Unpacking Negotiations through the Performance of Language and Attire: An Ethnography of Formal and In-Between Spaces during UPR sessions

Meenakshi N Ambujam
14 min readJun 14, 2021



All through my school years, my social sciences curriculum had specific chapters dedicated to understanding the practices and functioning of the United Nations (UN). Even though my teachers had never visited the space, they always spoke of the UN as a coveted space — a site where power and respect overlapped. This was supplemented with photographs and snippets of important negotiations between world leaders. Together, they worked towards creating an image of the UN as a charismatic entity. Unlike other bureaucracies and institutions in India that dealt with negotiations, the UN was viewed with pride and was considered a clean and sanitised space. It was the “government of all governments” — a line that was so often repeated in class that I remember it even today. The UN was markedly different because it had, we were told, the ability and power to control nations and their governments. Viewing the UN from a distance, it presented itself as a space that embodied a certain mystique. The “being in awe” of the UN, I felt, needed to be essentially removed from my person; especially when it came to positioning myself as a researcher who had to study the institution. In other words, I felt the need to be conscious of my entry point to the space of the UN as a site of study.

After having decided to attend the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session scheduled on the 16th of March 2017, I decided to proceed for my accreditation one day in advance to the event. When I arrived at Pregny Gate, I realised that it may not have been the best of ideas to be casually dressed. Not only was I feeling increasingly uneasy but I also noticed how when my positionality changed from a tourist to someone who needed accreditation to attend the Human Rights Conference, attire seemed to matter. In the entire space, I was the only person casually dressed and it immediately made me standout. In the fifteen minutes I spent waiting, I noticed how attire played a role in creating a sense of belongingness to the space. Thus, on the day of the event, I was careful to ensure I was dressed in formals.

Language, Politics and UPR:

As I was walking towards the venue, I could not help but notice how the UN stayed true to the definition of a formal and diplomatic space. In fact, had it not been for a fellow researcher who had previously worked in the UN, I would have had a tough time navigating to the room where the UPR was scheduled.Walking up to room XX, I was forced to question how the word “public” came to be defined at this space. Getting to room XX would certainly prove to be a maze for a person who does not belong to these spaces. This made me wonder if the UPR was genuinely meant to be accessible to people. Not only was the room placed spatially in an area that made access less “public” but also had additional security personnel stationed who constantly checked badges each time one wanted to enter the room — between coffee breaks, conversations or even strolls. The regulation of movement towards the room stood drastically in contract to the constant movement of people within the room — whether for USB sticks as Cowan and Billaud (2017) remarked in their essay on the ritualistic aspects of the UPR, or for casual conversation.

As my colleague and I entered room XX to observe the first UPR session of Togo, Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, we stumbled upon a very peculiar problem: We did not know where to sit. Confused, our eyes scanned the room for seats or empty chairs. Though there were that were clearly assigned for the Press, various UN agencies, specific NGOs and delegations of state actors, none of the chairs or seats were assigned for “the Public”. The ‘public’ nature of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), was, in fact, quite a mirage.

The UPR session, as Cowan and Billaud (2017) argue, was clearly ritualistic. At the commencement of the “performance”, the chair- UNHRC President- outlined how the session would be carried forth: 20 minutes for the country in question to present the report, 1 minute and 30 seconds for peers (other countries) to review the report and 2 minutes for non-state actors/ NGOs to comment on the report. The use of the gavel by the Chair complemented the overall ritualisation. What was fascinating was how devices aided the performance of the ritual: a large screen that showed the time left and the list of countries and NGOS that were to comment on the review. Additionally, at the end of the allocated time, in big bold red letters the word “TIME’S UP” would blink on the screen. This entire process was repeated and followed with absolutely no change in the UPR sessions of the five countries I observed. In the first session that composed of three countries, I noticed how language was performing an important and serious role.

After the UPR report was presented by the country in question, the relationship the said country shared with others became obvious through the comments of the peer countries. For instance, when the Syrian Arab Republic presented its UPR report, the US and UK delegations used strong words like “appalled”, “regime”, “skeptical” in their comments. While Russia and Oman were “delighted to welcome the Syrian delegation” and were quick to point out to the “external and foreign influence” and non recognition of the “legitimate sovereign” [Fieldnotes, 2017]. Thus, while UPR is supposed to be a neutral process where there is no naming and shaming, the political positions and affiliations shared by groups and countries were out in the open without anyone stating the obvious in clear terms. The UPR session also reflected how other delegates in the room perceived the session itself. In the case of Togo and Zimbabwe, attendees were moving about continuously and chattering consistently. So much so, that the president of the UNHRC had to repeatedly ask the attendees and delegates to be “quiet” [Fieldnotes, 2017]. The formal and diplomatic setting of room XX turned quite chaotic with the changing perception of the importance that accrued to the UPR report.

For instance, the room was largely empty when it was Iceland’s turn to present the report. While delegates and NGOs were largely trying to fit in as much information as possible in the time allotted to them in the case of other countries, particularly Syria, with Iceland, almost everybody had time to spare. The comments and language used for Iceland were both neutral and objective with no tinge of political allegiance while for Syria and Venezuela that was not the case. The language used by the state actors clearly portrayed the tension between nations. Thus, when the US and UK engaged in criticising Venezuela over human rights violation, Russia and Cuba chided the former countries in obvious ways without naming them. Thus, everyone knew what was being said and about whom without anyone having to name the other. The power of language and act of speaking was clearly unravelling the complexity and politics of the UPR. If countries reviewing the report began their statements welcoming the delegation of the country that was being reviewed, more often than not, the statements were positive and the review would be “approved by consensus”. Depending on the political relationship shared, words such as “deplorable” (used by Israel on their comments on Syria), “appalled”, “regime” etc were used. In fact, during Syria’s presentation, the delegation emphasised how specific countries were calling a democratically elected sovereign government as a “Regime” and spoke of how they did not appreciate such choice of words. The delegation from Syria chose to address this issue during the time that was allotted to them to conclude their presentation of the UPR report. The tensions were obvious and complicated political dimensions were unravelling.

Paying attention to the usage and choice of words, therefore, opened up a space to understand the polemics against specific regions. Thus, support and opposition of UPR essentially became more visible through the performance of language and act of speaking. Similarly, the way NGOs and non-state actors spoke and commented on the reviews suggested how language was indeed political. The performance of language and speech, thus, reflected a power dynamics. Additionally, for people who were not familiar with acronyms and the numbers corresponding to specific recommendations made by countries, the “public” nature of the UPR becomes debatable. Room XX, therefore, represented a site that reflected political hostility and power play through the performance of language.

Attire as a Performance of Identity: Negotiations in Grey Zones or in Spaces In-Between:

It was during the break after Zimbabwe’s UPR session that I came across an acquaintance from India. Even though I intended to attend the entire second session of the UPR, I decided to walk out of room XX with my acquaintance in the hope of stumbling upon something. The familiarity I shared with my acquaintance, who happened to have arrived in Geneva a few days prior to the event and knew no one, enabled me to access certain narratives, conversations and spaces that were largely oblivious when I was sitting in room XX. Serendipitous encounters are often considered to embody possibilities — something anthropologists year for. And, I was no different.

Conversations with him opened up an avenue to explore how small NGOs and non-state actors engage in practices of negotiation and lobbying with bigger actors so that they can further their agenda. Smaller NGOs, I gathered, who had managed to receive some form of funding from established NGOs which allowed them to travel to Geneva for the UN conference on Human Rights, would often partake in forum shopping so that they could win the support of other actors in drawing attention to issues they deemed important. This was particularly important considering the limited time NGOs were allocated to draw the world’s attention to human rights attrocities in their countries. Through forum shopping smaller and less powerful non-state actors sought to lobby more influential participants so that the issues people were facing in locations far removed from Room XX could be amplified. These conversations, laced with a tone of informality, happened in spaces that were largely in-between. The subtle and not so subtle ways in which lobbying and negotiations took place outside the formal setting of Room XX provided an insight as to how non-state actors managed to navigate through the ritualisation of the UPR process itself. Interestingly, this makes one question how “public” the UPR is when it comes to providing spaces to non-prominent actors and their narratives.

Through my acquaintance, I happened to meet seven others who were part of a group representing India. This group had come from various parts of India to speak specifically about caste, religious and military violence in the country. They informed me that though India’s UPR session was scheduled to be held much later, it was important for them to build relationships and networks with actors of power so that they could persuade more people to speak about things they wanted people to know. They stated that given the 2 minute time slot, it was impossible to address the complexity or nature of atrocities that were taking place and their best bet to make sure the information is recorded “publicly” was to urge prominent non-state actors to speak on their behalf. As the conversation proceeded, I soon realised that the people who were speaking to me had assumed the nature of relationship I shared with the UN. Unlike the space I occupied in room XX where I was dressed formally like the people around me, in this in-between space where an informal conversation about the need to talk about the real human rights was being discussed, my attire and my badge made it seem to them that I was part of the system or at least, familiar with the UN in some formal capacity. Their observation of me and my perceived affiliation with the UN had led them to position me along with others they were persuading to speak about “real” issues. This became obvious when one of them remarked, “Oh! I thought you worked with the UN”, in response to my clarification that I was a student.

I soon realised that I was not the only person observing people, their practices and performances in the space. In their own right, small non-state actors were also conducting their own ethnographies and following people and/or things (Marcus,1995). This time, they had “followed” me. It began to occur to me how my attire was also “performing” my identity, albeit assumed. Just as I was observing people, their movements and conversations; I was being observed too. The markers I carried- my attire, the badge, nose-pin and physical attributes that could be pinned to specific territoriality were constituting my identity. It was then that Bendix’s (2013) “inverse multi-sited ethnography” began to make sense to me. It was an “inverse multi-sited” space not just because there were several actors bringing their own “sites” to this one institutional space but also because the “observed” were also being observers and “followed” people and things they believed would help them with lobbying. The transparency and “public” character of the UPR, was slowly unfolding in front of me.

The UPR, as Cowan and Billaud (2017) argue, is a highly regulated and monitored space. Inside the walls of room XX, there are designated spaces for people who are considered to be representatives of “voices from the field” to occupy. The proximity to the process itself for a non-state actor depended on a certain hierarchy, it felt. While Amnesty International, Action Canada and Agency for Human Rights sat along with delegations from countries, many others were placed at closed spaces where microphones were not present and their faces were not visible. In a sense, while they were “witnessing” the spectacle, they were also physically placed in a space that could be considered to be cordoned off from the site where the discussions and reviews took place. Perhaps, this was why the in-between spaces become sites of importance where the “other” could speak and negotiate.

The delegation invited me to a side event in room XXIV on “Cultural Rights”. Since there was some time before the event commenced, I informed them that I would see them later at the venue. I noticed how my remark was perceived as my lack of interest to attend the event even though I had repeatedly affirmed that I wanted to listen to the panel. As I was strolling around the corridors on the UN, hoping to chance upon “corridor negotiations” (Bendix, 2013), I noticed how everywhere I went, there were heaps of paper strewn all over tables. For a space that was otherwise so methodically organised, the sense of disorderliness was stark and obvious. While going through these documents- some of them prepared by UN agencies and some of them invites to side-events organised by NGOs- a young man approached me and gave me a handout. It was an invite to an event on the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils. He smiled and spoke to me in Tamil. I found this curious because he never even once doubted if I would have knowledge of the language. My nose-pin and physical attributes functioned as markers that enabled him to assume I spoke the language. My familiarity with the Sri Lankan version of Tamil only confirmed his assumption that I was Sri Lankan. He spoke briefly about the side-event and told me how important it was for a person like me to attend it. When I asked him what he meant by the phrase “like me” he began to speak of how my association with the UN becomes important for the larger cause. This amused me, once again. The degree of access an attire was giving me in terms of observing informal negotiations in a formal diplomatic space, where even speech was a formal performance, was interesting. Since the event on Sri Lanka was happening simultaneously with the panel discussion on Cultural Rights, I chose to attend the latter.

Room XXIV was clearly different from room XX. It was not packed, the seating arrangement was “ordinary” and there were no security guards manning the doors. This event, in a certain sense, felt more public than the UPR in terms of accessibility. Inside, however, there were only thirteen people- two officials from the Indian Mission to the UN, five panelists, five people who were friends of the panelists, another student and me. The panel had two Western Saharan Africans and three Indians (all of whom I had met earlier during the day). As the discussion proceeded, I noticed that quite often, the eyes of the Western Saharan African panelists were fixated on the four of us-the two Indian officials, the other student and me. Half an hour into the discussion, the officials left. A gentleman who was part of the Indian entourage walked up to me, during the talk, and handed me his business card; after which he went back to his seat. Compared to the UPR session I had attended earlier, the language here was informal, passionate and non-neutral. When I turned around to observe a largely empty space, I noticed that the person who had given me his business card earlier had fallen asleep amidst the discussion. The panel discussion ended a little before schedule. And, as I rose to head back, the Western Saharan African panelists came up to me and asked me if I agreed with the narrative of India that the other panelists presented. In as neutral a way as possible I answered. One of the two women, then proceeded to speak about how the UN plays a very key role in defending the rights of people and human rights defenders. She continued to speak about the situations in Western Saharan Africa and India, state violence and how the UN needed to play a larger role in listening to not just the voices from the field but also to human right defenders who were being persecuted. Fifteen minutes into the conversation, my acquaintance asked me if I intended to go back to the Institute. It was then that the lady said, “Ah! I thought you were also an official, like the other two men!”. In a subtle way I asked her what made her think I was an official, she merely pointed her hand at me and suggested it was the way I dressed: I was more in sync with the two officials who had come to listen to the talk than the others in the room. The networks that I established and the conversations I had, seemed to have been a product of an avenue my attire had created. It once again confirmed an important aspect of negotiations and lobbying: various delegates observe people like ethnographers and perceive performances of identity. Negotiations and lobbying, therefore, were not at random but were a carefully thought out processes where modes of interaction and speech largely reflected how people perceived the other.


The transformation of language and speech as one moved from Room XX to XXIV and the access attire gave me enabled me to understand how negotiations that occur at in-between spaces matter. Far from being ritualistic, like the UPR, the side events opened up spaces which were informal not just linguistically but also in terms of the audience who gathered. In the formal diplomatic world of the United Nations, a multitude of in-between spaces emerged where lobbying, discussions and networking were carried out by smaller actors who relied on their ability to “observe” people to successfully engage in claim-making. These informal spaces provided an opportunity to create a rupture in the UPR ritual where smaller actors sought to beat time limits that were set. The importance of attire as a marker of identity and a symbol of affiliation became glaringly clear and this had an impact on how small actors chose to “follow” people to lobby and negotiate. The interplay of language, speech and attire in building networks that created spaces for claim making not only pushes to rethink the role small non-state actors play but also forces one to consider if small non-state actors engage in subject formation by observing people and physical markers that perform their identity.


Bendix, Regina F. The Power of Perseverence : Exploring Negotiation Dynamics at the World Intellectual Property Organization. In The Gloss of Harmony : The Politics of Policymaking in International Organizations, ed. Birgit Müller. London, Pluto Press, 2013

Cowan, Jane K. and Julie Billaud. 2017. The ‘public’ character of the Universal Periodic Review: contested concept and methodological challenge. In Palaces of Hope : The Anthropology of Global Organizations. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

Marcus, George E. 1995Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24(1):95–117.