article embodies either a single or two separate crimes, in light of the use of the word “or”. As will be be shown, the resulting interpretation of the word “or” demonstrates the usefulness of linguistic knowledge from which international law could draw in the future.

We hope that we are not seen as using a case featuring harrowing events as a mere façade for legal-intellectual exchanges. We suggest that a narrow technical approach is justified, particularly, in such important cases where so much depends on interpretation (e.g., the exact contours of jurisdiction of an international court).

Linguistics, semantics, pragmatics

International lawyers’ relationship with linguistics has been somewhat selective. In recent writing, some have used elements of corpus linguistics or discourse analysis to gain insights into international law. However, other modern aspects of studying meaning as a phenomenon in language seem to continuously escape international lawyers’ attention. For example, there is a certain tendency to refer to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953) and his argument that words are defined by how they are used without putting his work in context (see e.g. recently Klabbers, International Law, Cambridge University Press 2017, p. 56). The progress that linguistics has made in the decades following the 1950s, in particular with regard to the semantics-pragmatics divide, is left aside as a consequence. Read the rest of this entry…