Drafting the WSIS resolution for ECOSOC at the CSTD 19th Session

The 19th Session of the Commission for Science and Technology (CSTD) was held in Geneva, 9-13 May. At each of its annual sessions, the Commission drafts two resolutions for the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC):

  • Draft Resolution on Science, Technology and Innovation (2016 draft adopted by CSTD)
  • Draft resolution on the Assessment of the progress made in the implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (2016 draft adopted by CSTD)

These resolutions use the previous year’s ECOSOC resolutions as starting points. ECOSOC has the ability to amend the resolutions when they consider them during their annual sessions, but in reality, it tends to rubber stamp what the Commission has submitted.

Please note that this blog post focuses on the WSIS implementation resolution as it is the set of negotiations that I followed last week.

Participation in the CSTD: its 43 Member States are not the whole story

The CSTD has 43 Member States. These Member States are chosen by the 54 Member States of ECOSOC. The UN General Assembly has 193 Member States. Therefore, the ECOSOC resolutions on science and technology and WSIS implementation are developed by a UN agency that contains just over one-fifth of all UN Member States. In practice, though, any Member State can participate in the CSTD’s development of the draft resolutions. CSTD membership only matters if things need to go to a vote. And the general feeling is that if things need to go to the vote, it basically means the process has failed. So, to date, there has never been a vote on CSTD’s draft resolutions.

As well as all UN Member States, the CSTD allows a number of non-governmental entities to participate in its work, including those with WSIS accreditation or ECOSOC accreditation. At the 19th Session, representatives from ITU, UNESCO, UN Women and UN DESA, staff members from ICC BASIS, ICANN, ISOC, and APC were present, as well as a researcher from the University of Essex and a small business operator (mCADE LLC). I attended under the ARIN banner. There were also some other faces present that I did not recognize.mics

Non-Member States have gradually been able to participate more fully in the drafting negotiations over the past few years, at the discretion of the chair of the negotiations. This year, the chair of the WSIS-related negotiations (Canada) was very receptive to the inputs of non-government participants and regularly called on any non-government participant who raised their flag (what you and I would call a large “tent card” if we weren’t in a UN meeting). In addition, rather than making the non-government participants trudge around the corridors in the breaks, hoping to find a Member State willing to “adopt” their proposed text as their own (and therefore making it possible to appear as part of the official compilation draft), the Chair, after a non-government representative had presented their idea, would ask, on the spot, if any government in the room was willing to sponsor/adopt the proposal.

The starting point: the 2015 ECOSOC WSIS resolution

Last year’s WSIS implementation resolution was adopted by plenary at the unusually early hour of 6:40 pm on May 10. Previous years had dragged on well past midnight, and on at least one occasion ending at 2:30 am on the Saturday morning. Usually, the Internet-related parts of the resolution were the biggest sticking points. The only reason that the CSTD’s draft of the 2015 WSIS resolution was adopted so early was that it had become very clear that there would be no agreement to proposed changes to the resolution. At issue was the fact that some Member States had wanted to add forward looking text to the resolution, looking beyond the WSIS+10 anniversary toward the next phase of implementation, while others believed it was premature to make decisions before the UN General Assembly had completed its 10-year review of the WSIS (in December 2015). Late on the Friday afternoon, it was very clear that there was not going to be any possibility of compromise between those two positions.

The only possible solution – other than to not have a resolution at all – was to stick with the 2014 resolution, just with updated dates and names/numbers of annual meetings and resolutions referenced in the resolution. Everyone agreed that substantive changes would be deferred until after the WSIS+10 UN General Assembly (UNGA) had been decided.

Optimism in action: 2016 zero draft assumes WSIS+10 and SDGs will be reflected in the 2016 resolution

The zero draft sent to Member States highlighted sections of the text that may have been useful to consider updating in the wake of the WSIS+10 resolution at UNGA (December 2015) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (September 2015) being adopted.

However, in hindsight, it was perhaps a little ambitious in its expectations that Member States would want to overhaul the complicated, often redundant, text that had built up over many years of compromises that allowed the resolutions to be passed, if not to make particular sense to anyone who hadn’t been in the room at the time.

States are divided on the way forward

Pro-overhaul parties

The Western European and Others Group (WEOG) were keen to start afresh and streamline the resolution and make the issues it contained clearer and more succinct. For WEOG states, the resolution had become overly complicated and unreadable. Because of the difficulties in previous years’ negotiations, it had built up a considerable amount of text about events and activities that had long since been held or begun. For the WEOG states, it was more important to focus on the future, particularly since they viewed the WSIS+10 UNGA resolution as a kind of “reset” button on WSIS activities.

Pro-“keep existing text” parties

Many of the developing countries were suspicious of WEOG proposals to delete paragraphs and replace them with merged, shorter text on the same issues. For those developing countries, there was consternation that the deletions seemed overwhelmingly related to text aimed at the challenges faced by developing countries and that deletion of this text would disadvantage them. In addition, for governments who felt that the existing resolution was to their advantage, deletion of text from that resolution would mean risking their ability to maintain an advantage in the new text. Finally, some states were concerned that there was not enough time to update the text. It is certainly true that unlike other UN bodies and processes, where governments submit their proposed changes weeks or months in advance, CSTD’s process is very truncated, with governments only submitting their edits the week of the CSTD session, leaving a maximum of 2.5 days to negotiate together on the text. However, it is also symptomatic of UN glacial slowness that the UN can pass two major resolutions that set the way forward for development and ICT for the next 10-15 years but one of its subordinate bodies chooses not to incorporate those big changes in a resolution designed to monitor the implementation of one of those processes.

Key areas of difference

As usual, Internet governance was a big area of contention.

Enhanced cooperation

The composition of the second Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC 2.0), announced during the WSIS Forum 2016, particularly problematic. Developing countries felt that their interests were being sidelined in the final lineup of the working group. The overwhelming majority of the intergovernmental and international organizations and the technical and academic community representatives were from the developed north. In addition, for the CSTD regional groups that had had a very difficult time in nominating only four states to represent them on the WGEC, it was hard to accept that the WEOG and African Group had five members each (WEOG had such a hard time that the Chair of the CSTD, Peter Major of Hungary, had to choose the final member). The fifth member of those two groups was a result of Switzerland (CSTD membership ends 2016) and Tunisia (not a CSTD member) being the hosts of the WSIS process, 2003-2005. However, if you were a state that had missed out because you weren’t a CSTD member now, or wouldn’t be a CSTD member for the entire life of the WGEC, the inclusion of these two states could be seen as a bit of an insult. Therefore, there was a big push to allow all UN 193 Member States to be able to participate on an equal footing, should they wish to participate, in the working group. There was an equally big push, however, from the other side, which pointed out that the WSIS+10 resolution had left it up to the WGEC itself to decide its modalities – not the CSTD.

IGF

IGF supporters wanted to add text that mentioned some of the progress made in improving the IGF, such as the inter-sessional work on policy options to connect the next billion, the Best Practice Forums and Dynamic Coalitions. Those less supportive of IGF thought that this was unnecessary detail for the ECOSOC resolution.

Development was also a big issue.

Activities aimed at addressing the needs of developing countries

WEOG states had tried to consolidate various sections of the past resolution so that all development-related material would be shorter, less distributed throughout different parts of the text, and easier for people to understand. However, many states from the developing world felt that the proposals to consolidate the text were removing subtle, but important, nuances in the development oriented text. WEOG states said they had no intention of deleting anything important and, during the negotiations, had been working to update their proposed texts to incorporate elements that the developing states had said were vital to them. However, with the limited time available, there just wasn’t the time to complete this exercise to everyone’s satisfaction.

A war of attrition: Member States and observers start leaving the room

late-night-negotiationsOnce 6 pm hit on Friday night, gradually, a number of the Member State representatives and some of the observers started leaving. Partially, this was because a number of the Member States were represented by their mission staff who were only there to observe, rather than be active participants. After 6 pm, for Member States who weren’t actively invested in the outcomes of the draft resolution, there really was no point in staying. Other Member States had multiple representatives in the room, and so didn’t need to have all their representatives stay on. Others simply had prioritized their lives over being stuck in small room eating vending machine supplies for dinner and had booked flights out of Geneva on Friday night. This meant that only the incredibly committed (and possibly certifiably insane) stayed on to the end.

Trying to find a consensus text on a Friday 13th, with a full moon, while exhausted and subsisting on caffeine and sugar

The nuclear option is proposed: Let’s dump it all

At around 1 am, one of the governments suggested that given the massive amounts of text left to work on, and the late hour, there needed to a decision to either hold a resumed session in a few weeks or to produce a massively truncated text that basically recalled the WSIS+10 and SDG resolutions and reaffirmed a commitment to implement the goals. Then, next year, the government representative said, we could embark on a longer preparatory process that could consider the various ways to develop a post-WSIS+10 resolution that met everyone’s needs.

The Chair proposes an alternative option: Tread water

In response to the nuclear option, the chair of the drafting group suggested that the group could adopt a different type of barebones resolution: this one would recall the 2015 ECOSOC resolution on WSIS (the one that was the 2014 ECOSOC resolution, just with updated dates and resolution and meeting references) as well as recall the SDG resolution, the WSIS+10 resolution, and request the Secretary General to submit his report to ECOSOC.

At this point, the chair of the drafting group called for a break while he consulted with various delegations about how to proceed.

A compromise solution: When all else fails, try a facilitator’s text

After a break that lasted just over an hour, the chair of the drafting group resumed the meeting with a new proposed way forward: a facilitator’s text. In the event that participants are having so much trouble reaching any form of consensus, a facilitator’s text can be the best way forward. The idea is that the facilitator/chair of the drafting negotiations could put together his/her own compromise version of a resolution based on her/his sense of what could gain consensus in the room.

This is how the WSIS+10 resolution at the UN General Assembly was drafted during the preparatory process last year in New York. Recognizing how very difficult the topic was, the two co-facilitators, United Arab Emirates and Latvia, “held the pen” throughout the drafting process, even though there were some attempts by some of the Member States to have direct control over the drafting.

In this CSTD case, the chair of the negotiations noted that the facilitator’s text would be based on:

  • Development language proposed by WEOG that had been largely agreed to already plus existing resolution language (but no other additions)
  • WSIS Action Lines text proposed by Russia (not yet looked at by the room at this point, but there had been agreement for Russia to go away and consolidate various proposals and existing texts on Action Lines and the WSIS Forum. This compilation text was truncated significantly by the facilitator, not because there was anything wrong with it, but simply to ensure that this section on Action Lines didn’t form the majority of the text of the resolution (given all other sections were reduced significantly as part of the general compromise)
  • Compromise text on enhanced cooperation developed by Brazil, which had facilitated informal discussions on that section on Thursday night.
  • Existing language on Internet governance, including the IGF (proposed new language had not been agreed to)

Text on the reporting mechanism from the CSTD to the ECOSOC High Level Political Forum would be deleted (many hours had been devoted to trying to understand what exactly CSTD reports consisted on and whether or not Member States could change the format of the reports that were sent to this particular High Level Political Forum).

Some other bits of text that had not had complete consensus were, in the spirit of compromise, were either kept in or deleted.

Finally, we get to go home, at 2:55 am on Saturday 14 May, all knowing we’ll probably repeat the experience next year

Not everyone in the room was happy with the resulting text, but there was widespread recognition that possibly, via this facilitator’s draft, everyone would be less unhappy than if we had continued with everyone’s hand on the drafting pen. One state – not a CSTD member – was particularly unhappy and made their position very clear. When the chair of the negotiations asked if all governments could accept the facilitator’s compromise text, all but that one state was willing to adopt the text. The state insisted that their reservation be included in the report of the meeting, which was agreed to.

In many ways, the fact that a non-CSTD Member State was able to have so much influence on the process and have their objection included in the outcomes of the meeting report shows how open the CSTD is to the participation of all Member States.

A number of non-CSTD Member States were at the meeting and did participate. Belarus, for example, was a non-CSTD member that was active in the WSIS negotiations as was Saudi Arabia. Australia was also present, but less active, given it is currently in caretaker mode (federal elections are at the start of July). The inclusion of more UN Member States, and of other accredited entities, in the CSTD’s work can only make its deliberations richer and more representative of the wider needs and requirements of those who are the purpose for the CSTD’s work to draft ECOSOC resolutions in the first place.

As one Member State repeatedly intervened to note during the WSIS negotiations, trying to reach consensus on the draft resolutions in less than a week is clearly an impossible task. As the issues of sustainable development and the role of ICTs become more and more politically important to the world, the process of drafting associated resolutions becomes more complicated and delicate. It remains to be seen if the CSTD changes its approach to drafting the 2017 ECOSOC resolution on WSIS implementation. CSTD only meets twice a year for a total time of less than two weeks. It also has a very streamlined secretariat provided by UNCTAD. Because of these factors, there is very little focus on the CSTD’s work for most of the year, and most governments do not assign specific liaisons to follow the CSTD’s work on WSIS. Instead, it’s the local mission-based staff who are sent. Or whoever has been assigned to work on ICTs and WSIS issues at ITU. This means that each time the CSTD meets to develop its WSIS resolution, it’s pretty much starting from scratch. Many of the participants don’t know each other and there is no thread of ongoing CSTD work throughout the year that binds people together. Unless ways to overcome these barriers are developed, we are likely to see similarly difficult negotiations in the WSIS implementation drafting in May 2017.

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