Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mick Jagger at the UN (or “Get me to the IMO on time”)

I’m exhausted. Twelve hours commuting in three days, the chain coming off your bike (again) and being locked out of your room (again) could do that to a person.

Despite this, I’m pretty damn cheerful.

The reason is I’ve spent those three days tootling down to the International Maritime Organisation to watch the drafting of an anti-terrorism and WMD-proliferation treaty. (Sounds a lot more exciting than “I’ve been at the IMO to watch the Legal Committee adopt a draft text on an amending Protocol to the SUA Convention which will in turn go to a Diplomatic Conference later this year” doesn’t it?)

A flatmate who interned at the Security Council said that a less-than-exciting bit of that environment was that everything that happened in the Council chamber was scripted and no-one ever speaks unless reading from a prepared text. This was rather more exciting.

Despite being “closed” the sessions routinely have student observers and everyone’s pretty friendly. While I can’t comment on anything that happened in closed session (a report summarising it will soon go up on the IMO website), I think I can make a few observations about the practicalities of treaty-making that would be apparent to any visitor, won’t upset anyone, and couldn’t breach any confidences.

The set-up is a mini-UN on the Thames embankment. IMO HQ is an architecturally uninspired building with a lot in common with a late 70s law faculty. It was opened in 1983, but I suspect the plans were approved a decade earlier and the UN ran out of funds for a bit. Still, the staff cafeteria has a lovely terrace with a view of the palace of Westminster.

The main committee room accommodated over 60 national delegations of between 2 – 10 lawyers, government officials and diplomats each. Proceedings were mostly conducted in English, but there was simultaneous translation into six official languages. Even in the visitors seat there were listening posts (after the IMO headset started making my ears sore, I switched to listening on my iPod earphones).

Long, long curved desks faced the raised platform where the Chairman, IMO secretary general, head of the Secretariat, and others sat. Each delegation had space at the table, and spare chairs behind, and a large name “card”. The cards were important in debate, you held it aloft, or turned it at 90 degrees so it stood vertically in the supporting groove at the front of your desk to attract the chairman’s attention.

The cards even crept into the use of language in interesting ways: “I raise my card to speak in support of …” or “I see no more cards, can we move on?”

While the text of the draft convention hard largely been hammered out over previous sessions of the committee (which every IMO member may attend), a lot of work had been done in “inter-sessional” working groups which had to be approved. This was not immune to amendment from the floor, or simply debate over what the States understood the words to mean. As you watched your saw States fly kites, state positions or seek clarification for the record, and sometimes make a real stab at changing things.

The other thing that sort of staggered me, but was obvious in retrospect, is that the text that was debated was an English text. Despite the treaty ultimately being produced in several official languages, all equally authentic, all States – regardless of their official language – were effectively debating shades of meaning in English.

The diplomatic culture was interesting to watch in operation. There was clearly a high premium placed on being seen to be “flexible”, and on supporting “compromise” solutions. A phrase often repeated was “we can live with this wording”, often proceeded by phrases like “while it may cause us some problems in domestic law” or “while the drafting could be improved” or “while we find the language vague”. The role of a good chairman in articulating the mood of the meeting and seeking to arrive at consensus decisions was apparent.

It was a sudden and salutary lesson that you can’t consider a treaty as a text received from on high. Problems in drafting, odd gaps or ambiguities, of the type endlessly worried at by academics represent hard-fought battles to reach something which, if not entirely satisfactory to anyone, was the best that could be achieved.

That said, there was a surprising amount of good humour in the whole process. (Proving that some jokes really do translate.) The Rolling Stones quote was even raised: “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes you just might find / You get what you need”.

Quite apt really.

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