Strange But Important Meetings

A few weeks ago I attended the United Nations 10th Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, for a special presentation on “Africa: Looking to the future”.

Typically, I check the United Nations Journal each morning and see what’s going on at Headquarters that day. There’s a lot. (You can visit it too! Just Google “United Nations Journal” and it will pop up) Whether it’s the daily press briefing at the Dag Hammarskjöld Library Auditorium, a meeting of the Security Council, ECOSOC, or the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there’s always something interesting going on. Some meetings are closed and invite-only, but about half the meetings can be attended by anyone with a UN Grounds Pass–which for an intern is pretty great. Unfortunately, because interns have temporary passes, we have to file in through the Visitor’s section and pass security with what is typically a line of pushy tourists–but that just adds to the adventure, I guess!

Most of the meetings are held in the North Lawn Building (NLB), which is a temporary structure erected while the Secretariat undergoes renovations. It consists of giant conference room after giant conference room, most of which are fully equipped with simultaneous translation gear and megatron televisions. The NLB sits upon the United Nations’ former sculpture garden, so an odd array of sculptures donated from various Member States still remain wedged between the various walkways that lead back to the building, and many of them were moved inside the lobby of the structure.

My supervisor also pointed out a very interesting aspect of the site plot–as soon as you set foot onto that plot of land, you are no longer under the jurisdiction of the American law system. The site has a sort of diplomatic immunity. “You could commit murder here and perhaps get away with it,” my boss said one day, raising an eyebrow at me as we passed by the site. “The NYPDs cannot set foot there without permission”. A little creepy, I suppose? But a really interesting legal quandary too, this issue of diplomatic immunity. And further, how can the UN expect civil services such city assistance in the event of a fire when they are exempt from taxes, and above the law? They do bring in a fair amount of business just for the number of conferences they host I suppose….

But back to the somewhat strange, albeit important meetings taking place at the UN every day: As I mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to attend the United Nations 10th Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, for a special presentation on “Africa: Looking to the future”. This was a topic that I had never really thought about before, and here the UN had already had 10 previous conferences on the subject over the past 50 years.

The talk was given by Dozie Ezigbalike, Data Management Coordinator for the African Centre for Statistics, and his presentation can be found here.

Dr. Ezigbalike argued that while geographic coordinates standardize locations, coordinates mean nothing to policy makers and the general public. And in order for people to really understand climate change, they need to be able to associate that change with a specific place over time, and one that has meaning to them locally. Like the shrinking of Lake Chad, or the retreat of glaciers on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Dr. Ezigbalike also juxtaposed “directions” in the US with “directions” to a place in Africa. In the US, you can use a GPS, and it will tell you to ‘turn right at Hanson St’, and then go three miles and turn left onto Route 15. In Africa, however, you can wind up with directions such as “…Proceed along this road, through Banana Hill, then another small settlement, pass the Norbrook (veterinary products) factory, keep on the same road don’t turn off, you now see coffee and tea growing on your left. Continue on for another 300m and you will see a large Bata sign (where the road bends) on the right hand side and mature trees on the left. The turning to the house is here on the left directly opposite this big Bata sign.” The argument for standardization of names becomes starkly clear with an example such as this.

But Dr. Ezigbalike went on to describe the difficulties of standardization–for example, many names were created by colonists who mis-named places, or several tribes may have different names for the same feature–how then, do you pick which one to use? There are also difficulties with renaming villages, as people strongly identify with the name as part of their heritage. So where do they go from here? The problem remains that there is a lack of statuary naming authorities in Africa, and those that do exist often do not have much power. There is also a lack of awareness of how important this can be for Africa, and that it should not rest solely in the hands of mapping authorities, but include a multi-stakeholder approach whereby local culture and history is taken into consideration when making decisions.

After the excellent presentation, questions were taken, and Israel wished to make a point concerning an area which had been erroneously named “Unknown” by explorers ignorant of the language. Egypt responded strongly with an irritated quip, feeling somehow that the comment had been directed at them….ahhhh the UN.