Updated on 4 March 2015
Chapter 1: THE CONSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK
Section 2: The Charter
Equal authenticity of five language versions of the UN Charter
The last Article of the Charter is Article 111 which, inter alia, provides that
“The present Charter, of which the Chinese, French, Russian, English, and Spanish texts
are equally authentic, shall remain deposited in the archives of the Government of the
United States of America.”
Ruth B. Russell, in her 1958 book, A History of the United Nations Charter, provides interesting background on Article 111. Russell notes that at the time of the 1945 San Francisco Conference, the equal authenticity of treaty texts in two languages had long been common, and that inter-American agreements had been authenticated in as many as four languages. Because it had been decided that the working documents at the San Francisco Conference would be available in Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish, many delegations assumed that the Charter would also be finalized in the same five languages. The Netherlands, however, questioned this assumption, and instead suggested that the Charter be governed by a single language version, so as to avoid difficulties in its interpretation which might arise because of slight variances in translation. The Soviet Union prevailed in its opposition to that proposal.
The provision in Article 111 that all five language versions of the Charter are “equally authentic” took on added importance with the adoption of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Article 33(1) of the Convention provides that “When a treaty has been authenticated in two or more languages, the text is equally authoritative in each language, unless the treaty provides or the parties agree that, in case of divergence, a particular text shall prevail.” As noted on page 382 of the book, the equal standing of each of the five language versions of the Charter has been useful in interpreting Charter provisions such as Article 25.
The Soviet Union also prevailed on another question relating to the language versions of the Charter. It is owing to the Soviet Union that the five languages listed in Article 111 appear in an unusual order: "Chinese, French, Russian, English, and Spanish". Rather than listing the languages in the alphabetical order of their names, the Soviet Union insisted that the languages appear, in all versions, in the alphabetical order of the names in English of the Permanent Member(s) using each language. The correspondences were Chinese (China), French (France), Russian (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), and English (United Kingdom and United States), followed lastly by Spanish, which was spoken by no Permanent Member. The order appears odd in the English version of Article 111, and odder still in the French and Russian versions, since the word for English – “anglais” or “английский” – would normally be listed first in the alphabetical order of those two languages.
Although Arabic is now the sixth official language of the United Nations, because Arabic was not used as a language at the San Francisco Conference, the Arabic version of the Charter is not considered to be authentic for the purpose of legal interpretation of the Charter. (This update supplements pages 4 to 6 of the book.)