Tag Archives: UNEP

Crossing the Language Barrier: Interpretation at the UN

By: Julie van der Hoop

INC5 is over, and I’ve returned home to campus. Though friends have been asking me questions about my experience, and how I got the opportunity to attend the negotiations, there has been one question that comes up almost every time: How many languages are spoken in a UN negotiation and how do you understand them?

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Pedro-Jose Espinosa, the chief interpreter at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi. After post-graduate education in law and economics, Pedro moved to Geneva and switched careers. First, he worked for UN translation services, and then became involved in interpretation. “Experience in law and economics is helpful,” he said, though interpretation is often a “third level career” – one that people come to after a first or second job. Some enter immediately after attending education programs specifically for interpretation and translation but, he said, “anyone can do it.” Assuming, of course, they speak several languages.


Interpreters working in the booth at INC5.

Some Basics

The UN has six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese. Two of these languages, English and French, are the working languages of the UN, meaning they are used in day-to-day communication. This is because the language of diplomacy has historically been French but, within the last 50 years, English has become dominant.

Any official texts, such as Conference Room Papers (CRPs), are translated into all official languages. The treaty text is likewise available in these six languages, but all references are made to the English version of the treaty. As the Legal Group works only in English, this version is the official ‘legally-binding’ text to be used in negotiations and tribunals.

This leads us to a point of clarification: translation deals with text, and interpretation refers specifically to the spoken word.

Interpretation in the Conference Center

In booths at the back of the conference room, interpreters listen to delegates as they speak into their microphones; they then interpret what is being said and communicate this back to attendees, who listen through headphones and select the language they want to hear. Interpreters derive meaning from their “passive” languages — i.e., the languages spoken by the delegates—and convey the meaning of what is being said in their “active” language.

But interpreters don’t have to know all of the official languages – at a minimum, they only need to know two. In planning an interpretation team, the chief must match up different abilities to create a working relay system. One interpreter may go from Arabic to English, and another from English to Chinese, as there may be no one on staff who can interpret straight from Arabic to Chinese. “The amount of relaying must be minimized,” said Pedro. “You don’t want it to become a game of ‘telephone’.”

Interpretation is simultaneous, meaning that the language is interpreted as the delegate is still speaking; there is no intermediate pause to allow an interpreter to convey a message. Because of how exhausting the job is, interpreters switch off in half-hour shifts, and work seven ‘half-days’ out of the ten in a five-day work week.

And on the other three ‘half-days’? “We recuperate and prepare,” Pedro said.

Preparation is key to success in interpretation: knowledge of the meeting topic is extremely important in putting things in context and being familiar with jargon. “Technical meetings are the most difficult,” both in understanding and in interpreting what negotiators are saying. For example, knowing the difference between HFCs, CFCs, or HCFCs is critical to ensure proper communication in climate change negotiations.


The job doesn’t come without challenges. Keeping pace with a speaker can be extremely difficult when many delegates read from written statements on the floor. When people read, they speak much faster than when they are just talking, which makes it difficult for an interpreter to hear, process, and repeat the speech fast enough. Accents can also be plaguing – just consider the number of accents in English. Australian, Jamaican, and Japanese delegates all communicate on the floor in English, so an interpreter must be able to understand all of the various accents in a single passive language.

And if an interpreter is at a loss for words? “There are strategies for coping,” according to Pedro. An interpreter can continue with the speech, and fill in whatever meaning might have been lost. “Interpreting is not translating,” Pedro said. Paraphrasing is often needed as there are words and sentiments that do not have full equivalents in all languages. In the end, “it’s the message that counts.”

The INC5 Playlist…Because Every UN Conference Needs a Soundtrack

by Danya Rumore

It’s Day 5, and we’re in what could be considered the “meat and potatoes” of the INC5 mercury treaty negotiations. With only one—or possibly two—days to go, the pressure is on.

Perhaps this is why the UNEP Convention gods (or whoever decides these things) chose to play Queen’s “Under Pressure” over the loudspeakers at the end of Tuesday’s afternoon plenary session. A stark contrast to the relatively quiet dispersal that often follows the plenary sessions, the sudden blast of music startled many of us MITers out of our late afternoon stupor. And as we filed out of the plenary room—amused by the not-so-subtle musical message—we had an epiphany: INC5 definitely needs a playlist.

This conclusion has become even more obvious throughout the negotiation proceedings of the last two days: “Under Pressure” has been played repeatedly before and after the plenary sessions.  It seems that UNEP either has yet to download iTunes or they’re seriously in need of some musical inspiration.

Thankfully, we’re here to help. Who better to consult on music than a team of nerdy MIT PhD and Masters students?

So here it is: our crowd-sourced recommendations for the INC5 negotiation’s playlist, as well as some guidance for the appropriate moments in which they should be played.


The INC5 Playlist:

  1. Under Pressure” by Queen—as the UNEP has figured out, this song is basically always appropriate in a final treaty negotiation. The Freddie Mercury connection is also amusing.
  2. Running on Empty” by Jackson Brown—to be played during sessions going later than 11:00pm, particularly those starting after 11:00pm.
  3. We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles—to be played at the beginning of each contact group, particularly those that have been stuck on the same issues for multiple sessions.
  4. Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin—to be played whenever one party has stated the same point 3 or more times.
  5. You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones—to be played as a reminder that, well, you can’t always get what you want.
  6. I Heard It through the Grapevine” by Creedence Clearwater Revival—to be played in the interpreters’ booth (look for Julie van der Hoop’s upcoming blog on this topic, you’ll see what we mean!)
  7. Fernando” by ABBA—to show our fondness for INC5 Chair Fernando Lugris
  8. If I Had a Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies—to be played during all financial assistant discussions.
  9. Heat of the Moment” by Asia—to be played as the negotiations get intense; it’s amazing what happens when things get intense.
  10. The Final Countdown” by Europe—to be played during the last 24 hours of the negotiation.
  11. If an agreement is reached:Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis –triumphant celebration!  If not:  “Disappointment” by the Cranberries—you get the message.

Bonus Tracks

Just in case no agreement is reached by the end of the day on Friday and we need a little extra musical inspiration:

  1. Spectacles” by Jenna Lindbo—to inspire some cooperation (the refrain is “”Do you wonder what things look like in other people’s eyes? I’ll take off my spectacles and give yours a try. You should put on mine. I think you might be surprised to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes”)
  2. Mercury Poisoning” by Graham Parker and the Rumour—to motivate some action on a really important issue.
  3. Running out of Time” by Hot Hot Heat— to remind the delegates that, well, they’re running out of time.

What else should be on the INC5 playlist? If you’ve got any ideas for other tunes to include, post a comment below and let us know!



How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps
 (Part 3): A Simple Dictionary for Complex Concepts

by Amanda Giang and Philip Wolfe

Amanda and Philip here with a handy guide to navigating the world of intergovernmental negotiations. In Part 2, we looked at the problem of treaty implementation. In Part 3 we define some key concepts and themes when it comes to institutions and implementation.

While most of the documents for INC5 are in English, it can sometimes feel like they are written in an arcane, impenetrable language. It would take an entire dictionary (or at least a decent glossary) to really unravel all of the words and acronyms of the mercury negotiations. Here, to at least get you started, we are going to highlight four terms that will come in handy when thinking about global institutions and treaty implementation.

Bureaucratic politics

Is policy making really just well informed rational parties figuring out what’s best for the common good, or is there also an aspect of it that’s a little less… altruistic? Graham Allison, an influential political scientist, argued that policy decisions are also shaped by power struggles between different actors within a bureaucracy. These actors have different bureaucratic interests, and want to extend their influence where possible. You might not see the term “bureaucratic politics” often in official documents or hear it in floor discussion, but its important to know that it’s a strong undercurrent to the whole proceedings.

How might bureaucratic politics show up in the mercury treaty negotiations? First, there’s a question of who should be (and has the authority to be) responsible for what. For example, can the mercury treaty address health aspects explicitly (Article 20 b, up for consideration), or should this solely be the purview of the World Health Organization? The US, the EU, and Canada have taken a stance against explicitly including health concerns in the treaty, while broadly supporting global health in other domains. Some human rights groups have attacked this position as being more about bureaucratic politics than reasonable decision making in the world’s best interest.

At the level of the treaty itself, how are responsibilities going to be divided amongst committees and subsidiary bodies? What committees are needed (e.g., implementation, compliance, scientific assessment)? Who gets to sit on these committees? The answers to these questions may be as much about bureaucratic politics as they are about mercury pollution.

Common but differentiated responsibilities

In 1992, the UN held a Conference on Environment and Development (often called the Earth Summit), and established a set of 27 principles to guide sustainable global development—the Rio Declaration. One of these principles refers to nations’ common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR). This phrase has since become a standard part of many environmental treaties and, despite being very compact, it packs a mean punch in terms of political and equity implications. CBDR acknowledges that, while working towards common environmental goals, different parties have different responsibilities for two reasons:

1.     Different states have had different contributions to global environmental degradation. Developed countries have typically, over time, contributed more to environmental degradation than less developed nations as a result of their historical development trajectories and current consumption patterns.

2.     Developed countries command significant financial and technical resources (sometimes due to environmentally exploitative development trajectories).

The Precautionary Principle

Another legacy of the Earth Summit is the Precautionary Principle. The Rio Declaration, principle 15, states: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Since the Earth Summit, the principle has been invoked in many regulatory contexts for both environmental and health reasons, often with slightly different definitions. At its heart though, the principle shifts the burden of proof: those who want to take preventative action don’t need to definitively prove harm. Instead, the burden falls on those conducting potentially environmentally or health threatening activities to prove that their actions are benign.

An interesting procedural note: the Preamble of the text of the mercury treaty regulation has yet to be formally discussed. Currently in the draft text, there is a suggestion for including a reaffirmation of the Precautionary Principle from the Rio Declaration, but there’s no indication of how that reaffirmation could be written.


Transparency may be the easiest concept on our list to define, but its no less complex or important in implementing a global regulatory instrument. Transparency is the openness, communication extent, and accountability of signatory states. Transparency promotes regulatory compliance because it allows for coordination between parties, it provides reassurance to certain parties that other parties are following through on their responsibilities, and it disincentives actors from considering non-compliance. The UN highlights the importance of transparency with respect to success of achieving good global governance.

Transparency is a crucial part of the mercury negotiations, especially with respect to reporting and monitoring emissions. One of the issues that remains to be settled is the level of transparency built into the treaty regarding trade. Because some parties involved in the mercury negotiations have ratified the Basel Convention and others have not, trade is likely to be especially tricky to reach agreement on.

Now you’re armed with a couple key terms that, we hope, will help you make sense of the current mercury negotiations. Put this knowledge to work by following our blog and Twitter (@MITMercury) as we track the developments of the INC5.

Daily Roundup for INC5 Day 1—Sunday, January 13

by Danya Rumore

The fifth meeting of the International Negotiating Committee to Prepare a Legally Binding Instrument on Mercury (INC 5) officially began yesterday on an overcast, chilly day here in Geneva, Switzerland.

The morning began with a demonstration by the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), an organization working for a toxics-free future, at 8:30am. Their main concern: the treaty should be called “A Global Mercury Treaty”, not “A Minamata Convention”, because this treaty may not be sufficient to prevent future mercury-related health tragedies like that experienced in Minamata, Japan.

Following IPEN’s demonstration, we spent about 15 minutes trying to find our way to the third floor balcony in the labyrinthine International Conference Center. Finally making our way through the maze of stairs, hallways, and doors to the NGOs nosebleed seats (to use another attendee’s term), we sat down to enjoy the traditional yodeling session that kicked off the day’s official events.


At 9:30am, the yodeling ceased and the plenary session began.  The session started with the opening ceremony, in which the attendance of about 900 delegates from 140 countries was noted and INC Chair Lugris urged participants to focus on finding consensus. While languages from around the world were spoken on the floor, everything was translated into English (and numerous other languages) and transmitted to participants through headphones available at each seat.


Then came the delegates’ opening statements. In statements ranging from 2-20 minutes, delegates gracefully thanked the Chair for his work, expressed their appreciation for Switzerland hosting the meeting, and made clear their positions on the treaty. I think we were all somewhat amazed by how not surprised we were by nations’ and NGOs opening statements; they were more or less exactly what someone familiar with the issues on the table would expect (opening statements are detailed in the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) newsletter).  However, we were a little surprised—and quite amused—by the Philippines delegate’s mention that he hoped Chair Lugris enjoyed his recent holiday in the Philippines, to which the Chair replied that he did.

Opening statements continued until a little after 1:00pm, when everyone filtered out of the stadium-style plenary room, down the maze of stairs, to the host country’s welcome lunch reception. Despite having to fight against apparently hungry delegates to get food, we enjoyed a buffet including everything from cold cuts and salads to potato soup with truffle oil. We also enjoyed live Swiss music from a band of two musicians dressed in traditional Swiss garb (one barefoot) playing zithers with a third musician, wearing a black suit, playing a bass (it was an interesting trio, but the music was excellent).


Amid the music and buffet, we mingled with delegates and other NGO representatives, talked about our poster with people passing by our table, and discussed the happenings of the morning. Then we loaded up on dessert and plenty of coffee to get us through the afternoon session, and we returned to the plenary for a discussion of the draft treaty text.

The afternoon plenary began with a discussion of the treaty’s preamble, during which delegates proposed adding a direct mention of Minamata, referencing indigenous peoples, including health impacts, invoking the precautionary principle, and bringing the polluter pays principle into the preamble’s language.

Following discussion of the preamble, the plenary moved on to the topic of products and processes (watch for Bethanie’s and Ellen’s upcoming blog on this topic). After much debate about Articles 6, 7, 8, and 8b, it was decided that a contact group would meet in the evening to continue discussion of this topic area.

Before breaking for dinner, the delegate from Saudi Arabia represented the interest of the everyone at the conference by making the statement “We seem to be having problems with the internet…” At a paperless meeting where all documents are shared over the intranet, good internet connection is a non-negotiable issue.


Following a dinner break (i.e., a time to search for outlets in order to charge our laptops), our MIT team divided into two groups: one group returned to the plenary for the discussion of financial and technical assistance and the other group went to observe the contact group discussion on products and processes.

In the contact group on products and processes, the debate about Articles 6, 7, and 8 continued, with the US and Canada largely dominating the conversation. While some progress was made before the close of the session a little after midnight (see ENB newsletter for more details), much work remains to be done on the subject of products and processes.

In the plenary, the discussion about financial and technical assistance was largely dominated by a sharp divide between 1) the nations that love the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the nations that do not love the GEF, and 2) those that want technology transfer and those that are seemingly unwilling (or, as many developed nations put it, not able) to provide it.

The conclusion of the plenary discussion, ending late in the night, was that a contact group would meet today to continue discussion on Article 16 (technical assistance and, possibly, capacity building) but not Article 15 (financial resources and mechanisms). For now, the contentious Article 15 is on hold, and the first item on the agenda for the plenary during day 2 is emissions and releases.

So concluded Day 1 of the INC5 negotiations and, as I write this, day 2 is in full swing. Check out Ellen’s blog on “What to expect from day 2” to learn more about what’s coming up in today’s negotiations.

Don’t wait for the treaty! Voluntary action through Mercury Partnerships

Here in Geneva, governments are negotiating a global, legally-binding mercury treaty, and lots of discussions are going on about what governments will commit to doing in the future. But even though the treaty is still not complete, governments and others have been working to address the mercury problem on a voluntary basis since 2005, in part through so-called mercury partnerships. These partnerships include seven priority action areas, each focusing on a main sources of mercury. Here are links to information about the partnership areas:

Current partners include governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and others.  A list of the current partners is available here.  Individuals or entities who would like to become partners can join by submitting a letter and registration form to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) [pdf].