The endorsement of the WSIS+10 Vision document

The two WSIS+10 High Level Event (HLE) outcome documents were applauded in the room in Geneva at about 5:30 pm on the second, and last, day of the High Level Event.

ITU Secretary-General, Dr Toure, stated:[1]

“I would like to congratulate all of you on this great achievement. We have just endorsed the two outcome documents reaching consensus by unanimity, in the presence of more than 1,600 stakeholders present here at the WSIS+10 High Level Event, and many, many more thousands of people online.”

The Chair of the MPP process, Prof. Minkin, stated:

“Distinguished colleagues, this is truly an important event, the fact that we were able today to approve everything that we worked on over the past… let’s say… almost entire year. This is the fruit of our work. We worked together as friends.”

The Chair of the HLE, Mr Helmy, stated:

“With my friend and brother, Dr Toure, I can now announce officially that these documents are adopted. And therefore, we complete our conference with full success.”

The final session was full of governments and representatives of intergovernmental organizations taking turns thanking and congratulating each other and saying how successful the process to develop and approve the two documents had been.

The final Vision document includes the Action Lines section, so as well as the rather out-of-date Action Lines text from the original WSIS process (10 years is a long time for the world of ICTs), we now have an updated version.

Unlike the version that came out of the MPP process, the version adopted by acclamation yesterday includes more than one reference to human rights (it appears in both the preamble and Action Line C9). The non-consensus parts of Action Line C5 were gone (the MPP participants were stuck over whether to include a reference to cybercrime and whether non-government stakeholders should be added in text promoting greater cooperation between governments to enhance user confidence in ICTs and address ICT security issues). Text recognizing the need to advance gender equality perspectives was back in.

From sixth MPP version of the Vision document to adopted version of Vision document

I’ve previously described what happened between the end of the sixth MPP meeting and the end of Day 1 of the High Level Event. In summary, after the sixth MPP meeting ended on Monday 9 June and throughout 10 June, Toure had been doing the rounds behind the scenes, trying to overcome the major hurdle that had been preventing consensus in the MPP meetings: the text of Action Line C9. He had been working hard to get Iran to remove their objection to the human rights text in Action Line C9. With this barrier removed, Toure apparently hoped that the remaining items of non-consensus could easily be overcome by deleting the non-consensus text in Action Lines C5 and C8 and by removing the square brackets (which denote non-consensus) on the four paragraphs in Section III, Action Lines beyond 2015: Looking to the Future.

On the morning of Day 2 of the HLE (11 June) the Chair of the MPP process, Prof. Minkin, and the Chair of the HLE itself, Mr Helmy, were also visibly approaching governments at the HLE, attempting to encourage them to accept a version of the Vision document that deleted non-consensus items in C5 and C8 and included the non-consensus items in Section III. Some non-government stakeholders were also approached, but equally, many of the non-government stakeholders who’d been in the fifth and sixth MPP meetings were not approached.

Surprise! A new version of the Vision document, folks

At quarter to twelve on Day 2, just before the morning’s session of High-Level Policy Statements ended, Toure spoke:[2]

“I [would like to] inform you that the final document [the Vision document] that we are trying to negotiate here, to be sure that everyone is comfortable with it, is going to be available on the web and will be sent through the Flash so that everyone sees it. We don’t want to rush anybody. And, therefore, I wanted people to see it between now and five o’clock, when we are resuming in the plenary to look at that document.

[…] We’ll go by the normal ITU rules—which is everybody equally happy or everybody equally unhappy—but I hope that we will make compromises. Here you might not see everything you want, but I hope you will see things you can live with and things that will help other new generations to come.

[…] You have had a lot of discussions on these issues and, of course, we will not reopen those negotiations [this afternoon].

[…] The meeting that we have in the afternoon, the sessions are not sessions for debating. Those are different things that we will hope that people will cross-fertilize more again so that all voices be heard and all opinions be heard and that when we talk and we see where everyone is coming from, we may be able to understand why we are doing so. In the tradition of ITU, we try not to make this place a battleground but rather a place where we can have peaceful understanding and move humanity in a better way.”

The copy of the revised Vision document, labeled Proposal by Chairman of WSIS+10 High-Level Event (11 June), was posted to the website within half an hour of the session ending and arrived in my inbox about half an hour after that. To check what changes there were from the MPP-agreed document, I created an annotated copy available here.

Let’s clap this thing into existence, shall we?

At just before 5:30 pm, the Concluding Session of WSIS+10 High-Level Policy Statements and Endorsement of the WSIS+10 Outcome Documents by Acclamation began. Toure gave an explanation of how the revised version of the Vision came to be:

“This is the last plenary session, and we wanted to get the documents […] approved here in this session. As Mr. Chairman said, we have posted the [Vision] document this morning at 12 noon, […] to give a chance to everyone to look at it and be comfortable.

There were a few areas of discomfort among members and we tried to iron out all the differences. So the text that you have here was the final text that was then agreed among many members. Since I was not able to physically reach out to everyone, I have asked my officials to help me consult with some of you, and also wait for anyone who would have any problem with the document.

This is an almost consensus document. I want to do it in the true tradition of ITU, where we come together and agree without voting. Without winners. Without losers. We call it “everybody equally happy”, or “everybody equally unhappy”.

[…] We try to be as open and transparent as possible. It is not a perfect document, because […] when you are negotiating, you give some, you lose some. And we want the lowest common denominator. That is the facts of life. I would like to thank all of the administrations who have a very actively contributed into this making it a real document that I think they can live for some time and can give future generations some products that they can rule with.

We had a number of negotiations. The last negotiations were on the action lines, C5, C9, C3, C8. We have decided to take out… to leave out… all other points of disagreement. And what we have here are things that we agree on. It doesn’t mean that there are things that each party wouldn’t want to see here. There are some […] things that anybody would want to see added there, but still… since these are points of still [unfinished] discussions, we prefer to go by this way.

[…] I want to present this document, Chairman, as a whole. I’m not going to run into asking to be done by acclamation, before… If anyone has any strong concern, express it. We don’t do that—make it a fait accompli and then we leave some people unhappy. So I don’t want that to happen. This is a serious business. We all came for that. We are not alone. We are here. There are thousands of people on the web that are looking into this as well, with us, and they are part and parcel of this […] We have constituencies back home that we are going to be accountable to. […] And they are watching over this as well.

It’s an important matter and that is why we have to take it very seriously and not rush it. So I present this, Mr. Chairman, a document as a whole. If there are any questions, do it before we proceed for a formal approval of it. I will be ready to answer.

[…] I’m lucky because, most of the time, I come to the discussions when all the parties are tired. So at the end of the day, they say “Yes, Hamadoun, yes, we agree,” and just take it. I don’t want to do that. Really I want to give the credit back to all of the people who have enriched this document, because every single word has been weighted, just like we did during the WSIS process.”

It was then time for those on the floor to speak. Iran was the first and only speaker from the floor:

“Although Iran was not comfortable with the language of the text… but for the sake of compromise, I would like to show our flexibility in this regard.”

And with that, the single source of objection to UNESCO’s proposed text for Action Line C9 was removed. The Chair of the HLE immediately requested participants to endorse both of the following documents:

There was applause in the room: both documents were endorsed. The final approved versions are now available as a single PDF document, WSIS Outcome Documents: Geneva 2014.

Phew! We got it through…

Toure then spoke again, telling everyone how relieved he was that the new version of the Vision document had passed:

“I was telling the Minister [and Chair of the HLE] that I was praying all day, all morning, this morning, and I was telling everyone, “Keep your fingers crossed and, if you can, even the legs under the table,” so that we can have something. I was keeping even the toes in my shoes crossed, so that I make sure something happens. And really you made my day. Let me again take the opportunity to thank Prof. Minkin and his team. It is true dedication that he has shown on this effort for many years. I take the opportunity to really, really thank our other two Vice-Chairs of this conference, who used their diplomacy and their know-how […] in dealing with the WSIS preparatory process. I can’t thank enough all of the delegations who have been involved. They have been very kind to us.

[…] There is no time to make any enemies. We are all friends. We have shown that spirit here. And that spirit should continue. I’m proud to be leading the union, the ITU, with that kind of spirit of cooperation among all the member states. This is a technical organization. We have been able to work together over for 149 years in that spirit. And the spirit is still alive. You have demonstrated that here again. Because we are, here, not only ITU’s usual constituency, it’s beyond. ITU and beyond. That is really great. I would like to thank you all. Thank you very much again.”

The Deputy Director General of UNESCO, Mr Engida, then spoke briefly:

“UNESCO is extremely pleased that we can reach consensus on some of the contentious issues. We have got a document in front of us. I think what lies ahead of us is a challenge. And that challenge is to put all these words into practice. UNESCO certainly will accompany most of you in this exercise.”

Then the HLE Vice-Chairs spoke. First, Mr Samassékou. Then Mr. Karklins. Karklins was the first and only person in the session to use the word “multistakeholder”:

“Congratulations to all of us for reaching the consensual agreement on two outcome documents. Let me speak with my hat of the former Chairman of the preparatory committee of the Tunis Phase of the World Summit, where decisions on the follow-up and review were taken. The […] distinctive feature of the WSIS process is in its multistakeholder character. […] Not only in implementation—working together, delivering on promises and decisions of the WSIS—but also multistakeholder engagement in defining next steps, what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and how obstacles may be overcome.

It just proves that multistakeholder engagement works. It works on all levels. And we should not be afraid of it. It has proven its ability to produce results on occasion of the first review event, which was organized in February 2013, that resulted with a consensual final statement. It’s proven itself today, when the decision was made by consensus in multistakeholder engagement.

And as former chair of the Tunis Phase of the platform, where follow-up mechanisms were defined, I would really invite all governmental delegations to pass the spirit of this multistakeholder engagement to New York, where decisions on the final modalities [of the overall review of WSIS] need to be taken and a review needs to be conducted by the United Nations General Assembly. Tell them that multistakeholder model works and this is very beneficial for everybody.”

The MPP Chair, Prof. Minkin then spoke. Then Switzerland as host country of the HLE.

Then Toure again. This time naming and thanking a long list of UN agencies also involved in the HLE, as well as some of the key elected officials of ITU.

Toure presented ITU medals to the Chairs of the HLE and MPP.[3]

The Chair of the HLE spoke a bit more, and then the session was over at 6:15 pm. The whole thing had taken only 45 minutes from the time it began to the time it was over.

But what does it all mean?

Despite all the glowing statements by UN agencies and Chairs and Vice Chairs about how successful the development of the outcome documents was, I feel very uneasy about the way the Vision document “reached consensus”. I understand the motivation of all those who pushed so hard to get that last-minute consensus so the meeting could be considered a “full success”. However, I’m rather worried that by resorting to the informal, undocumented and more multilateral techniques to “fix” the non-consensus items, it sets a worrying precedent for multistakeholder processes in intergovernmental settings.

The MPP may not have been perfect, but if 15 days of tought discussions between many stakeholders—both governmental and non-governmental—was unable to reach consensus, was it really better to do hard and non-transparent lobbying over a day and a half to push for agreement than just to accept that the issues need further work and may need to be parked for now?

Part of the problem with doing “multistakeholder” in (what is traditionally) an intergovernmental setting is that there are hard and fast deadlines for reaching consensus. There is a need to produce outcome documents from meetings.

In contrast, multistakeholder processes in the Internet world have historically not been up against hard deadlines. The processes take as long as they take. Even if it takes years to reach consensus on anything. Even if people get very frustrated with how long it can take.

Transplanting this way of working into an environment that requires a glossy printed outcome document by the end of a meeting seems to be risking some of the mechanisms and principles of the more open-ended multistakeholder model.

How do you successfully navigate the choppy waters between bottom-up multistakeholder processes and top-down, timeline-driven intergovernmental environments? To be honest, I haven’t got a clue. They can co-exist welll… until a hard deadline looms.

In my next post, I’ll look at some other cases where similar multistakeholder/intergovernmental collisions have occurred. Stay tuned.

[1] I’ve included a lot of direct statements made by officials during the meeting. I’ve done this, rather than summarized the essence of what they said, because I didn’t want to inadvertently colour their statements with my own views of what happened.

[2] I have truncated the speeches by Toure (and later Karklins), as denoted by use of “[…]”. I’ve done this for two reasons:

  • I’ve removed the boring bits (when people aren’t speaking from notes, they can restate themselves and waffle a bit)
  • I’ve removed a lot of the half spoken thoughts and repetition of words that occur when people speak out loud

Where it seemed to be useful, I’ve also added words inside square brackets where it seemed useful to clarify the speaker’s statement.

[3] I thought the awarding of ITU medals was rather incongruous, given the event was coordinated by ITU, and not an ITU event. With all the mentions of the “ITU way of doing things” in the session, it’s no wonder so many people think the HLE is an ITU event. All those efforts over the past few months by ITU to stress that the HLE was a UN-wide event have largely been defeated by so many references to ITU-specific processes during the event.

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.

What’s going on with WSIS+10? Part 2: The upcoming HLE and yet another MPP

[Part 1 of this two-part post is here]

A sixth MPP is now happening

As far as I understood it, the May Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) meeting ended with no agreement to have a future MPP meeting the day before the WSIS+10 High Level Event (HLE) itself. The Chair did remark that he would be available to discuss the remaining bracketed text on 9 June, but people in the room interpreted it as a joke and laughed. The Chair certainly didn’t try to correct people’s interpretation.

But on Tuesday 3 June, two days after the fifth MPP meeting ended in the small hours of Sunday 1 June, an invitation went out inviting people to attend a—surprise!—sixth MPP meeting. The letter, signed by ITU Secretary-General Dr Touré, invited people to an afternoon session to continue the work of the MPP.[1]

I suspect, however, that the sixth MPP meeting could be difficult for a number of reasons:

  • If a total of 15 days of negotiation across five separate MPP meetings couldn’t achieve consensus, the extra scheduled four hours of discussion on 9 June isn’t likely to make much difference either. The sixth MPP will probably go well into the night, and possibly into the early hours of 10 June too, in an attempt to reach agreement on fundamental ideological differences on issues that realistically can’t be solved in a meeting about ICTs.
  • For HLE participants who hadn’t planned on being in Geneva for the day of pre-events on 9 June, there has really been far too little notice to change travel plans to be able to attend the MPP (hotel availability in Geneva is a particularly difficult issue to overcome at short notice).
  • To make matters more difficult, 9 June is a national holiday in Switzerland (Whit Monday), meaning that most Geneva-based staff at missions and UN agencies will have to sacrifice yet another day of leave (the third in less than two weeks) to attend a WSIS+10 HLE MPP meeting.
  • Some participants have suggested that they are reluctant to engage, believing that:
    • The meeting itself should never have been called, given the fact that there had been no clear consensus in the fifth MPP to hold another meeting.
    • The 1 June version of the #WSIS+10 Vision draft document does not accurately reflect what many consider to be the status of discussions at the end of the fifth MPP about what should stay in the Vision draft and what should move to a Chair’s report.

So given these issues, why would the ITU (and possibly the other UN agencies, too) and Chair of the MPP process decide to hold this meeting? Here are some thoughts:

  • There is a desire to have that attractive “100% consensus” stamp on all aspects of the HLE outcome documents that will be presented for the government ministers at the HLE to endorse (everyone wants to look good in front of the boss, after all). To try and get the last 5% agreed to, it was worth having one last ditch effort just before the ministers arrive to endorse the outcome documents.
  • ITU, in particular, has invested a lot of time and effort in promoting this multistakeholder process as a sign that it really is embracing the new era of open, transparent and responsive governance.
  • The Chair has also invested a lot in the process. States put a lot of effort into promoting their delegates to be Chairs of various international processes. If the process isn’t seen as a success, the State whose representative chaired the process may feel that they have been humiliated in front of their fellow States.

However, as quite a few participants at the end of the fifth MPP had pointed out, although there were still some clear areas of disagreement, on the whole, there had been a great achievement in reaching consensus on the vast majority of issues in the WSIS+10 Vision draft. The remaining areas of disagreement weren’t the result of failure of process, but were the result of fundamental political differences that go well beyond the narrower scope of ICTs and the Information Society. In the end, if the sixth MPP fails in its efforts to breach the current impasse on the remaining Action Lines text, then perhaps the HLE will choose to spin the outcomes of the MPP in precisely this way: as a successful process for negotiating consensus on a large number of issues, with agreement to disagree on a small number of topics that really need to be discussed in more issue-specific venues.

I suspect some governments were hoping/are hoping to be able to leverage various parts of the WSIS+10 HLE outcome documents to help support their views on what the final UN-wide review of WSIS+10 planned for 2015 should look like and discuss.[2]

But to be honest, given the way discussions have taken place in the past five MPP meetings, with some attempts to roll back to earlier negotiated texts (such as the Geneva Plan of Action) when those documents had been superseded by more recent texts (such as the Tunis Agenda), I suspect that the any future WSIS related events—including the 2015 final review—will also contain a bunch of governments wanting to pick and choose from whichever document texts best suit their views.

Whether governments get what they want from the remaining non-consensus sections of the WSIS+10 Vision document or not, they will continue to pursue their larger political goals at future meetings. If anyone tries to suggest that it’s the multistakeholder model that caused “failure”, or “unreasonable” behaviour by other delegates, then it’s just ignoring the larger reality of the situation: with the best intentions in the world, it is never going to be possible for a bunch of medium to low level diplomats and non-government stakeholders, in a meeting that really is only a small event when considered in the context of wider world politics, to find solutions to decades-long ideological impasses.

[1] Unfortunately, there was a bit of a mix-up with time, so the Touré-signed PDF invitation said “14:00-16:00” while the HTML web page said “14:00-18:00”. (This is a reason why you should never convene a new meeting with  so little time it’s difficult to double check that all your communications are in sync with each other.) A corrected invitation has now been emailed out.

[2] The format of the final UN-wide review of WSIS+10 in 2015 was so contentious at the 2013 UN General Assembly Second Committee’s drafting of the ICTs for Development resolution that they simply couldn’t reach agreement on what form it should take. Instead, they agreed to hold a series of informal consultations that were supposed to finalize the event’s modalities by the end of March 2014. That date came and went. At the 17th CSTD Session in mid-May, it was reported that the consultations should lead to agreement amongst States by the end of May. There were consultations in New York on 23 May, but so far, there haven’t been any signs of white smoke indicating a final set of modalities has reached consensus.

What’s going on with WSIS+10? Part 1: Some context

WSIS+10 High Level Event

Next week, the WSIS+10 High Level Event (HLE), coordinated by the ITU, will be held in Geneva as an extended version of the annual WSIS Forum. The WSIS+10 HLE began its life as an ITU-specific initiative, but mirroring the creation of the initial WSIS process,[1] the WSIS+10 HLE had subsequently become part of the larger UN-wide process to conduct a 10-year review of WSIS.

Originally, the HLE was supposed to take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, 13-17 April 2014. But due to ongoing uncertainty about the political situation in Egypt, it was decided to move the HLE to Geneva, where WSIS Forums are usually held. Along with the change of venue, there would also need to be a change of dates. At first, it was thought that the meeting might be pushed to the end of 2014, but eventually, it was announced that the HLE would be held 10-13 June, with pre-events (a bit like the IGF “Day 0”) on 9 June.

Two outcome documents will be endorsed at the HLE:

  • WSIS+10 Statement on the Implementation of the WSIS Outcomes
  • WSIS+10 Vision for WSIS Beyond 2015

A bit of background on preparations for the High Level Event

The work to develop the two documents to be endorsed at the HLE began back in July 2013, when all stakeholders were invited to submit contributions to the draft versions of these documents. Originally, there were only three meetings planned for the Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) that would develop consensus versions of the two outcome documents:

  • 7-8 October 2013
  • 16-18 December 2013
  • 17-18 February 2014

However, as these meetings progressed, it became clear that there was no way that the contents of the outcome documents would reach consensus within the combined total of seven days of the three meetings. Given the change of dates for the HLE itself, it became possible to add some more MPP meetings. So an additional two, longer, meetings were added:

  • 14-17 April 2014
  • 28-31 May 2014

The second additional MPP was supposed to be held in Sharm el-Sheikh. This was no doubt a kind of diplomatic consolation prize to Egypt: while it wasn’t possible to risk the security of a bunch of government ministers at a Sharm-based HLE, sending the lower level folks who attend MPP meetings was more a more acceptable risk.

The April MPP meeting was just before the high-profile NETmundial meeting so didn’t perhaps get the attention it really deserved from non-government stakeholders in the world of Internet governance. At the beginning of the April MPP, there was optimism that the May meeting wouldn’t be needed. However, it was clear as the meeting went on that the May meeting would most definitely be needed. But not in Sharm el-Sheikh as earlier announced. No. It would be held in—no surprises here—Geneva. (Because reasonably-priced hotel rooms in Geneva in May are so very easy to find… Not.)

Changing forms of interaction at the MPPs

The dynamic of the MPPs seemed to change over time to subtly favour the use of more intergovernmental negotiation tactics. The MPPs have certainly been very different in tone—increasingly so over time—from other multistakeholder processes such as the earlier ITU WTPF Informal Expert Group (IEG) meetings and the UNESCO-hosted WSIS+10 Review Event in 2013. I suspect this is may have happened for a couple of reasons:

  • Fewer non-government participants seem to have attended as the calendar of meetings continued. For governments with missions in Geneva, it’s been relatively easy to have mission-based staff pop down the road to attend additional MPPs as they have occurred. For non-government participants, however, it is difficult to find the funding to fly around the world to attend meetings that haven’t been budgeted for. It’s also hard to justify spending funds on attending meetings where progress has been very slow. Yes, remote participation has been an option, but it’s no substitute for onsite participation, where people making interventions from the floor can continue to engage in realtime discussions with the Chair and other participants. In contrast, remote participants generally have had their interventions read out, are thanked, then the onsite participants move on and the remote interventions are pretty much left behind. Remote participants are also unable to participate in the informal negotiations and discussions that happen outside formal plenary sessions. I should point out that these remote participation problems are not solely the problem of MPP meetings. They’re experienced in a multitude of other forums that also use remote participation mechanisms.
  • As it’s become clearer that the UN-wide final review of WSIS+10 in 2015 is extremely unlikely to result in a complete rewriting of the WSIS goals, the outcome documents of the HLE have taken on more significance. For those reasonably happy with the Tunis Agenda—with its endorsement of multistakeholder participation, even if it contains some ongoing minefields such as “enhanced cooperation”—the fact that 2015 won’t rewrite the way forward for ICTs isn’t a problem. But for those who are unhappy with the implementation of WSIS goals over the past decade, the HLE documents have now become the possibly only way to induce changes to the direction of WSIS over the next decade.

There had also been an attempt to remove some of the heat from the MPP negotiations by removing any discussion of Internet governance issues, including any reference to “enhanced cooperation”, even if it wasn’t in relation to Internet governance. But it didn’t substantially speed up the overall process of negotiation.

By the April MPP, the majority of interventions were from government representatives rather than non-government stakeholders. Partially this was a reflection of the fact that more government folks seemed to be at the meeting, as noted above, but it was also a reflection of the fact a few number of government representatives dominated the floor so very much that most of the non-government representatives largely disengaged from the process. A few non-government folk decided to fight fire with fire, and raise their flag as much as some of their more garrulous counterparts in government. A risk of doing that, however, was that it could reinforce the belief of governments suspicious of multistakeholder processes that it non-government obstructiveness was responsible for the failure to reach compromise.[2]

Some very well used intergovernmental negotiating techniques have been invoked in recent MPPs:

  • Putting square brackets around text that is proving difficult to reach consensus on. Using the “Australian method,” any text still left in square brackets at the end of the meeting will be deleted entirely. From my entirely subjective observations of the meetings, it seemed that some governments have insisted on square-bracketing text far more than others. In particular, it was the representatives of governments more likely to prefer multilateral negotiations who have invoked this method the most. The government representatives more used to working in multistakeholder environments have been more likely to want to keep working on the text until a compromise was reached.
  • Package deals: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Once again, this seemed to be a technique used by multilateral-leaning government representatives. Given some of the topics under discussion are fairly non-controversial, but others are highly controversial, this technique is a good way to ensure that you can hold the entire document hostage—if needed—on a topic you really, really don’t want the other side of the argument to “win”. If you tried this technique in a multistakeholder Internet governance process, you’d be considered to be a pretty ” bad faith” participant. But in intergovernmental processes, where people are often playing for high stakes, this is more grudgingly accepted, if not embraced by all.
  • Weasel words. More diplomatically called “qualifiers”, weasel words that keep being suggested include:
    • “As appropriate”
    • “In their respective roles and responsibilities”
    • “Inter alia”
    • Adding “and responsibilities” to references to “rights”
  • Reverting to “previously agreed language”. “Previously agreed language” from ITU and UN-related resolutions, that is. Which is why the Tunis Agenda and Geneva Plan of Action were so very much referred to in the meetings.[3]


The participants of the fifth MPP meeting worked through a public holiday in Geneva (Ascension Day on 29 May) as well as a full Saturday session that finally ended during the first hour of the morning of Sunday 1 June. And yet the participants still didn’t reach consensus on all elements of the draft WSIS+10 Vision document.

Major sticking points during the meeting weren’t about ICTs themselves, but about fundamental ideological differences on the following issues:

  • Freedom of expression
  • The role of States (“governance” versus traditional “government”)
  • Gender equality
  • ICTs and security issues

Freedom of expression disagreements, in particular, played out in discussions on WSIS Action Line C9, Media. Proposed text about protecting the safety of journalists—taking into account the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights—was met with a counter-proposal to add text stating that it must be ensured that journalists behaved responsibly as well. The counter-argument to this counter-argument was that while the ethical responsibilities of journalists was something that could be considered, it had absolutely no place in a paragraph about the safety of journalists as it suggested that it was okay for journalists deemed to be “irresponsible” to be killed. Also, not related to the freedom of expression issue, but “bloggers” and “social media producers” turned out to be a highly contentious terms in the C9 Action Line. An attempt at compromise (a large number of delegations had supported the compromises text) wasn’t even allowed to be read at the meeting, as some government representatives strongly objected to new text being suggested very late on a Saturday night, well after the meeting should have ended.

“Governance versus governments” played out in the title of Action Line C1. In the 2003 Geneva Plan of Action, C1 had the title of “The role of governments and all stakeholders in the promotion of ICTs for development”. Two years later, the 2005 Tunis Agenda, which was approved by heads of state, changed the title to “The role of public governance authorities and all stakeholders in the promotion of ICTs for development”. Queue major push by some governments at the May MPP to roll back to the earlier WSIS document, which referred to their preferred “government” reference. As pointed out by the MPP Chair, the standard method is to use language from the most recent document (resolution, etc.) and not roll back to previous documents. Other participants pointed out that the lower level folk at the MPP had no right to change the use of language agreed to by heads of state. There was agreement in the end to keep using the Tunis Agenda text, but the issue also played out in references to “stakeholders” (“in their respective roles in responsibilities”, etc.).

The gender equality issue I can’t actually talk about yet. I’m still too frustrated that, in the 21st century, some governments can continue to object to language that aims to overcome massive gender inequalities that still exist all over the world. I will blog about that on a separate occasion.

Action Line C5, Building confidence and security in the use of ICTs, was where different government perspectives on ICTs and security played out. As with Internet governance, some prefer to promote the opportunities the Internet provides while others are more concerned about the risks it poses (and the need for governments to take the lead in reducing these risks). Similarly, this May MPP meeting reflected differences between those wanting to concentrate on the role of governments and intergovernmental organizations in addressing the risks of ICTs (including cybercrime) and those wanting to include non-government stakeholders in the effort to address both confidence and security issues in ICT.

The other elephant in the room, of course, is Internet governance. While Internet governance has specifically been excluded from the WSIS+10 HLE outcome documents, I suspect a lot of people were thinking about how the docments’ concepts about the wider world of the Information Society and ICTs can advance their positions in the more specific world of Internet governance.

Deciding how to move forward when you can’t decide on compromise text

In summary, the following text in the WSIS+10 draft Vision document (1 June version here) had no consensus:

  • Action Line C5. Building confidence and security in the use of ICTs
  • Action Line C8. Cultural Diversity and identity, linguistic diversity and local content
  • Action Line C9. Media
  • Section III. Action Lines beyond 2015: Looking to the Future

Text in Action Lines C5 (confidence and security in ICTs) and C9 (media) were the most significant areas of disagreement, with seemingly no way to ever breach the fundamentally ideological areas of disagreement.

A number of suggestions were made about how to deal with the inability to find consensus on any form of compromise text. All of them involved sending some form of the WSIS+10 Vision document to the HLE. Options proposed were:

  • Include the non-consensus text still in square brackets, with Sections A and B to be endorsed, but just “take note” of Section C.
  • Include the non-consensus text in square brackets as well as the compromise Action Line C9 text supported by a bunch of delegates in tabular format. Sections A and B to be endorsed, but just “take note” of Section C.
  • Remove all of Action Line C9 text and all other remaining bracketed text from the Vision document.
  • Have absolutely no section on the Action Lines (on the basis that if there is no text for Action Line C9, it would be inappropriate and skewed to have text on other Action Lines).
    • A variation on this was to move all the Action Line text into a Chair’s report to be presented to the meeting. The Chair’s report could include a summary of the discussion that occurred and include all proposed texts in an Annex. Any delegation wishing to submit a formal statement about any of the issues could also do so, with the statements also appearing in the annex to the Chair’s report. Some governments, however, questioned whether the Chair had the mandate to write a Chair’s report, as it wasn’t specified in the scope of the MPP’s work.
    • Some participants were very reluctant to remove all Action Lines text as they considered that it was better to at least be able to move forward on the agreed Action Lines than ignore all of them equally.

Please note that I was watching the meeting remotely, and it was well after 5 am in the morning for me by the time this discussion was at its peak, so there may have been other options that I missed as I struggled to stay awake.

Participants were flipping back and forth on what to do. Sometimes a government representative would make an intervention supporting one option, then later support another one. It was very late on Saturday night and everyone was very confused, very cranky and many stated they while they were being “very flexible”, those supporting the opposite view on an issue were not being as flexible as they should be. Sweden, in particular, spent a lot of Saturday making interventions while looking like this:


The MPP Chair at one point suggested that there needed to be yet another MPP just before the HLE itself. The room spontaneously erupted with cries of “No!” from the delegates. Towards the end of the meeting, with there being no agreement on what form the non-consensus items should appear in if included in the WSIS+10 Vision document sent to the HLE, a lot of the participants seemed to coalesce around the option of “No Action Line text at all to appear in the Vision document to go to the HLE. Put it in the Chair’s report instead”. Others still very much wished for there to at least be the consensus items in the document to go to the HLE. A few States reminded some of those “keep the consensus Action Lines text” supporters that they had earlier insisted on a “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” approach, and since not everything was agreed, then none of the Action Lines text was agreed. (Be careful when you invoke hardball negotiation tactics as they may later be used against you.)

It seemed that the Chair was supporting the Chair’s report option, as he invited participants to send any statements they felt needed to be made, that he could include in the annex to the Chair’s report. It seems that only one delegate took the Chair up on his offer: a delegate from civil society, representing APIG, is the only submission attached as an annex to the Chair’s report.

In the second part of this two-part post on WSIS+10, I’ll talk about the newly-added sixth MPP that will be held next Monday, 9 June.

[1] WSIS started life in ITU Plenipotentiary Resolution 73 (Minneapolis, 1998) later morphed into a UN-wide activity via the 2001 resolution of the UNGA, A/RES/56/183.

[2] The view of non-government participants as “disruptive” was not helped by the presence of one civil society delegate who has made a number of rather odd interventions at meetings. In early meetings, the Chair repeatedly referred to the participant as “Civil Society” rather than by the name of the organization the participant represented. This, plus the fact that the participant made repeated references to “civil society thinks/cannot accept” meant that it was very possible that some governments really did think that the participant represented civil society as a whole and that the participant was proof that non-government representatives most definitely are not qualified to participate in negotiations. Government delegations aren’t immune from similar odd personalities, by the way. However, some governments seem to be more willing to accept disruptive behaviour from other government delegates than they are from non-government delegates.

[3] The printed copy of WSIS Geneva and Tunis outcome documents has a mostly blue colour, so has been frequently referred to as the “blue book”. Australia, however, jokingly referred to it as her “blue bible” in the fifth MPP. After that, most delegates also began referring to it as “the blue bible”.