Saturday, September 05, 2009

You gotta have faith to keep going

It occurs to me that I might need to explain why it is that at these UN meetings, one must often find ways to pass the time. It's because of the prevalence of two "unavoidables": 1) language nuances and 2) protocol.

I was approached during one of the early meetings of the Committee on "Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work" by an ILO representative, with an offer for me to represent Saudi Arabia on the so-called Drafting Committee. She explained to me that the Gender Equality Committee was to produce a set of "conclusions" at the end of the conference and that this drafting committee would be comprised of 5 employers, 5 workers, and 5 government delegates. By agreeing, I would be representing not only Saudi Arabia but the Arab, Islamic world. What's more "it will be a very good experience-- tiring but rewarding." Notice, this woman has just met me but already she seems to know how to lure me. By hiding the word "tiring" in between the much more appealing terms "experience" and "rewarding", she was ensuring that she had my commitment. So I committed. (I then found out that for logistical purposes I wouldn't be able to represent Saudi Arabia but Dr. Lama had to instead so after giving me evil looks for forcing her to do work during the weekend, she accepted. Then she slyly found a way to sneak ME into the committee, as her ADVISOR. I don't know how she gets away with half the things she does.)

Annnyways, we soon found out that this was the first time for Saudi Arabia to ever participate in a drafting committee in the however many number of years that we've been participating at the International Labor Conference. We quickly learned why this was the case.

It was long. I mean, really long. We were cooped up in a room with the other delegates and there were these 15-pages or so that we all had to agree on. And it seemed simple enough to do, except for the language nuances.

Employers it turns out love the word "flexibility". They argue that flexibility is important, that rigidity may create and has created more problems for women in the workforce. So they want to put the word everywhere. But the workers loathe this word. They believe that "flexibility means less work, less pay, and less of a bright future ahead of you." Speaking of the workers, what they do love is strong language. Instead of "flexibility" their favorite word is "precarious" and they want to warn against "precarious" employment everywhere. Employers object to this word because they hardly think that part-time work is precarious. In the end the employers have settled for the term "atypical" which in itself is contentious for other reasons I can hardly begin to wrap my head around. For someone who loves words, this is actually an interesting discussion at first. But after hours of debating whether governments SHOULD, COULD, CAN, or MUST develop sexual harassment laws, it can get a bit.. what was the word she used to recruit me? Oh that's right... TIRING. By 1AM when you've only had half a sandwich for lunch and you've been sitting down in a meeting room since 10AM, it can get a bit "tiring." So no, I don't care if we use the word "sex-based discrimination" or "gender-based discrimination" or "discrimination between the sexes". But there are those who DO care.

It's really long but all of a sudden we were done and Dr. Lama and I, first-timers at any UN event, were jumping for joy. We did it, we did it!

Or did we?

Our faces turn cold when our new friends, from Germany, Canada, New Zealand, and Mexico, explain to us that now the LARGER gender committee must approved of this document and that for the next week we will be discussing every paragraph and every word until some sort of consensus is reached. This is where our second "unavoidable" comes in: protocol. Strict protocol is the only way to control almost 200 people from some 80 countries. And as the Chairman reads each paragraph aloud, the delegates one-by-one raise their hand to argue that a word should be included or a paragraph should be removed in its entirety.

Let us observe a moment of silence in honor of the sheer number of delegates from an impressive array of countries who actually attend every session, simply for the the reason that they believe in the process.

(For those interested in the final draft of the conclusions, you can download the PDF file: (Last accessed September 5, 2009; title: PR No. 13 - Report of the Committee on Gender Equality - Sixth item on the agenda: Gender equality at the heart of decent work (general discussion))

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