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Saturday, December 04, 2021

Paris talks: Shall/should; the world between a wrong word

The mistake, during the finalisation of documents in haste by UN staffers was pointed out minutes before the negotiators assembled for the final meeting to adopt the Paris Agreement.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Paris |
Updated: December 14, 2015 2:39:43 pm
French President Francois Hollande, right, French Foreign Minister and president of the COP21 Laurent Fabius, second, right, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres and United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon hold their hands up after the final conference at the COP21, the United Nations conference on climate change, in Le Bourget, north of Paris, Saturday, Dec.12, 2015. (Source: AP) French President Francois Hollande, right, French Foreign Minister and president of the COP21 Laurent Fabius, second, right, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres and United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon hold their hands up after the final conference at the COP21, the United Nations conference on climate change, in Le Bourget, north of Paris, Saturday, Dec.12, 2015. (Source: AP)

In high-stakes negotiations, the replacement of one word with another can make a world of difference.

And that’s exactly what happened in Paris during the final hours of the climate conference, where an intended “should” became “shall” in the final agreement draft due to a “typographical error”.

If the error had not been corrected in time, the text could have locked a group of countries into commitments they were not ready to take.

Watch Video: Paris Agreement & Its Impact On India

The mistake, during the finalisation of documents in haste by UN staffers “who had not slept for days”, was pointed out minutes before the negotiators assembled for the final meeting to adopt the Paris Agreement. The snag held up the meeting for about half an hour.

The result of the correction, however, was that the principle of “differentiation” between developed and developing nations was substantially diluted.

The sentence originally read: “Developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.”

After correction, it became: “Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.”

The use of “shall” in such documents assigns an obligation while “should” is meant to be a guiding principle.

The provision under question in Paris dealt with the obligations of developed and developing countries for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The use of “shall” and “should” was to “differentiate” the responsibilities of developed and developing countries, in line with the common but differentiated responsibilities principles.

But, after correction, the obligations of developed and developing countries were at the same level. The developed countries were understandably happy with the correction, but developing nations had lost one big battle.

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