Traités, États parties et Commentaires
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Commentaire of 2016 
Article 55 : Languages
Text of the provision*
(1) The present Convention is established in English and in French. Both texts are equally authentic.
(2) The Swiss Federal Council shall arrange for official translations of the Convention to be made in the Russian and Spanish languages.
* Paragraph numbers have been added for ease of reference.
Reservations or declarations
None
Contents

A. Introduction and historical background
1  Until the early twentieth century, most multilateral treaties were written in only one or two languages. The 1929 Geneva Conventions, for example, were concluded only in French, which was still the leading diplomatic language at that time.
2  Since the emergence of the League of Nations, and later of the United Nations, most treaties have been written in several languages. A treaty may be authenticated, i.e. recognized as a true original, in one or several languages, depending on the decision of the body which adopts it. By means of authentication, the negotiators declare that the text corresponds to their intention and is definitive.[1] The languages that are declared authentic will in general be those in which the body concerned conducted its work, or at least in which it adopted the treaty.
3  The 1949 Conventions were drafted simultaneously in English and French. Throughout the Diplomatic Conference of 1949, as well as during the preparatory work, two versions of each Convention were drawn up simultaneously. French and English were both recognized on an equal footing as official languages for the purpose of discussion, as well as for the publication of all documents.[2]
4  However many authentic language versions there are, the principle of a single treaty has to be guaranteed.[3] This is recognized in Article 55(1) of the First Convention which declares both the English and French texts as ‘equally authentic’.
5  This paragraph, providing for two equally authentic language versions, was already contained in the draft prepared by the ICRC for the 1948 International Conference of the Red Cross in Stockholm (Stockholm draft), which adopted it without change.[4] The changes introduced at the Diplomatic Conference in 1949, including the addition of the second paragraph mandating the depositary to arrange for official translations in Russian and Spanish, are discussed below.
6  This provision is common to the four Conventions.[5] The equally authentic nature of the English and French versions therefore applies to the four Conventions. Similarly, official translations in Russian and Spanish of all Conventions have been arranged.
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B. Paragraph 1: Languages of the Convention
1. Authentic texts
7  The first paragraph begins by noting that the Convention has been drawn up in English and in French. It then determines that the two texts are ‘equally authentic’. Therefore, each text carries the same weight and is as valid as the other. It was to the English version just as much as to the French that the Plenipotentiaries appended their signatures in 1949–1950. In the same way, ratifications and accessions are valid for the two versions and cannot be limited to one version only. States which are party to the Convention are equally bound by both language versions.
8  The solution thus adopted was consistent with the most recent international practice at the time. It may help to make interpretation of the Convention easier: when the different versions are compared, one sheds light on the other. But a problem might arise when the texts are divergent or contradictory. It can sometimes be difficult to give exact expression to the same idea in different languages.
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2. Divergence
9  A treaty may provide that, in case of divergence between the authentic versions, a particular text shall prevail as the authoritative text.[6] To overcome the potential divergence between the French and the English text, the Stockholm draft provided that, where doubt existed as to the interpretation of a provision, the French version should be taken as the authoritative one.[7] But this proposal was not adopted by the Diplomatic Conference of 1949.[8]
10  The approach chosen instead, namely that both languages are ‘equally authentic’ without one of them prevailing in case of divergence, means that both versions are ‘equally authoritative’.[9] It may therefore be presumed that both versions have exactly the same meaning and that each of them faithfully represents the provisions as adopted by the Diplomatic Conference.[10] It is therefore possible, in principle, to consult a single language version on the presumption that it correctly reflects the common will of the Parties, and that the provisions are expressed in the same way in the other version.[11] A careful effort was made throughout the Conference to make sure that the draft provisions in each language matched precisely, although the Conference had little possibility just before the opening for signature to ensure that the two versions of the text corresponded exactly. A comparison of the authentic texts may therefore reveal a difference in meaning or obvious errors. Examples are discussed in the commentaries on the provisions concerned.[12]
11  When a comparison of the authentic texts discloses a difference in meaning, and the treaty does not provide for a particular version to prevail, as is the case for the Geneva Conventions, the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides for the application first of the general rules of interpretation and then of the supplementary means.[13] If the difference in meaning cannot be removed in this manner, the meaning which best reconciles the texts, having regard to the object and purpose of the treaty, must be adopted.[14]
12  Obvious errors in typing, printing, spelling or punctuation can also be corrected when the signatory and contracting States agree that this should be done. In 1949, a list of errata, for both the English and the French version, was added to each of the original texts of the four Conventions. These errata were incorporated in the certified true copies delivered by the Swiss Federal Council to the signatory and acceding States, pursuant to the testimonium at the end of the Convention.[15] Pursuant to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the depositary now follows a specific procedure,[16] which may also apply to points of substance if there is no dispute as to the existence of the error.[17]
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C. Paragraph 2: Official translations
1. Purpose
13  This provision, entrusting the preparation of official translations into Russian and Spanish to the Swiss Federal Council, is based on a proposal by some Latin American countries and the USSR at the Diplomatic Conference.[18] Its purpose is to avoid the production of different versions in the numerous Spanish-speaking countries, as well as to promote dissemination and understanding of the Convention.
14  The Swiss Federal Council has established such translations and informed the States Parties accordingly.[19]
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2. Legal effects of the translations
15  According to paragraph 1, only the English and French texts of the Convention are authentic. The translations into Spanish and Russian have the legal status of official translations. The official character of these translations resides in the fact that the source from which they are derived is specified in the Convention itself. But the Russian and Spanish texts, unlike the French and English, are not authentic.[20] Should they vary from the French and English versions, it is the latter which will be regarded as correct.[21]
16  These official translations must be distinguished from translations undertaken by individual Parties for their own purposes. Such translations may be established in all languages, but although, pursuant to Article 48, they must be transmitted to the other Parties through the depositary, they remain translations by the Parties and do not become official translations under the present article.[22] If such translations diverge from one of the authentic languages, this has no effect on the international obligations. The Parties remain bound by the authentic versions and may not claim that the translated version prevails, even for domestic purposes. Today, the Conventions have been translated into some 55 languages.[23]
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Select bibliography
Aust, Anthony, Modern Treaty Law and Practice, 3rd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 222–226 (Interpretation of treaties in more than one language) and 293–295 (Correction of errors).
Distefano, Giovanni, and Henry, Etienne, ‘Final Provisions, Including the Martens Clause’, in Andrew Clapham, Paola Gaeta and Marco Sassòli (eds), The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 155–188.
Kolb, Robert, ‘Article 79: Correction of error in texts or in certified copies of treaties’, in Olivier Corten and Pierre Klein (eds), The Vienna Conventions on the Law of Treaties: A Commentary, Vol. II, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 1770–1796.
Ouguergouz, Fatsah, Villalpando, Santiago, and Morgan-Foster, Jason, ‘Article 77: Functions of depositaries’, in Olivier Corten and Pierre Klein (eds), The Vienna Conventions on the Law of Treaties: A Commentary, Vol. II, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 1715–1753.
Papaux, Alain, and Samson, Rémi, ‘Article 33: Interpretation of treaties authenticated in two or more languages’, in Olivier Corten and Pierre Klein (eds), The Vienna Conventions on the Law of Treaties: A Commentary, Vol. I, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 866–884.
Schenker, Claude, Practice Guide to International Treaties, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern, 2015, pp. 16–17, available at www.fdfa.admin.ch/treaties.
Sinclair, Ian, The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 2nd edition, Manchester University Press, 1984, pp. 147–152 (Plurilingual treaties).
United Nations, Summary of practice of the Secretary-General as depositary of multilateral treaties, UN Doc. ST/LEG/7/Rev.l, New York, 1999, paras 38–62 (Original text).
Villiger, Mark E., Commentary on the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden, 2009, pp. 450–462 (Article 33) and pp. 955–969 (Article 79).

1 - See the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969), Article 10, which is declaratory of customary international law (Villiger, p. 171).
2 - See Rule 38 of the Rules of Procedure, Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. I, pp. 187–188.
3 - See Sinclair, p. 148; Villiger, p. 458; and Papaux and Samson, pp. 869–870, paras 11–12.
4 - See Draft Conventions submitted to the 1948 Stockholm Conference, Article 43, p. 31, and Draft Conventions adopted by the 1948 Stockholm Conference, Article 43, p. 27.
5 - See Second Convention, Article 54; Third Convention, Article 133; and Fourth Convention, Article 150.
6 - This possibility is now provided for in Article 33(1) of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
7 - See Draft Conventions submitted to the 1948 Stockholm Conference, Article 43, p. 31, and Draft Conventions adopted by the 1948 Stockholm Conference, Article 43, p. 27.
8 - See Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. I, p. 56, and Vol. II-B, pp. 25, 30, 70–71 and 112–113.
9 - See Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969), Article 33(1).
10 - See ibid. Article 33(3): ‘The terms of the treaty are presumed to have the same meaning in each authentic text.’ See also ICJ, Kasikili/Sedudu Island (Botswana/Namibia) case, Judgment, 1999, para. 25.
11 - Villiger, p. 458.
12 - See the commentary on Article 3, para. 275 and Article 25, para. 17, footnote 21.
13 - Article 33 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties may be used even though the Geneva Conventions were concluded prior to the entry into force of that Convention because this provision is generally viewed today as reflecting a rule of customary international law (Villiger, p. 461).
14 - Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969), Article 33(4). The two preceding articles of the Convention, Articles 31 and 32, provide for the general and supplementary rules on interpretation.
15 - See the commentary on the testimonium and signature clause, section B.2.
16 - Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969), Article 79, which can be assumed to reflect customary law (Villiger, p. 969). The depositary, on its own initiative or upon request, notifies the States which participated in the negotiations, as well as the signatory and contracting States, of the error and the proposal to correct it. If, within a specified appropriate time limit (frequently 90 days following notification), no objection is raised by a signatory or contracting State, the depositary makes and initials the correction in the original text, executes a procès-verbal (record) of the rectification of the text, and sends a copy of it to the signatory and contracting States for their information. Sandoz/Swinarski/Zimmermann (eds), Commentary on the Additional Protocols, ICRC, 1987, para. 3861, mention two corrections the depositary made to Additional Protocol I.
17 - Aust, pp. 293–295. For a discussion of the types of errors addressed by Article 79 of the Vienna Convention, see Kolb, pp. 1784–1785, and Villiger, pp. 961–963 and 967–968; Villiger also addresses the relationship between Articles 33(3) and 79(3) of the Vienna Convention (see pp. 459 and 967–968).
18 - See Final Record of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, Vol. II-B, p. 371.
19 - For the Spanish version, for example, the notification was done on 10 February 1950.
20 - See Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969), Article 33(2).
21 - Examples of such divergences include the Russian translation of ‘ensure respect’ in common Article 1 as ‘заставлять соблюдать’ (‘force respect’) and the Spanish translation of ‘the necessary protection and facilities’ in Article 18(1) as ‘la protección y las facilidades oportunas’ (‘the appropriate protection and facilities’).
22 - See the commentary on Article 48 of the First Convention.
23 - See also ibid.