Debito, it occurred to me after the UN AIDS conference about a
month ago that not many readers understand how a U.N. conference works. So,
partially tongue-in-cheek, I sat down and pounded out the following. Would
appreciate it if you can post it with my other two articles on your site. I
hope you enjoy it. Best, Eric
The United Nations Convention on Fish, Chips, and Mushy Peas
(a guide to UN conferences for the befuddled)
By ERIC JOHNSTON
August 8, 2005
Special to www.debito.org
As H.L. Mencken might say, attending a United Nations conference is to have
a ringside seat at a carnival of buncomb. Government delegates from around
the world, their harried staff members, UN bureaucrats, NGOs, the media, and
assorted hangers-on invade a hotel or convention center for a few days,
turning it into a beehive of activity. The common language of the delegates
is English. But that doesn't matter. Even native speakers need interpreters
to understand the coded conversations weighted down with acronyms and
bureaucratic jargon, where the purpose is to disguise what one really means
rather than to clarify a point.
After years of reporting U.N. conferences on and off, I have a fairly good
idea of what goes on. There is a series of patterns common to all such
conferences. But they are usually invisible to outsiders, especially to those
who thought the model U.N. classes in high school and college were for
geeks or rich, spoiled ambassador wannabes. So, as a public service, I
present a case study on how the United Nations ratified a recent convention
that, although obscure, will have far reaching implications for all of
Many years ago, two truck drivers stopped off at a pub near Newcastle, and
were outraged to discover that not only did the pub not have chips to go
with the fish, but also that the mushy peas were not mushy but hard. The
straw that broke the camel's back was when the fish was discovered to be not
cod or haddock, but something unidentifiable caught off the coast of
Outraged, the pub was sued by the truck drivers and the case received media
coverage. That, in turn, drew the attention of the local MP, who demanded,
in Parliament, that regulations be drawn up to insure all pubs served chips
and that the peas be mushy, not hard. Parliament had no problem passing this
law, but controversy ensued when it was demanded that only cod or haddock
from English waters be served.
The Prime Minister, facing a tough election campaign in the marginal
constituencies, declared that, as the United States was demanding England
stand tall in the saddle against pubs that sold Icelandic fish, British pubs
would henceforth sell only British fish. The Icelanders protested to the
European Union that this violated various trade agreements. But, as
Icelandic is not one of the official EU languages, nobody in Brussels
understood what they were banging on about.
However, it was clearly understood by all that the Americans were at fault.
Various European leaders warned that U.S. and British imperialism over fish,
chips, and mushy peas was threatening world security. Meanwhile, scientists
were divided: was Icelandic fish as tasty as British cod? A panel of
U.N.-appointed experts was convened, but their report was inconclusive and
only served to stir additional controversy, This led to the formation of
NGOs and NPOs dedicated to preserving fish, chips, and mushy peas in various
local cultures. Protestors descended upon IMF and World Bank meetings, and
petitioned the United Nations for a hearing.
The UN agreed to formally take up the issue, and after various committees'
reports, it was proposed in the General Assembly that a special conference
on fish, chips, and mushy peas be convened with the purpose of coming to an
international agreement. China and Russia, which had their own traditions of
fish, chips, and mushy peas, abstained, but did not veto the resolution.
Thus was born the UN Framework for the Convention on Fish, Chips, and Mushy
After much preliminary discussion among Member States, a working draft,
which is a series of guidelines on how a convention might read, was drawn up
by a group of UN-appointed experts (different from the panel of scientific
experts). The draft would be discussed, and voted on, at the plenary
sessions of the first conference. Plenary sessions are where all UN
representatives have a seat at the table to edit the document. Think of a
newspaper paper office with nearly 200 editors, each of whom has been
instructed by his or her government to revise the text according to the
national political needs of the moment.
What kinds of edits did the Draft for the Framework for the Convention on
Fish, Chips, and Mushy Peas face? The line, "Fish and chips are recognized
by all nations as an integral part of world culture" was extremely
controversial because, as delegates from Mongolia and Chad pointed out,
their countries do not "recognize" this fact, they only "understood" it.
Delegates from America, after being lobbied by the NGO Peace for Peas, which
had a booth in the NGO lobby of the convention, demanded that peas also be
included. However, developing countries argued that the inclusion of peas in
the text might substantially increase the possible financial burden on
their pubs to provide fish, chips, and peas. The term "all nations" was
objected to by many as vague, as "nations" were both political and ethnic,
and sometimes cultural, in nature.
But the longest arguments occurred over just how "integral" fish, chips, and
mushy peas were, especially to British culture. Vegetarians Unite! insisted
that such thinking represented a Victorian era-view of the British Isles and
created outdated stereotypes that unnecessarily discriminated against those
who chose to go without meat or fish. Ironically, they were joined in their
protest by the "Bully for Beef" NGO, whose members paraded through the
convention center in Beefeater costumers and declared that British Roast
Beef, not fish, was the integral dish of the nation. European Union
delegates and the United States also weighed in against the wording.
In the end, after 16 hours of private debate, the committee assigned to
actually sitting down at the computer and typing in the changes had the
first revision ready for the editors to blue-pencil. The line was changed to
"Fish, chips, and, occasionally, mushy peas are often understood by
various political, ethnic, religious, and cultural organizations, entities,
territories and UN member states as often, but not always, being an
important, and sometimes integral, part of the culture of the world."
The edited version of the new draft was presented in the next plenary
session to all delegates, who, by a show of hands, agreed this language was
Meanwhile, in addition to the plenary session, where the real work was being
done, the conference featured dozens of symposiums. These were designed to
discuss various issues at stake and to place indirect pressure on the UN
delegates to edit a line of text this way or that. Symposiums like "Towards
a Treaty: Challenges and Roadblocks" were on the agenda. In a separate hall
were the NGOs, each with their own demands regarding fish, chips, and mushy
peas. And in the executive suites of the nearby hotels, lobbyists and
representatives from the vinegar manufacturers and breweries were holding
parties for the delegates, knowing that whatever happened, they would be
The plenary sessions met all day, every day, of the conference, with each
country's representative shuffling to the microphone to raise one point or
the other. Much of the argument was on points of little interest. These were
minor skirmishes compared to the most important battle of all: The Battle of
the Verbal Phrases.
Experienced U.N. hands knew there were certain verbs or verbal phrases that
appear in all U.N. documents, and what they really mean.
IF IT SAYS: THEN IT REALLY MEANS:
"Member States recognize. . ."
Member States agree to do something about something at some later date, but not
necessarily to fund it.
"Member States take note of. . ."
Member States are fiercely divided on the issue and are unlikely to come to
majority agreement to do something about the issue at
some later date anytime soon. And even if agreement is
reached on paper, it is unlikely to be carried out in practice.
"Member States call attention to..."
Member States strongly agree to do something about something at some later date
but only if everybody agrees at that later date that something should be done.
"Member States reconfirm. . ."
Member States were unable to overcome their differences on this subject since the last time
they met, but are worried that this conference will be seen by politicians back home as
a waste of time and money.
"Member States understand. . ."
Member States aren't going to do anything about the item in question because it's too hot of
a domestic issue for one or more of the Security Council countries, and any action
on the item would get vetoed.
AND IF IT SAYS: THEN IT REALLY MEANS:
"Member States agree to. . ."
Definite action will be taken, providing, of course, each individual
government discusses and approves the measure, the rich nations agree
to pay for it, and the Security Council does not veto it.
The Battle of the Verbal Phrases is a U.N. diplomat's version of Verdun or
Stalingrad. Hours and hours will be spent huddled in conferences, on the
phone to one's superiors, meeting with other diplomats in the corridors to
horse-trade ("Our country will agree to 'recognize' Item 6 if your
country will agree to 'take note' of Item 7"). Outside the plenary
session, lobbyists, NGOs, and journalists wait for the latest draft copies,
and the wire services rush to make them public, which initiates another
frantic round of phone calls, e-mails, and hastily-arranged press
conferences to protest or agree with the changes.
After four or five days of this squabbling, a document is produced that
everybody at the conference can live with, but one that may or may not be
greeted with enthusiasm "back home".
In the case of the convention of Fish, Chips, and Mushy Peas, what emerged
was, er, a mushy document that commits nobody to anything, and must be both
signed and ratified by Member States before it can come into force. This, of
course, will take years, by which time it is fervently hoped by all
delegates that problem will have simply solved itself.
At the wrap-up press conferences, the UN High Commissioner for Fish, Chips,
and Mushy Peas declared that "an important first step" had been taken, but
that "much work needs to be done." A Joint Statement signed by 12 of the
more prominent NGOs present was released at a separate press conference,
with representatives expressing disappointment over the outcome and warning
that environmental degradation and human rights abuses will follow. The
corporate lobbyists also held a press briefing, where, just before the
champagne was served, they expressed cautious optimism in the document, but
also concern about who would pay for it all.
And so, the world awaits the ratification of what has become known, in
UN-speak, as the the FICHIPMUPEAS (that's pronounced "fi-chip-moo-peas")
Treaty. Meanwhile, if you want really good fish and chips in Japan, but no
mushy peas (after intense lobbying, Japan got Member States to agree to
"understand", not "recognize", the importance of mushy peas), try the
Pig & Whistle chains in the Kansai region, Tadg's Irish Bar in Kyoto, What
the Dickens!, The Town Crier, or the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in
Tokyo, or the Hakodate Beer Factory in Hokkaido. You can get take out, and
have the fish and chips wrapped in newspaper articles about the very serious
and important United Nations' conference now taking place somewhere in the
August 8, 2005
Copyright 2005, Eric Johnston, Osaka, Japan