1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa

The Grammar of Impotence

Diplomats choose their words carefully. Very carefully.

Security Council Endorses Cessation of Hostilities in Syria
Security Council endorses cessation of hostilities in Syria in February 2016 (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

Despite passing 16 resolutions on Syria since 2012, the divided UN Security Council has achieved little in stopping the war and suffering. Security Council resolutions are carefully worded. What does the diplomatic language of those resolutions tell us about the divisions and frustrations of the diplomatic process? In three graphs, we show how the carefully-selected words and phrases unintentionally illustrate institutional failure and impotence.

When the Council is cross, and its previous appeals ignored, it will... appeal again... and again - using words like "reiterating", "reaffirming", "recalling", and, well, lots of other action verbs ending in "ing". 


If things are getting really bad, it may then step up its language to "grave concern" and "grave alarm". The word "grave" has been used by the Security Council 24 times from 2012-2015, approximately once for every 10,000 deaths in the Syrian conflict. 


UN Security Council language on Syria
UN Security Council language on Syria

Back in 2009, researcher Justin S. Gruneberg (who, by the way, was attempting to demonstrate bias at the Security Council) reckoned these were the core emotive words (weakest to strongest):

  • Concerned
  • Grieved
  • Deplored
  • Condemned
  • Alarmed
  • Shocked
  • Indignant
  • Censured

The study found the "instructive" language of the council's resolutions can be ranked from weak to strong as follows:

  • Decides
  • Calls upon
  • Recommends
  • Requests
  • Urges
  • Warns
  • Demands

We found the three "big guns" deployed on Syria as follows: In 2014, there was a lot of "demanding"; but the destructiveness of the war has clearly receded, so we're back to just "requesting". 

However, Syria's agony may have achieved one thing: the term "deeply outraged" was used in a 2013 resolution about the use of chemical weapons, possibly for the first time ever in a UN Security Council resolution.

History has, after all, been made. Outrageous history.

Share this article
Join the discussion

Help make quality journalism about crises possible

The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.


Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story. 


We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.