Searching for meaning in the coded UN jargon

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — P5+1. The Sec-Gen. Permanent representatives. The SDGs. ECOSOC, UNDP, OCHA. Stockholm+50.

Welcome to UNGA.

The UN, like many great institutions, has its own language. For the dignitaries, bureaucrats, journalists and civil servants who regularly walk these halls, this alphanumeric soup makes sense and perhaps even facilitates communication.

But during the few days each year that dozens of world leaders visit the UN campus in New York, many people are unfamiliar with these semantic shortcuts.

A UN system organization chart lists more than 70 acronyms, from DESA to WFP. The Group of 77 confusingly has 134 members – a contradiction explained on its website as a choice intended to honor the “historical significance” of the original name.

To visitors, it can sometimes seem that the language is used to obscure meaning rather than elucidate it.

These visitors must walk up and down town to access the UN Tower on the East River during the UN General Assembly High Level Debate due to the security cordon. The rhetoric within is often just as devious.

And it’s not just acronyms for UN agencies or nicknames for bodies or meetings. Here too appear words rarely heard elsewhere: multilateralism, hegemony, solidarity. Sometimes they are chained in such a way as to defy attempts at analysis.

The representative of North Korea, for example, railed against the United States by accusing Washington of trying to “maintain global hegemony by expanding the system of bilateral and multilateral military alliances”.

It’s easy to get frustrated, since words are really all we have this week. Around the world, the United Nations is doing many important things: delivering food, administering vaccines, registering refugees. But as leaders make their case on the world stage, this week is all about the talks.

In the face of this quagmire, the moments of light, when they arise, tend to shine brighter.

The Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines spoke in a particularly eloquent and powerful manner.

Ukraine’s president made an impassioned plea to punish Russia for its invasion, while vowing that Kyiv would prevail.

And Bhutan’s foreign minister pulled a chord as he read a letter from a 7-year-old girl who feared puffy glacial lakes were flooding her Himalayan village and implored world leaders to tackle climate change.

In fact, Tandi Dorji said he rethought his speech when he received the note – perhaps a sign that the right words still have power. At least, as far as the UNGA is concerned.


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