The WSIS+10 HLE 6th MPP meeting and its aftermath

I was partly wrong and partly right when I blogged previously about how I thought the sixth and final Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) for the WSIS+10 High Level Event (HLE) would happen. I was wrong in thinking the meeting would go well into the night: it actually only lasted 2.5 hours, finishing just before 4:30 pm. I was right, though, in believing that the fundamental political differences that prevented the fifth MPP meeting from reaching consensus on Action Lines C5, C8 and C9 would also be difficult to overcome in the sixth meeting.

Activities between the fifth and sixth MPP meetings

On the morning before the sixth MPP meeting began, the word in the corridors was that a series of bilateral meetings had resulted in all States agreeing to accept UNESCO’s compromise text on Action Line 9, Media. That agreement was said to have included even the States from the fifth MPP meeting that had been reluctant to accept language about freedom of expression (without mentioning “responsibilities”), a reference to new types of media production (the argument being that “bloggers” and “social media producers” have not been formally recognized media types in any UN resolutions), and gender equality (facepalm, facepalm, facepalm). The pre-meetings also included States that wanted more vigorous language about freedom of expression and protecting the safety of journalists and that didn’t want to add “and men” to text about encouraging equal opportunities and the active participation of women in the media.

UNESCO’s proposed compromise text is included below:

“Media will benefit from the broader and expanded role of ICTs that can enhance media’s contribution to fulfilling the post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda.

The right of freedom of expression, as described in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is essential for media’s role in information and knowledge societies.

  • Recall the Geneva Declaration of Principles, para 55, which describes the role of media in the Information Society;
  • Affirm that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, and that this is applicable to media on all platforms;
  • Encourage equal opportunities for men and women in media;
  • Promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists and media workers, and facilitate the implementation of the UN Plan of action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.”

Notice that it talks about human rights (pleasing one group of MPP participants) while it also adds “and men” to text that was originally about women (pleasing another group of participants). As Russia subsequently stated in the sixth MPP meeting, the text wasn’t completely to their liking, but they were aware that everyone would be compromising on an “equally unhappy basis”.

The series of negotiations between the announcement of the sixth MPP meeting and the meeting itself did not appear to include any non-government stakeholders. Instead, it appears that it was hoped that if governments could be persuaded to accept the UNESCO text, then other stakeholder groups would as well.[1]

Discussions during the sixth MPP meeting

Unfortunately, when the sixth MPP started, the pre-meeting efforts to get all governments to agree to the UNESCO text didn’t work out quite as planned.

Many of the States said that, while they weren’t particularly happy with the UNESOC text and didn’t think it went far enough in protecting freedom of expression, etc., they could accept the text in the spirit of compromise. Even Russia and Cuba, which had both been opposed to various bits of the previous versions of the text during the fifth MPP meeting, were resigned to accepting the UNESCO compromise text. Iran, however, was not.

Corridor whispers had suggested that Iran had agreed to the compromise text in the private negotiations before the sixth MPP meeting, but in the meeting, Iran stated that they could not accept the text as it stood. While they were willing to be very flexible and accept human rights-related language in C9—at a previous meeting they had accepted human rights language in the preamble as a compromise solution to prevent human rights appearing within individual Action Lines—they needed to some adjustments to the language to make it clearer.

In response, a number of States, including Sweden, USA, and the European Union, stated that for them, the UNESCO text was the lowest common denominator text that they could possibly accept and that the only way they could continue to accept it was if there was not a single change to the text. Many representatives from civil society and business organizations also stated that they could not accept any changes to the UNESCO text, which many felt was already considerably diluted when compared to earlier pro-freedom of expression, pro-equal gender rights proposed texts.

Iran, which clearly viewed the human rights text in Action Lines C9 to be of significant concern, had brought its Geneva-based Ambassador to the meeting. Iran made it clear that it had a “red line” in its instructions from capital that it was not able to cross, but that it was willing to engage in more collaborative drafting at the MPP to find text that was agreeable to all. Iran had prepared some revised text for discussion in the meeting.

However, a number of other States were very reluctant to go down this path. Various participants proposed that as it was abundantly clear that there wasn’t any room left for finding further compromise, the meeting should end immediately and maintain the agreement made at the fifth MPP meeting: that none of the Action Lines text should appear in the final version of the WSIS+10 Vision statement.

Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan all expressed support for listening to Iran’s request to continue discussions on C9, stating that even if as individual States, they could accept the UNESCO text, if another State—Iran—had problems with it, the meeting should listen to that State’s concerns. Notice that the language used by these four States was suggesting a reversion to an intergovernmental mentality. It wasn’t about “if one participant [in this multistakeholder process] has concerns, the rest of the participants should listen”. It was about “if one government has concerns, the rest of the governments should listen”. I suspect this was happening for three reasons:

  1. The majority of States not wanting to re-open drafting on C9 were developed countries and not part of the G77 family. In contrast, Iran was. There was therefore some geopolitics at play, with G77 States supporting Iran as an act of solidarity, even if they didn’t agree with Iran’s position.
  2. For States that prefer a more intergovernmental model, it was somewhat offensive to have non-government stakeholders say that they opposed the request of a State to reopen negotiations.
  3. Sri Lanka and Pakistan, who don’t seem to have been at the last MPP—or if they were there, they didn’t say anything—weren’t aware quite how difficult the debate was over the four days of the fifth MPP meeting and therefore weren’t aware how infinitesimally small the chance was of making any progress in only a few hours at the sixth MPP.

Iran tried many, many times to re-open the drafting on C9, but without success. Officially, there was opposition based on the fact that re-opening drafting wasn’t likely to bridge a gap between positions. Unofficially, though, I suspect that many were opposing even looking at Iran’s proposed amendments partly in response to the fact that Iran (along with some other States, including Cuba and Saudi Arabia) refused to allow the “UK+friends” compromise text to be presented at the fifth MPP.[2]

The MPP Chair, Prof. Minkin, suggested that given the positions in the room, there really wasn’t any point continuing the debate on C9. China asked if it was possible to park C9 for the moment and go back to the other non-consensus Action Lines (C5 and C8) to see if consensus could at least be reached on those items. The Chair said that it was possible to spend a couple of hours on C5 and C8, but eventually the meeting would have to tackle C9 again, and at that point, the same debate would be recycled all over again.

Iran asked if other participants could possibly accept the remainder of the Action Lines text being included in the final version of the Vision statement while the non-consensus C9 was kept out. But the general response in the room was “No”. All Action Lines needed to have consensus text, or none of the Action Lines could be included.

The outcome of the sixth MPP meeting

Ultimately, the 2.5 hours of discussion in the sixth MPP meeting didn’t change any of the decisions (or non-decisions) made at the fifth MPP meeting:

WSIS+10 Statement on the Implementation of the WSIS Outcomes

There is consensus on all text in the draft. All text goes forward to the High Level Event for endorsement. The final version of the document is available here.

WSIS+10 Vision for WSIS Beyond 2015

There is consensus on:

  • Part A, Preamble
  • Part B, Priority areas to be addressed in the implementation of WSIS Beyond

Parts A and B of the Vision document go forward to the High Level Event for endorsement. The final version of the document is available here.

Part C, Action Lines, does not go forward to the High Level Event for endorsement, but instead appears in the Chair’s report of the MPP process. The following Action Lines reached consensus as standalone text blocks, but due to the non-consensus on three other Action Lines (more on these after the following list), none of these texts appear in the final version of the Vision document:

  • С1. The role of public governance authorities and all stakeholders in the promotion of ICTs for development
  • С2. Information and communication infrastructure
  • С3. Access to information and knowledge
  • C4. Capacity building
  • C6. Enabling environment
  • C7. ICT applications: benefits in all aspects of life, including sub-sections on:
  • E-government
  • E-business
  • E-learning
  • E-health
  • E-Employment
  • E-environment
  • E-agriculture
  • E-science
  • C10. Ethical Dimensions of the Information Society
  • C11. International and Regional Cooperation

The three Action Lines that didn’t reach consensus were:

  • С5. Building confidence and security in the use of ICTs
  • C8. Cultural Diversity and identity, linguistic diversity and local content
  • C9. Media

There was consensus on substantial parts of C5 and C8, but there was absolutely no consensus on any text on C9. For background on why there was no consensus, see What’s going on with WSIS+10? Part 1: Some context.

In addition, there was no consensus on four paragraphs of the final section of Part 3:

  • Section III, Action Lines beyond 2015: Looking to the Future

MPP-related negotiations continue through HLE’s first days

Corridor whispers at the start of the first day of the High Level Event suggested that ITU Secretary-General Toure had been making a last ditch effort to encourage Iran to agree to UNESCO’s C9 text in the hope that Part C of the Vision document could also be presented to the HLE.

It’s not clear how Toure was planning to deal with the remaining non-consensus items of Action Lines C5 and C8. Perhaps he was hoping to approach all MPP participants after getting Iran to accept C9, and encourage everyone to agree to remove all the non-consensus paragraphs. However, I doubt that would be a particularly easy task to achieve, given negotiations would now need to include anyone and everyone at the HLE who is interested in the Action Lines: the number of people at the HLE vastly outnumbers the small number of States and non-governmental entities that attended the MPP meetings.

Whatever Toure’s plans may have been, on HLE Day 1, Iran seems to have made it very clear that it had no intention of accepting UNESCO’s C9 text when it called for an immediate end to the misuse of media and the media’s distribution of discriminatory information. It did this while reading out a Policy Statement on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It is unclear whether the other NAM States had developed the Policy Statement as a consensus speech, or whether it was being delivered by Iran on behalf of all NAM States.

Other States and non-government stakeholders also made Policy Statements that expressed their support for the documents developed through the MPP and, quite frequently, their frustration with the lack of consensus on Action Line C9. My favourite was from Sweden, which included a reference to bloggers. Given Cuba had been strongly opposed to any reference to “bloggers” in C9, Media, during the fifth MPP meeting, whether intended or not, Sweden’s reference to bloggers seemed to be a high level underlining of their support for the text that Cuba had opposed.

We mustn’t forget that this is Toure’s last year as Secretary-General of the ITU, and he, no doubt, would like to end his time in the role on a high, with all ITU-coordinated and ITU-hosted meetings being seen as outstanding successes. But just as the best behind-the-scenes efforts of ITU staff were unable to encourage a number of States to sign the revised International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) at WCIT a couple of years ago, it may not be possible to push a sovereign State at this meeting to cross a “red line” that it has repeatedly made clear it cannot cross. Alternatively, it might be possible that multilateral negotation techniques come into their own at this point, and Iran can accept crossing that C9 red line in return for getting something it wants in some other, non-MPP, non-HLE arena. Recalling Brazil’s Policy Statement from yesterday, it very much can be possible for multistakeholder and multilateral processes to co-exist. Whether they should co-exist within a single process is perhaps less clear.

A final note

Yes, Iran was the only party at the sixth MPP that could not accept the UNESCO C9 text. We should not assume, though, that by preventing consensus on C9, Iran was and is being a recalcitrant State. A lot of States weren’t at the sixth MPP meeting. Or at any of the MPP meetings. It is quite possible that other States would support Iran’s position on C9.

To flip the situation around for a moment, we shouldn’t forget that many of the States supporting the UNESCO C9 text—and earlier stronger text—are the same States that were in Iran’s position during the WCIT. At WCIT, the USA, Sweden, UK and others were the minority view and were being strongly criticized by the majority of developing States wanting unanimous signing of the ITRs. Sticking to principles and preventing consensus in the process works both ways. Sometimes we may agree with the minority and other times not. Demonizing the minority view may make people feel better in the moment, but in the long term, it’s more constructive to understand that minority’s view in the hope that consensus can be reached at some future time.

[1] I am not sure that having a series of private governmental negotiations in the lead-up to the final meeting of a multistakeholder process was in keeping with the spirit of multistakeholderism. The desire to have side discussions is not the problem: often the only way forward from a public stand-off in a meeting is to privately take aside those with the strongest opinions and hope they will be more candid and reveal what compromises they’re really willing to accept.

If the private meetings had involved the loudest voices on Action Line C9 from the fifth MPP, it would have included non-government voices, such as Richard Hill from civil society and Nick Ashton-Hart from the business sector. By not including non-government participants who clearly expressed strong views on Action Line C9, the last-minute negotiations seem to have made an unfortunate step backward into more intergovernmental negotiation practices. I’m a little surprised that the ITU Secretariat, which has been making a lot of efforts to present itself as a multistakeholder-friendly organization, would not have seen the danger in allowing this to occur. Or was everyone so desperate to make the MPP reach consensus in the short-term that longer-term goals were forgotten in the moment?

[2] While a tit-for-tat approach may sound like a petty reason to object to a State’s proposal, it demonstrates the fundamental importance that trust and respect, and the loss of that trust and respect, plays in difficult negotiations. During the last day of the fifth MPP, the UK had developed its UK+friends compromise text with an honest hope it had crafted it in a way that Iran and some of the other States would be able to accept. However, Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia had refused to even allow the UK+friends text to even appear on screen at the fifth MPP. So at the sixth MPP, with many in the room having heard that Iran had agreed to accept the UNESCO text in informal negotiations, it was probably a genuine shock to hear that Iran wasn’t accepting the UNESCO text in its current form. It appeared that Iran wasn’t playing nicely, and given Iran hadn’t played nicely at the fifth MPP when UK+friends had tried to suggest a compromise text as a way forward, there was no way that Iran’s compromise text would be accepted for discussion in the room. In short, many of the other participants in the sixth MPP were highly suspicious about the motives of Iran in wanting to reopen the drafting on Action Line C9. If Iran hasn’t participated in the blocking of discussion of the UK+friends text, but had allowed it to be presented and then stated that they didn’t support it, I suspect that there may not have been such strong opposition to Iran’s text. But in refusing to engage with that UK+friends compromise proposal in any way, it set the scene for the UK+friends to respond similarly when Iran wanted to suggest its own compromise proposal.

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