Engaging at the UNGA First Committee and the GGE and OEWG: a guide
Over the next two years, two processes related to responsible state behaviour in cyberspace—the OEWG and the GGE—will unfold within the framework of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. In a previous explainer, we took a broad look at the remit of these processes and why they’re important for human rights. In this tool, we take a deeper dive into how the processes fit together and actually function—mapping the actors involved, unpacking key procedures, and setting out exactly how and when human rights defenders can effectively engage.
The First Committee
The Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) and Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on “Developments in the field of ICTs” came out of discussions at the UN’s First Committee, which is one of six specialised committees of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The First Committee is where states discuss and exchange views on issues related to international peace and security, including those related to cyberspace.
UNDERSTANDING UNGA AND ITS FIRST COMMITTEE
UNGA is one of the six principal organs of the UN. It is composed of 193 member states, and is its main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ. Regular UNGA sessions run at the UN’s New York headquarters.
A new one-year session of UNGA begins in mid-September, during which there is usually a high-level segment in which heads of state and/or government deliver remarks, often referred to as “leaders’ week”. It is not unusual to see dozens of other high-level meetings and events occur in this time to take advantage of the presence of leaders in New York. This is also often a time for convening thematic summits to launch, welcome, or give focus to salient topics of international concern.
Following the high-level opening segment of UNGA, the body resumes its regular work and some of its specialised committees begin their work. Each committee has different modalities for when and how many days it meets.
The First Committee focuses on matters pertaining to international security and disarmament. Like UNGA, it opens with a general debate in which member states deliver statements that tend to cover the full range of First Committee-relevant issues; then, it moves onto thematic clusters, taking the following subjects in order: nuclear weapons, other weapons of mass destruction, outer space, conventional weapons, other disarmament measures, regional disarmament, and disarmament machinery (which is where discussions relating to cyberspace happen).
During the thematic debates, sponsors of resolutions will table and present their drafts. Following the thematic debates, voting occurs on each resolution. Some are adopted without a vote; others have certain paragraphs that require voting; and more contentious ones require paragraph by paragraph voting, as well as voting on the resolution as a whole.
In the First Committee, draft resolutions approved at committee level are then forwarded to the full UNGA for adoption (usually taking place in December). Although this gives states two opportunities to discuss each resolution (at committee level and in the UNGA main session), it is rare for delegates in the main session to challenge text adopted at committee level.
In any given year, UNGA may adopt hundreds of resolutions, either “by consensus” or “by vote”. If resolutions are adopted by consensus, this means that they have the widest possible support of member states, and are therefore more likely to be successfully implemented than those that are adopted by vote. Resolutions adopted by vote signal serious disagreement with the resolution among some member states. Most resolutions are passed by consensus.
Following the adoption of resolutions in December, the UNGA delegates focus on implementing committee work plans, which can include participating in any mechanisms or meetings set up by relevant resolutions—such as groups of experts, or open-ended working groups. Implementation of these mechanisms can span multiple years/UNGA sessions within whatever committee is relevant. The final outcomes of these mechanisms are submitted to UNGA main sessions, as specified in the resolution that set them up.
The main actors participating in UNGA sessions, and, by extension, UNGA committee discussions, are representatives of UN member states. Delegations to the First Committee usually include a combination of diplomats based at the Permanent Mission in New York, or experts from the Permanent Mission in Geneva or in capital of the respective state. It’s common for larger countries to have different diplomats at the First Committee throughout the month, especially as they move through thematic debates and require different expertise. Larger UN delegations may have designated representatives for different committees and thematic debates, while those with smaller delegations may have representatives that cover multiple issues.
Any NGO representative with a grounds pass (see how to obtain a grounds pass) can attend UNGA meetings, including the thematic debates of First Committee meetings. NGOs may participate in discussions by delivering statements from the floor. However, they do not have a “right of reply”, which means that they can’t take the floor and participate in the interactive discussions. These rights are reserved for member states only. The role NGOs play in the subsequent implementation of committee work plans varies, and depends on modalities outlined in the respective resolutions.
Civil society tends to be very active during the First Committee’s annual session. Many NGOs travel to New York to conduct bilateral advocacy, organise or participate in side events, and deliver statements. There is also a single session of the First Committee dedicated to civil society inputs which is coordinated by International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in consultation with UNODA (see below). Typically, civil society input is collaboratively developed for each substantive issue covered by the UN First Committee.
Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament programme of WILPF, publishes a “First Committee Briefing Book” each September for government and civil society representatives, which gives an overview across a range of disarmament topics about current trends and what to expect. This is followed by a weekly “First Committee Monitor” and a “Cybermonitor”, in which subject matter experts provide analysis and coverage of statements and resolutions.
The United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) is an agency of the UN which provides substantive and organisational support for norm-setting in the area of disarmament through the work of the General Assembly and its First Committee, the Disarmament Commission, the Conference on Disarmament, and other bodies.
As part of its mandate, the UNODA provides the Secretariat function for First Committee mechanisms like the GGE and the OEWG. As such, it coordinates the timetable for GGE and OEWG meetings and helps to organise consultations with external bodies (in the case of the GGE, with regional organisations). In addition, the ODA typically hires expert consultants to act as advisors to the representatives of states in the discussions.
The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) is an autonomous think-tank, mainly funded by member-state contributions which conducts research on disarmament issues. It may be invited to provide a consultancy role during discussions and frequently convenes workshops, side events, and similar gatherings that bring together diverse stakeholders across a spectrum of weapons issues. It has convened conferences on cyberspace issues since 1999 and in 2018 launched a new Cyber Policy Portal.
The GGE and OEWG
Since 1998, when UNGA first passed a resolution on “Developments in the field of information and telecommunications (ICTs) in the context of international security”, it has passed resolutions every year relating to state use of ICTs. This points to a common agreement among states that the use of ICTs could pose a threat to international peace and security.
Until 2018, apart from this annual resolution calling for states to provide their views on “responsible state behaviour”, there have also been five occasions where UNGA resolutions have set up groups of government experts (GGEs) to study state behaviour in cyberspace, with the view of promoting common understanding and responses.
The 2019-2021 GGE is the sixth GGE set up by UNGA to discuss state behaviour in cyberspace. Previous GGEs have managed to agree that international law applies in cyberspace, and developed recommendations for concrete measures to increase stability in cyberspace, such as norms and confidence building measures.
The 2019 OEWG on state behaviour in cyberspace is the first OEWG to discuss these issues.
MANDATES AND INTENDED OUTCOMES
The resolutions which set up the GGE and the OEWG detail the mandate which is the basis of their respective agendas. However, because their mandates are similar, the need to ensure complementarity between the groups and avoid duplication have led to discussions about the so-called “division of tasks and topics” between them. Setting complementary agendas is particularly crucial because having two separate outcome reports (see below) which are not complementary in their recommendations, or which contradict each other, could result in a lack of clarity and confusion. This would, at best, discredit both processes, and at worst, lead to further tensions between states and destabilise global cybersecurity.
There are, however, two main differences between the OEWG and GGE mandates—and they are both controversial. First, the OEWG resolution includes the possibility of “introducing changes to the rules, norms and principles of responsible behaviour of States” agreed in the 2013 and 2015 GGE reports. Second, it includes discussion of the possibility of setting up a mechanism for “institutional dialogue” within the UN to discuss the issues. Both of these points are controversial because UN states have very different perspectives on whether the existing framework proposed in the 2015 report is sufficient.
The resolutions that set up both the GGE and the OEWG request the submission of a report on the results of its study to the General Assembly – its 75th and 76th sessions respectively. If the GGE and OEWG can agree their reports by consensus, the reports get submitted to the General Assembly for adoption. The General Assembly then either “takes note” or “recommends” that its member states undertake the recommendations in the report. These reports are not binding but can be seen as expressions of where states collectively agree on issues and as an expression of their priorities and intentions.
If a report cannot be agreed, then the Chair submits a procedural report which simply contains the agenda discussed and the number of meetings held.
HOW DO THE MANDATES OF THESE GROUPS LINK TO HUMAN RIGHTS?
Human rights is usually seen as an issue area discussed by UNGA’s Third Committee and by another UN body, the UN Human Rights Council, among others.
Despite this, three of the five previous GGE reports have made reference to human rights—including a reference to the UN Charter in the 2010 outcome report, and to “Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments” in the 2013 outcome report. In addition, the 2015 report made three mentions of human rights.
As the OEWG discussions are only just beginning, the discussion and relevance of human rights within the OEWG mandate remains to be determined. In general, the discussion and relevance of human rights within the mandate of the First Committee is contentious.
GGE sessions are only open to member states and consultants who are invited to participate. The first three GGEs had 15 members, expanding to 20 in 2014 and 25 in 2016. Member states who are interested in participating in the GGE apply to the UN Secretary General’s office. Once the countries have been identified, they nominate an expert to participate in the GGE. Those represented in a GGE tend to be government officials with backgrounds in arms control or, sometimes, information security. While it is the government officials who actually sit at the table (there are no “delegations”), some are accompanied by advisors, in particular legal advisors. It is common for the same person to represent a member state over the course of multiple GGEs.
Each GGE selects a Chair from among its members. The Russian Federation chaired it in 2004-2005 and 2009-2010, Australia in 2012-2013, Brazil in 2014-2015, and Germany in 2016-17.
Non-government stakeholders may play an informal and advisory role during GGE discussions. For example, networks of academics, think tanks and businesses like Microsoft and Siemens have previously been invited to play an active role in discussions on state behaviour in cyberspace, and may—through their research and public statements as well as their relationships with government representatives in the discussions—be able to influence the discussions. This is often referred to as “track 2 diplomacy”.
Any member state can participate in the OEWG, so theoretically all 193 member states could partake in the meetings. In practice, however, engagement in the OEWG will be determined by the interest and capacity of member states to participate. Because Chairs of both groups are committed to complementarity between the processes, the representatives of the GGE will most likely attend all the OEWG meetings as well.
NGOs can also participate. As outlined above in respect to NGO participation in the First Committee, general practice allows for Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) -accredited NGOs to participate. The current registration process also makes provisions for non-ECOSOC NGOs to attend the OEWG session. However, the registration of non-ECOSOC accredited NGOs depends on there being no objection by a member state to their registration (known as “no objection basis”).
As with the GGE, the UNODA provides the secretariat function for the OEWG, including coordinating meetings, setting up and maintaining a dedicated webpage for the OEWG, and other administrative support.
How to engage
As human rights defenders, there are some advocacy avenues we can use in the next two years to support outcomes which promote responsible state behaviour in cyberspace while also protecting human rights.
PARTICIPATE IN GGE CONSULTATIONS (INCLUDING REGIONAL CONSULTATIONS)
Although there are no formal opportunities for NGOs to engage directly in GGE discussions, the GGE resolution calls for the ODA to organise consultations with regional organisations in advance of its sessions. Some of these consultations have already been completed but more may be held in the future. A few of these consultations have included dedicated civil society sessions, including the recent Organization of American States regional consultation (see our summary and takeaways from it here).
PARTICIPATE IN THE SUBSTANTIVE SESSIONS AND INTERSESSIONALS OF THE OEWG
NGOs who are accredited to attend the OEWG’s sessions (see above) can attend the substantive sessions and participate in any intersessionals organised by the ODA. In total, the OEWG has three substantive sessions and one intersessional meeting.
- First substantive session: New York, 9-13 September 2019
- Intersessional meeting with Industry Partners and NGOs: New York, 2-4 Dec 2019
- Second substantive session: New York, 10-14 February 2020
- Third (and final) substantive session: New York, 6-10 July 2020
DIRECT ADVOCACY WITH GOVERNMENT DELEGATION REPRESENTATIVES
In addition to the above formal avenues to engage in the process, NGOs should also consider leveraging informal avenues to engage with decision makers – both in New York and in capitals. In some cases, governments may host national consultations with non-government stakeholders. This avenue of engagement may be particularly important when it comes to the GGE, as there’s no formal opportunity for NGOs to input into its three closed meetings.
HOSTING SIDE EVENTS
Side events, usually taking the form of an expert panel discussion, are also a way to share positions and perspectives on the issues relevant to discussions. Hosting a side event requires a member state to book a room, and it is usually a good idea to schedule it for a date and time when governments can attend. For example, a side event during a GGE or OEWG session itself is likely to clash with proceedings, unless it is held during the lunch break. By contrast, a side event held during the First Committee sessions in October may be easier for member state representatives to attend.
WORK WITH THE CHAIR AND THE SECRETARIAT
By working with the Chair, civil society groups can provide concrete recommendations on how to ensure meaningful NGO participation. For example, NGOs can directly reach out to the Chair and request meetings to advocate for the opportunity:
- To present oral statements during the substantive sessions;
- To provide written submissions ahead of the session which will be published on a webpage, along with statements of member states;
- To distribute materials during the substantive sessions;
- To organise morning briefings for NGOs.