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UNequal: Does the ref speak your language?

June 12, 2009

unfair play

It’s obvious to even the inexperienced observer (me) that the form of the UN negotiations is unfair in several ways. The plenary discussions are almost entirely in English. Delegates who aren’t native English speakers either negotiate in a second, third, fourth or nth language or they rely on a delayed translation via wireless headset. The delay is only a few seconds, but it’s still not the same. I’ve listened to English translations of non-English speeches. It’s much harder to track the delegate’s argument because the syntax and linguistic rhythm is usually lost. Plus, the live translation is far less precise than the original speech. In these legal arguments, precision is critical.

The big sessions aren’t the only location for working out legal minutiae. I’ve realized from listening to the U.S. delegation team that much of the treaty details are negotiated in bi-laterals or multi-laterals upstairs in private conference rooms or in other international discussions on other continents among heads of states.

Yet many countries won’t be represented in those smaller, private conversations. Those same countries are likely to be the ones disadvantaged in the big sessions here. Imagine trying to negotiate the wording of a long-term, binding treaty – a more-than-300-page treaty written in international English legal-ese – among 181 other delegations, one speech at a time. Now imagine that most of the discussion isn’t in your first or second language. And when delegations ask the Chair for clarifications because it’s getting thoroughly confusing for even the native English speakers, the Chair responds in English. Oh yeah, and say your nation lives on a low-lying island that is predicted to be uninhabitable within two decades.

What’s it like to have the discussion controller speak a language different from your own? It’s like a soccer match where the rules are fifty times more complicated and the referee speaks only opponent’s language.

Thanks to the youth climate activists for the soccer analogy. Earlier today on the lawn of the conference center, youth climate activists staged an indisputably unfair soccer match between the Global North and Global South to reflect the inequalities of the climate negotiations in a fresh form. The North teams’ goal was half the size of the South’s. Four North players locked arms to form a nearly invincible shield in front of their goal. The South had only five teammates after the referee removed several players for breaking rules they didn’t know existed, so defending their larger goal was quite impossible.

At one point, the North team formed a charging mob with one player in the center holding a soccer ball in her hands. The South defenders were unable to prevent the momentum of the North’s greater numbers.

charging mob 2

charging mob

Appropriately, the referee spoke English as did the North team. For the purpose of the display, none of the South players understood English. The language barrier was particularly frustrating for the South when, on occasion, they managed to get the ball in the North goal but the goals were ruled invalid due to esoteric rules. The irony of the whole event was that the Global South youth spoke more languages and were much better soccer players than most youth from the North. [Photos of the event are on the way].

The soccer game brings up another inequality–delegation team size. There were 37 people here on the United States delegation team. That’s huge! I asked a UN staffer what role delegation size has for the negotiations. She said that when the U.S. delegation walks into the conference, it’s like an army is passing. To compare, the Ecuadorean team has five people. One delegate estimated that the average delegation consists of one or two people.

With all the terminology, procedural complexity, and sheer volume of text involved in these negotiations, the delegation size–and the delegates’ language and legal skills–must significantly determine how quickly the delegation can analyze and respond to other countries’ text submissions. (This is a nightly activity.)

The disparity in delegation size provides such an advantage that large delegations could intentionally submit a high volume of text and complicate the procedure–for instance by creating more “contact groups” (that’s what they call subcommittees)–to overwhelm smaller delegations. I can’t say I’ve witnessed this firsthand, but that’s because I don’t yet understand the whole process well enough to identify where it might be happening. Perhaps that’s precisely why it can happen. A friend who wrote his senior thesis on international climate treaties recommended that I read A Climate of Injustice by Roberts and Parks for more on the intentional complexifying of discussions.

The most egregious inequality of negotiating form in the Bonn talks so far? Delayed translation of the central negotiating texts. One of the Working Groups (AWG-LCA) started discussing a treaty text last Monday, but some translations of the text weren’t available until Wednesday! This is a text that requires not just a quick read-through, but significant analysis and communication with home governments. For more on the delay, see the sarcastic article–“Rejoice, the Translated Texts Are In!”–in the  June 4th ECO newsletter (PDF), a daily publication of the Climate Action Network International.

Anthony’s interview with Deepa Gupta, a youth organizer from India, revealed that these inequalities are just as present in the youth representation to these conferences.

Should we work towards an even playing field? If so, how do we do it?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. kelsey kauffman permalink
    June 12, 2009 4:29 pm

    Taylor and Anthony, Thank you for all of your many wonderful blogs! Very informative and great fun to read. Anthony’s interview with Deepa and Taylor’s blog today raise interesting questions about how to empower smaller, poorer nations at the talks. I wonder if youth from richer nations (e.g., Anthony) could give technical support to a small delegation (e.g., Tuvalu), both prior to the upcoming sessions (Bonn III, Thailand and Copenhagen) and at them.

  2. June 12, 2009 7:12 pm

    Let me first say I’m excited to hear you’re attending the negotiations and would be happy to help you sort through some of your research questions/observations. I’m a 1989 DPU alum now working as a political science professor at Colorado State University. I’m a long-time observer of the UN climate negotiations and also hope to be in Copenhagen in December.

    On this particular posting, you’ve hit on an important point that not all countries have the same capacity to engage in the negotiation process. I think the language issue isn’t quite as significant as it appears given that virtually all diplomats are part of the “elite” class and have been trained in multiple languages. But still, the fact that delegations have different numbers puts some at a disadvantaged when there are so many different contact groups. And of course you find that delegates from some countries also have responsibility for every other environmental issue out there which makes it incredibly difficult to keep up with all the developments. Joyeeta Gupta wrote a really good book a few years ago aimed at developing country delegates.

    Good luck and see you in Copenhagen!

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