If each word spoken or written at the UN could earn a penny, we could eradicate poverty and send everyone on a pleasure trip to the moon. Watching a UN commission at work has been a real education in international politics and strategy. My first impression was that everyone was just going “yatta yatta yatta,” mouthing platitudes and buzz words taken from preparatory documents, and perhaps talking just to hear themselves speak or to brag about their country. But that’s an unfair assessment, generally speaking.

In our work in the NGOs we are trained to listen to the public statements to see what the various countries think is important. One day I acted as observer at a session, with a checklist for key words refering to our special areas of interest…to identify potenital allies that we can enlist to influence the direction of the debate, or to note small countries who might benefit from some of our research. For example, Chile spoke at great length on the empowerment of women; Bangladesh spoke strongly on climate change. Check, and note.

Here, words really MATTER, and are chosen very, very carefully. One of the ways NGOs can be effective behind the scenes is by suggesting language for a statement, or working with a small member state to craft a document of mutual interest. In particular the delegates struggle over verbs, which will imply levels of their country’s commitment to a cause or resolution. Weak support is indicated by words like “endorse,” “invite,” or “acknowledge.” Or the members can completely gut a resolution by adding at the end a little parenthetical phrase like “as appropriate,” or “if possible.” The process of diplomacy is very subtle; as one of our golden-tongued, experienced Irish colleagues says, “It’s a game, a dance, a football match!”

But mostly we NGOs act as the official gadflies, in which capacity we are sometimes (says an Australian colleague), “as welcome as a blowfly at a barbeque!”