Amid widespread cancellations and delays across the UN, the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG)’s report is moving forward—albeit slowly.
After a deadline extension last month, states have now submitted comments on the pre-draft. A survey of their comments confirms that many areas of disagreement remain. These centre on three key questions:
- Is a new multilateral instrument for cyberspace needed?
- What’s the role of non-government stakeholders in maintaining a peaceful and secure cyberspace?
- Is regular institutional dialogue within the UN on these issues needed (and, if so, what shape should it take)?
Getting consensus on these questions was already a big ask. Will the pandemic make it even more difficult? This month, the OEWG Chair will host virtual meetings to discuss the revised pre-draft—replacing the scheduled in-person intersessionals. The modalities for these virtual meetings are not yet settled, but it’s clear that the shift to “digital diplomacy” will bring many challenges.
Some of these are practical. Will countries with poor connectivity be able to fully participate? What will the decision to hold discussions solely in English mean for accessibility? Will civil society be included? (The OEWG Chair’s letter makes no mention of civil society…)
There’s also a broader cultural challenge. Multilateral engagement at the UN has traditionally taken place as much outside the negotiating room as within it—in corridor chats, dinners, and drinks receptions. Will these informal, face-to-face aspects of diplomacy translate to pixellated and halting video calls? Unfortunately, the stakes have never been higher. As the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights noted last month: “COVID-19 is a colossal test of leadership. It demands decisive, coordinated and innovative action from all, and for all”.