Conference Procedure: A Very Short History

A conference interpreter has to be familiar with parliamentary procedure. But where did the rules and their attendant rituals come from?

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I realised that my interest in conference procedure was unusual when I saw that I was the first person to borrow two books on the subject – and the second to borrow two other volumes. The books in question were published in 1929, 1933, 1943 and 2006. Now Cambridge University Library may not have lots of users with my déformation professionelle but I feel it is time to move on from this particular set of concerns. Before going, however, here is a short account of my findings.

It is easy enough to develop an interest in the language of meetings from the vantage point of a booth: many interpreters have witnessed the problems caused by incompetent chairing, the time wasted by a poor understanding of how to consider amendments or the power enjoyed by any delegate who has mastered an organisation’s rules of procedure before taking their seat at a conference. Observing such things got me wondering where those rules and their attendant rituals came from. Why are conferences organised the way they are? 

Clearly there have been meetings – and interpreters – for as long as we have had language. Formal meetings involving official representatives have a shorter history. Some scholars go back to the ancient Greek city states or to the 325 Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, but there does seem to be agreement on the significance of the 1648 Congress of Westphalia, which  was the first conference to serve as an instrument of world affairs.[1] The next key event was the Congress of Vienna of 1815, convened after the fall of Napoleon:

For the first time there appeared a widespread conviction that [international] relations might be concerned with something other than the separate interests of monarchs, necessarily opposed to each other, and that they might be conducted on a collective rather than an individualistic basis. [2]

The Great Powers met in conference in the course of the nineteenth century whenever the territorial agreements reached in Vienna were threatened. These meetings were generally chaired by the host country’s minister of foreign affairs and did not require rules of procedure.

Progressive accounts of international organisations hold that there were two historical trends that led to the rise in the number of international meetings: the rising number of independent states with representative governments along with industrialisation and growing trade. The nineteenth century saw the more and more international and regional conferences as well as the development public international unions like the Universal Postal Union (1874). Such organisations set regulations for international transport and communication that were important to the industrialised world.

Frederick Sherwood Dunn, writing in 1929, when there was still some hope that the League of Nations would forestall conflict between nations, makes a clear distinction between political conferences where states pursued their own interests by having their negotiators defend their positions and non-political conferences where the general public has a stake in the practical regulation of a given set of activities.[3] Non-political conferences were more like legislative bodies with a specific set of objectives that made it easier to agree on permanent bodies, periodic meetings and rules of procedure.

Dunn dwells on the example of the 1874 Berne Conference establishing the Universal Postal Union where rules of procedure were presented and adopted, non-sovereign states could be represented, there was no requirement that decisions be taken unanimously and the General Committee formed to consider specific issues and report back to the conference was kept small enough to get its work done.[4] It is probably true today that meetings with technical agendas can proceed more smoothly than those where politically sensitive questions have to be tackled; it is interesting that the very organisation of the work of a conference proved easier in a meeting about international postal administration than in those tackling contentious issues like the laws of war or international conflicts.

That said, parliamentary procedure had clear influence on both types of conference.  Government representatives at international meetings resorted to the approach taken in their home institutions, which is how we have expressions like ‘giving the floor’, ‘calling a speaker to order’ and the like. Government procedure informed  allied initiatives during World War I when the need to coordinate activities led to regular meetings of heads of state and government and, in November 1917 to the establishment of the Supreme War Council to coordinate allied military strategy. Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the British Cabinet with experience of the Committee of Imperial Defence, had developed that body’s practice of recording not just decisions, but also the discussions preceding such decisions: précis-writing. He introduced that practice to the Allies’ meetings, where English was placed on an equal footing with French, the recognised language of diplomacy at the time. The allied war-time organisation informed the approach taken to the peace talks held in Versailles in 1919.

The founders of the League of Nations – one of the achievements of the Treaty of Versailles –  referred to parliamentary procedure in developing the organisation’s detailed rules of procedure.  “The rules would appear to have been influenced primarily by British parliamentary procedure, but certainly not exclusively so.”[5] Those rules have had a lasting influence: accounts of conferences and procedure from the inter-war period have an uncanny familiarity. Robbie Sobel maintains that the 1945 provisional rules of procedure of the UN General Assembly were based on those of the League of Nations.[6] Dunn’s 1929 account of the role of a conference president, record-keeping practices and expected results – treaties, declarations or final acts – holds no surprises. He does describe some technical change in his explanation of how stenography and rapid printing speeded up record-keeping; there have been further developments in that respect but not radical departures from the conference norm.

William O’Davoren, writing in 1943, describes preparatory work for conferences, their material arrangements and administrative services in terms that are also recognisable. In fact the only area where he has been overtaken by events is interpretation. He enthuses about the ‘modern miracle’ of the new ‘system of simultaneous telephonic interpretation’ which worked well for ‘orderly discussions’ but was clearly more familiar with consecutive interpreting and chuchotage. His understanding of the work done by interpreters is recognisable, as is his accent on the need for training and preparation. I was amused when I saw his conclusion to the use of simultaneous interpreting:

In order to facilitate the tasks of the interpreters, delegates who intend to speak from a written text should be requested to hand it to the head interpreter an hour or two in advance. [7] 

These early writers on international conferences had a remarkable sense of what was possible with commitment and organisation. It is interesting to think about what they would make of today’s world of international organisations and meetings which I suspect would be both very familiar and bewilderingly complex.



[1] Hill, N.L. 1929. The Public International Conference, Its Organization and Procedure. Stanford University Press. p. 2

[2] Dunn, F.S. 1929. The Practice and Procedure of International Conferences. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore. p.64.

[3] ibid. p. 144.

[4] ibid. p. 151.

[5] Sobel, R. 2006. Procedure at International Conferences: A Study of the rules of procedure at the UN and at Inter-governmental conferences. Cambridge University Press. pp.9-10

[6] ibid. p.10-11.

[7] O’Davoren, W. 1943.  Post-War Reconstruction Conferences: The technical organisation of international conferences. Published in the UK for the Geneva School of Interpreters. P S King & Staples ltd. pp.51-55.

Recommended citation format:
Christine ADAMS. "Conference Procedure: A Very Short History". August 7, 2017. Accessed May 28, 2020. <>.