How to Speak UN: Deciphering Acronyms

Being part of a global intergovernmental organization such as the United Nations means working in a truly international and multifaceted environment. This is particularly true when the UN represents 193 nations with thousands of delegates and employees coming from around the world. Besides the possibility of being an accredited diplomat of a permanent mission or an observer representing a non-governmental organization, the UN and its many affiliated programmes, funds and specialized agencies offer a broad range of employment opportunities.

Due to the complexity and wide spectrum of issues being treated, effective involvement at various meetings, working sessions, and conferences requires participants to not only master substantive topics under discussion, but also a rich vocabulary of specific terms and acronyms related to the UN system. These acronyms are very much part of an internal knowledge and is recommended to master in order to avoid potential misunderstanding and diplomatic impasse. Misinterpretation and miscommunication of specific terminologies can in fact easily result in confusion to such an extent that diplomatic initiatives may be compromised altogether. 

Imagine attending a meeting at the UN as a delegate and hearing the following statement: 

“The Secretary-General strongly supports the work of the UNSMIL in assisting Libyan national efforts to restore public security, promote the rule of law, foster inclusive political dialogue and national reconciliation, and embark on constitution-making and electoral processes. Moreover, it encourages opposing parties in the dispute to solve any disagreement within the framework of the Security Council Resolution 2009, the UN Charter and in compliance with International Law and Treaties respecting the principle of pacta sunt servanda and strongly condemns any initiative aimed at solving any dispute manu militari. A détente of the current situation of tension and a rapprochement between opposing parties will be the top priority of the SRSG to the country. Furthermore, in order to avoid a further deterioration in the living conditions of the population, the intervention of the WHO and WFP has also been demanded. Upon request of the Security Council a further update meeting to monitor the evolution of the situation will be scheduled for the next week at the UNOG.”

The speech is riddled with acronyms that a layman will not understand. Mastering the necessary vocabulary and acronyms used in specific organizations is an absolute must and will prepare you to efficiently navigate contexts and environments like a pro. Such UN-ese knowledge will enhance your ability to work effectively within different settings, allowing you to perform your diplomatic functions at your best. In this situation, you should know that UNSMIL means United Nations Support Mission for Libya, SRSG stands for Special Representative of the Secretary-General, WHO is the World Health Organization, WFP means World Food Programme and UNOG is the United Nations Office at Geneva.

To help you become familiar with the sectorial language used at the UN, we have created a dedicated List of UN Acronyms, which can be found in the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy. We have also provided additional external resources that will further help you in this direction.

The first one is the UN System Chart, which is a very intuitive and simplistic layout explaining the UN System and its principal organs, including any related acronyms. Another helpful resource is the United Nations Handbook. This is fundamentally a guide published by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is constantly updated with a rich list of acronyms. The guide is also available as a free app that can be easily downloaded from the Apple Store (iOS) and the Play Store (Android). You can find this by searching “UN Handbook” as an easy reference point.

We also recommend the Glossary of Terms for UN Delegates, which has been developed by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), and provides definitions of hundreds of terms, abbreviations and acronyms frequently used within the framework of the UN system and other diplomatic contexts in general. You can download the app version for free by searching either “Unitar” or “UN How To”, both at the Apple Store (iOS) and Play Store (Android). Once you have downloaded it, you can open the app and go to the “Reference Documents” section, then open the “Glossary of UN Terms” folder.

As an added bonus for those who are interested in learning more refined and researched vocabulary, we have created a List of French and Latin Vocabulary. Although the modern diplomatic discourse is dominated mainly by the English language, often times you will still encounter words in these two aforementioned idioms. For hundreds of years, French and Latin have been the diplomatic lingua franca and both are still well represented in the vocabulary of diplomacy. The list includes some of the most commonly used terms in French and Latin that you can frequently encounter in diplomatic contexts such as that of the UN, including expressions like pacta sunt servanda, manu militari, détente and rapprochement, among others.

Check out our list of resources below.