The Top Ten International Negotiation Terms for [In]action

June 20, 2012 | 5:01 pm
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

My 7th grade English teacher had a stuffed mouse and a small plastic box she used to teach us prepositional phrases. The mouse’s name was Preppy the Prepositional Mouse and everything he could do with the box was a preposition; he could be on the box, in the box, near the box, etc.  When I read through what will most likely be the final version of the Rio text, I am reminded of Preppy.

rio + 20 summit

This is part of a series of posts straight from the Rio +20 Summit.

Just as Preppy had his set of prepositional phrases, the countries at the international negotiations have a go-to set of phrases to describe actions they can take. Although, as my colleague Doug Boucher highlighted yesterday, most of these are ways to describe lack of action in a way that makes it sound like action. So without further ado here are…


A group of vegans demonstrating outside of RioCentro. Given his love of honey, the Winnie the Pooh costume seems an odd choice.

The Top Ten International Negotiation Terms for [In]action

Ranked from strongest to weakest (the numbers in parentheses represent the number of times the term appears in the Rio text):

10. Commit (40) — This is as strong as it gets. Countries actually agree to take a given action… However there is no way to hold countries accountable for these commitments and all too often they are able to back out of them with little consequence beyond some public shaming.

9. Decide (5) — Also a strong term but, as the word only appears five times, countries obviously dislike actually deciding anything.

8. Reaffirm (59) — Countries LOVE to reaffirm past decisions and commitments, but reaffirmations are only as strong as the original commitments and decisions. “Yup, we totally still want to do that thing we promised to do but haven’t gotten around to yet. But we are super serious this time.”

7. Take note (8) — Similar to reaffirm, but tends to be used for actions taken by individual countries, rather than those taken by the group as a whole.

6. Strengthen (70) — Negotiated documents seem to like to point out how weak things are.  They highlight initiatives and actions which need to be strengthened, but rarely take on the responsibility to do it. That’s kind of my approach to exercise.

5. Encourage (49) — Here we start to get into the bread and butter of international negotiation inaction. One can encourage a lot of things without actually doing anything. There is no action here, but there is a tacit approval of whatever is already happening.

4. Underline (7) — This is a way of emphasizing something’s importance without agreeing to do anything about it.

3. Recognize (147) — 147 mentions! Clearly, the countries  LOVE to recognize things.  Recognition requires no action or even an expression of an opinion, countries get to point out that things exist without having to say whether they approve or disapprove.

2. Acknowledge (33) — About as weak as “recognize.”

1. Bracketing — This is not a term, but rather an action.  When text is too controversial to be accepted by every country, but also too controversial to remove entirely, that text is put in brackets. It is a way of making a declaration but at the same time disavowing it. This irks me the most because you get a preview of what agreements would look like if the negotiations were ambitious, but are left with a document that is still toothless. It’s kind of like taking a kid to the pet store, letting him play with a puppy, asking him if he would take really good care of it and then going home empty-handed. It’s just plain mean.

Bonus Jargon


This helpful sign was posted in the computer room. It reads "Area with Computers" just in case you were confused.

The fun doesn’t stop with terms for inaction, below are a few more of my favorite negotiating terms:

Consensus — Technically all negotiated outcomes are made by consensus decisions-making, where all countries agree. In practice however, protests (mostly from small countries which lack clout) can be “gaveled” over and “consensus” can be pushed through. It’s sort of like putting your hands over your ears and repeating “la la la, I can’t here you.”

Informal-informals — A meeting so casual they named it twice? Not exactly.  In negotiation speak an “informal” meeting is still pretty formal, including standard parliamentary procedures and policies.  “Informal-informals” are more like what normal people would consider informal, people sitting in a room having an actual discussion without all of the pretense. These are often where the real progress gets made.

Non-paper — Despite its name, this is actually a paper. However, in the highly politicized environment of the international negotiations, even proposing an idea can be considered taking a position, so countries must produce these non-papers to indicate that they don’t reflect official positions.

Treaty, Convention, Agreement, Accord, Platform, or Protocol — Various names for the different final negotiated texts.  The difference among them? Your guess is as good as mine. Much like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie-pop, the world may never know.

Meanwhile, back at Rio


I pass this statute on my way to the shuttle. It appears to be a mosquito wearing a pink crown. I kind of love it.

For more on the substance of what’s happening at Rio be sure to check out Rachel Cleetus’ post, Rio+20: What Does It Mean for Climate Change and Renewable Energy?

Rachel, a senior climate economist in the UCS Climate and Energy program, writes on increasing access to renewable energy around the globe and the prospects of this and other issues at Rio.

P.S. That puppy thing actually happened to my step-dad when he was young.