2018 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference: It’s time to change how ITU makes decisions

Consensus by sleep deprivation

Diplomats often joke about the fact that “consensus by exhaustion” is how many resolutions are agreed to. But these days, at the ITU, the joke is souring. People aren’t just exhausted, but positively sleep deprived. Recent research has shown that lack of sleep makes people far more likely to rise to anger. This anger-inducing effect of sleep deprivation has clearly been in evidence in the last two major ITU conferences I’ve attended – the Plenipotentiary Conference 2018 in Dubai and the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in Buenos Aires – resulting it becoming even harder for delegates to negotiate agreements to resolutions that were already highly divisive. Delegates blamed each other on the floor for acting in bad faith, and a few times even questioned the conference chair’s competence. Member States may discuss these things among their allies in private, but it’s only the extreme frustration and anger resulting from multiple weeks of general exhaustion and increasing sleep deprivation that leads Member States to utter such thoughts on the floor and available for the world to see on a public webcast.

Delegates can catch up on sleep after conferences end, but those feelings of resentment and anger never quite go away, particularly if you’re delegate to have been publicly accused of bad behavior. And to be frank, I think this ongoing build-up of sleep-deprived resentment is contributing to the worsening state of negotiations at ITU.

A frequent scene of Plenipotentiaries: a huddle of key negotiators at the front and various observers watching from a distance

How bad can sleep deprivation at ITU meetings really be?

They’re pretty bad. For some delegations, working days at ITU conferences begin with delegation meetings at 7:45 am. The first week of Plenipotentiary, negotiations need to end “early” to allow delegates to attend a long series of evening receptions hosted by countries wanting to be elected to ITU Council or various ITU senior management positions. Weekend sessions begin the first weekend, but with the Sunday off to allow the host country to show off their country by bussing participants off on tourist trips. In Week 2, night-time negotiations take the place of evening receptions. These negotiations continue through the second and last weekend of Plenipotentiary, and get even longer during the third week, until we reach inevitable Night of No Sleep. And this excludes the time delegates need, outside all of the formal and informal sessions at the venue, to review an unending stream of updated draft documents and prepare their own updated proposed amendments based on proposed amendments by others that have only occurred during the live negotiations, and that they may not have existing positions on. Like an ICANN meeting, you’re lucky if you get six hours of sleep a night. But unlike an ICANN meeting, which is generally only a week and a half long (various side meetings are often tacked on to the official ICANN meeting), sleep deprivation for the ITU crowd goes on for weeks.

The Night of No Sleep

Hours of the second last day of the Plenipotentiary:

9:30 am, 15 November – 5:25 am, 16 November 2018

The final day of started less than four hours later, at 9 am on 16 November.

Hours of the second last day of WTDC 2017:

8:00 am, 19 October – 4:30 am, 20 October 2017

The final day restarted at 8 am with informal negotiations and, without any food or sanity break, finally ended at 8:54 pm. (The conference was supposed to have wrapped up at midday, so all of the conference infrastructure outside the main room was being dismantled as delegates got more and more frustrated inside the main room.)

Unless you happen to be at a hotel with 24-hour kitchens right next to the venue, you spend the Night of No Sleep without food and without caffeine to keep you awake. Food and coffee that you managed to send your lowliest delegate out to buy at 9 pm isn’t going to sustain you through to 5 am.

When negotiations end just before dawn, the best that delegates can achieve is a nap before they have to be back in the room for the next day’s sessions to start.

The topics that led to sleep deprivation at WTDC 2017 and Plenipotentiary 2018

At the WTDC, it was the cybersecurity resolution that kept delegates up all night.

In the Plenipotentiary, there were multiple topics that kept delegates up through their last night:

  • Cybersecurity (Resolution 130)
  • Artificial intelligence (no resolution produced in the end)
  • International sanctions (Resolution 64)
  • References to Internet-related organizations (Resolutions 101, 102, 133 and 180)
  • A possible merger of two ITU Council working groups (a draft recommendation that in the end didn’t happen)
  • A proposed reference to small and community network operators in a connectivity resolution (Resolution 139)

Factors contributing to the ever-increasing difficulty of reaching consensus

The factors I’ve identified below are my perceptions, and mine alone, of what is causing difficulties. Others may dispute the groupings. There are probably also additional factors that are contributing to negotiation deadlocks that haven’t jumped out at me, but may have jumped out at those who have participated in the ITU and intergovernmental circles for longer than I have.

  1. The growing importance of ICTs to the world means more governments want a say in how ICTs are developed and governed
  2. A shift in ITU’s focus from basic infrastructure and connectivity issues to complex ICT applications and services deepens the fault line between intergovernmental and multistakeholder models of ICT governance
  3. The inclusion of topics that are not within the expertise of the telecommunications and ICT ministry representatives who (rightly) dominate the ITU
  4. The ITU conference structure was not designed to handle the increasingly large number of highly contentious topics on its agenda
  5. The oft-invoked negotiating tactic of “ask for vastly more than you want, in the hope that you get the small amount you really want”
  6. Increasingly bloated resolutions that make easy for delegates to get lost in the weeds
  7. A change in leadership style at ITU’s highest level

These seven factors are described in detail below:

1. The growing importance of ICTs to the world means more governments want a say in how ICTs are developed and governed

ICTs increasingly raise wicked policy problems, which, in theory, are best tackled by getting as many perspectives on the multi-dimensional issues as possible, leading to solutions that, if not perfect, are far better than potential solutions that only look at a problem from a single perspective. In practice, however, the more perspectives that are brought to the table, the harder it can be to find a way forward. Only Member States make the decisions during Plenipotentiaries, WTDC, and similar high-level conferences, but with an increasing number of ITU’s 193 Member States feeling the need to have a say on how ICTs have an impact on their country, it’s harder to find ways forward that suit everyone’s needs. I’m not suggesting that we should go back to the Cold War days when Russia and the USA were the main protagonists, their allies lined up behind them, and a few independents lurked in the margins. But we do need to recognize that incorporating a more diverse range of needs and opinions from more governments will inherently slow down the decision-making process at ITU (and other intergovernmental forums).

2. A shift in ITU’s focus from basic infrastructure and connectivity issues to complex ICT applications and services deepens the fault line between intergovernmental and multistakeholder models of ICT governance

Today’s governments and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) are mostly designed for a world in which change happens at 19th and early 20th century speeds. Governments and IGOs can find it difficult to keep up with the sheer speed of ICT developments that are mostly emerging from the private sector in developed countries and to manage the resulting social, cultural, economic, political and environmental impact that ICTs are increasingly having on the world. Developing countries, in particular, can feel overwhelmed by the deluge of emerging ICT issues and, not having the resources to participate in various issue-specific bodies, want the ITU to be a one-stop-shop for all of these issues.

Other governments, however, are concerned about ITU duplicating work already being performed by more specialist organizations and about ITU risking underperforming in its core functions by trying to cover more ground with a finite set of resources. Governments holding this view tend to be those with the resources to participate in multiple venues, or who practise a multistakeholder view of ICT governance that means they, as governments, don’t feel the need to participate in all venues specializing in emerging ICT issues because they’re confident that the non-government specialists who do participate are those best qualified to be making decisions about the development of standards for those emerging ICTs.

The difference of opinion on whether an intergovernmental governance model—where processes about emerging ICTs can be centralized and accessible to all governments, regardless of resource limitation—or a multistakeholder governance approach—where there is a decentralized, informally cooperating web of specialist processes that utilize the inputs of interested stakeholders—has existed since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) era, and earlier, and has played out at previous Plenipotentiaries via the Internet-related resolutions (101, 102, 133 and 180). But at the most recent Plenipotentiary, the introduction of proposals related to ICT applications and services, such as big data, artificial intelligence and Over-The-Top (OTT) services, have extended the battle field.

3. The inclusion of topics that are not within the expertise of the telecommunications and ICT ministry representatives who (rightly) dominate the ITU

The old saying goes that when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This also applies to governments, and how they frame issues. For example, the long reign of neoliberalism, where everything began to be seen through a purely economic framework of immediate financial profit versus loss, has deeply affected how many governments are approaching climate change: those governments in countries that have been highly influenced by neoliberal economics are reluctant to do anything that will limit economic growth in their country now, to the detriment of their children and grandchildren’s potential for survival in mere decades.

Similarly, for governments struggling to understand and manage the impact of ICTs on a wide range of sectors and issues in their countries, the fact that ICTs can feel so new and alien means it can be an attractive proposition for them to view ICTs as an issue in and of themselves, rather than as enablers within existing sectors or as digital manifestation of issues that already exist in the real world. The tendency to view everything with an ICT-related dimension as an issue to be solved by a single ICT-related hammer leads many governments to want ITU to take on a broader and broader range of issues and activities. Unfortunately, this is causing the traditional structure of Plenipotentiary decision-making to strain under the weight of everything on the agenda.

Some ITU resolutions are about issues that would be better handled by the experts who participate in the various UNGA committees (two examples: international sanctions and the sovereign rights of occupied territories) or probably better addressed within other UN bodies that have the mandate over a broader issue in which ICTs is a supporting element (examples: Ebola – this resolution has now been suppressed – and human trafficking).

4. The ITU conference structure was not designed to handle the increasingly large number of highly contentious topics on its agenda

In less complicated times, the ITU Plenipotentiary structure of having a Plenary that allocated work to a number of specialist committees as well as a Working Group of Plenary, which in turn delegated more specific negotiations to Ad Hoc Groups and the less formal Informal Coordinations, Groups and Consultations made sense.

The basic structure of how decision-making works at ITU Plenipotentiary Conferences

But in 2018, with up to half a dozen Ad Hoc Groups having to meet in parallel, and many of those Ad Hoc Groups spinning off their own informal consultations and coordination groups to work on the most contentious parts of proposals, the system is breaking down.

To demonstrate how overburdened the Plenipotentiary 2018 decision-making structure was, I put together the graphic below. It’s based on the Ad Hoc Groups and other informal groupings listed in the daily schedule for the Plenipotentiary, as well as the final reports of the Working Group of the Plenary and Committees 5 and 6 to Plenary. The graphic doesn’t include the various very informal drafting efforts that happened for specific pieces of text. These very informal efforts were generally only between a handful of parties and didn’t need a room, so weren’t listed in the daily schedule for the meeting. Click on the image to see it at its full size:

How decision-making was delegated to a myriad of sub-processes at  Plenipotentiary 2018

The above graphic reveals that the Working Group of Plenary spun off 19 different sub-processes, which in turn spun off an additional 13 processes – one of which was an additional Ad Hoc Group. In total, the Working Group of the Plenary, Committee 5 and Committee 6 spun off 49 direct sub-processes in Dubai. Despite Member State asking that there not be parallel session during Plenipotentiary, as you can see from this very large number of sub-processes, there was no option except to have parallel sessions in Dubai.

Let’s remember, however, that most Member States at Plenipotentiary don’t have the luxury of assigning a single delegate to represent a single topic. Most delegates – and this isn’t just a problem for developing countries, but for many developed countries, too – have to cover multiple issues, meaning they can’t be in every meeting discussing a topic of importance to them, and even being in the sessions they can cover means they’re working late nights and weekends. In Dubai, as in Buenos Aires last year, this led to tired, cranky, and increasingly unwell delegates who were less willing to compromise on issues that they suspected the “other side” of having negative ulterior motives about. It also made it more likely that agreements reached in one of the many parallel sessions would not include all interested parties, resulting in fragile agreements falling apart when an interested party who’d been unable to attend the earlier negotiation turning up for the next session, and objecting to the agreement reached in their absence.

In addition, none of the sub-processes held below the level of Working Group of Plenary and the Committees have simultaneous interpretation or live transcripts. This means that delegates who don’t have English as a first language are very much at a disadvantage in the decision-making processes.

5. The oft-invoked negotiating tactic of “ask for vastly more than you want, in the hope that you get the small amount you really want”

The tendency for Member States to inflate what they’re asking for led to many stalled negotiations while delegates played out an elaborate ritual of defending every last piece of their proposals for a good week or more, only dropping the parts they never really expected to be adopted “in the interests of compromise” in the closing days (and sometimes hours) of the conference.

Everyone knows this happens. Member States know what other Member States really want because Member States tend to push for what they really want in multiple processes, while the inflated additions tend to be random pop-ups that will never be seen again. But the price of carrying out this elaborate charade is that multiple days are wasted, putting greater pressure on everyone to find compromise solutions in the final Night of No Sleep, when people are at their most exhausted and crankiest.

6. Increasingly bloated resolutions that make easy for delegates to get lost in the weeds

I have written about this in detail in my previous blog post, Resolution bloat at ITU Plenipotentiary Conferences.

7. A change in leadership style at ITU’s highest level

The previous Secretary-General, Hamadoun Touré, was a consummate negotiator. The current Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, is more of an administrator. Just as Touré would do, Zhao also performs “we need to come together” speeches when it seems a negotiation is intractable. But unlike Touré, Zhao hasn’t laid extensive groundwork first, which means his last-minute inspirational speeches are less successful at getting Member States to resolve their differences. Well before he gave any rousing “come together” speech, Touré would have identified the issues most likely to be contentious and have embarked on informal meetings with the key parties as soon as the conference started, all in an effort to make sure that there was a positive outcome for the conference. It seems that in the absence of that mediation activity previously performed as a personal initiative of Touré, Member States have yet to find a workable solution for bridging large differences between them. Member States can’t expect Secretary-Generals having negotiating skills, either, as each person will bring their own unique set of talents to the job. So Member States need to be able to find their own ways of negotiation directly between each other, rather than relying on the Secretary-General to knock heads together. This is even more vital in the current geopolitical climate, where some governments are taking a more nationalistic approach to their place in the world and others are testing the boundaries of what it means to be a pariah on the international stage.

The perseverance of committed delegates saved the day in Dubai, but unless decision-making at ITU changes, there is a breakdown point looming in the future

With all the eight factors above colliding, decision-making in Dubai slowed down to the point where it’s a miracle that the conference was able to produce 53 updated resolutions, 11 new resolutions and to suppress (remove from the list of currently active resolutions) 11 existing resolutions.

The outcomes of the conference demonstrate a marvel of endurance by utterly committed – if totally exhausted – delegates, highly accomplished chairing and a general recognition by all that many of the issues covered by ITU resolutions really did need to move forward in a positive manner.

Unfortunately, however, the stamina and goodwill of ITU participants will not be able to overcome the structural and political issues that are leading to increasingly bloated and contentious conferences. Most delegates from the Buenos Aires meeting last year were ill after the meeting ended – a consequence of immune systems being worn down by the long nights and weekends of negotiations. No doubt, the same has happened to delegates of the recent Plenipotentiary in Dubai.

With ITU holding at one major decision-making conference every year, with a series of preparatory meetings associated with each one of those meetings, not to mention numerous other events that ITU holds each year, it is unsustainable for both the ITU’s and Member States’ resources to continue on this path of expansion of activities and resolutions without doing some hard rationalization of pre-existing activities and resolutions that may no longer be as relevant to the world. Overstretched Member States will only continue to view each other with increased suspicion, leading to ever more difficult negotiations. In a world where misuse of ICTs can severely hamper reaping the benefits that ICTs can offer, ITU and its Member States need to find a new way of working, to ensure it becomes an organization of and for the future. If it doesn’t, ITU risks becoming irrelevant, smothered by its adherence to 19th and 20th century methods of negotiating.

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.