Spotlight on the ITU #4: an introduction to Plenipot

27 Mar 2018

By Richard Wingfield

In February, Global Partners Digital and six other civil society organisations issued a collective call for civil society to engage and collaborate ahead of the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference (or Plenipot) later this year. In previous blogposts in this series, we have looked at the importance of the ITU for human rights defenders, and how the ITU works. In this one, we look specifically at the Plenipot – what it is, what will be discussed, and why it’s important to engage.

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What is Plenipot?

The Plenipot – a three-week conference which takes place every four years – is the most important event in the ITU’s calendar. Here, the national governments which make up the ITU’s membership agree on the ITU’s Strategic Plan 2020-2023, elect a number of senior positions within the organisation, and consider revisions to core ITU documents, such as the Constitution and Convention of the ITU and the ITU’s Resolutions, which set out the mandates of the various ITU bodies. The 2018 conference will take place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, between 29 October and 16 November.

 

Who will be at Plenipot?

There are two categories of attendees at Plenipot: the delegates, who have voting rights (the ITU member states themselves), and the observers, who do not (everyone else).

The ITU member states are the 193 states who are party to the ITU Constitution and Convention (the same 193 states that are members of the UN). They have full voting and speaking rights at Plenipot. Each member state is represented through its national delegation, which invariably includes representatives of relevant government departments and national regulators, but may also – depending on the willingness of the member state – include representatives of business, the technical community and civil society.

Other entities are able to attend Plenipot as observers, but they have no voting rights and no automatic speaking rights (they need the consent of the meeting’s Chair and the member states present to speak). Observers include ITU sector members, which comprise international and regional organisations, private companies and academic institutions but also other entities who are invited to attend as observers, such as certain UN agencies (e.g. the World Meteorological Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization). As with ITU member states, observers may invite representatives of business, the technical community and civil society to be part of their delegations. We look at ITU sector members more closely in an earlier blog post here.

 

Why is it important for civil society to engage at Plenipot?

There are many events at the ITU where civil society’s presence is needed, as we’ve explained in previous entries in this series. But the Plenipot carries particular importance, for three reasons.

1.  It’s where the ITU’s mandate is decided

At Plenipot, member states agree the broad mandate of the organisation and its sector members. If the mandate is broadened, this means that the ITU will work on new issues, and may develop or propose standards on them. As we have seen in previous blog posts and Explainers, there could be potential risks to human rights if the ITU started developing standards relating to, for example, IoT, digital object architecture or online privacy. Engagement at the ITU is therefore necessary to help ensure that the ITU’s mandate is not extended to work on internet-related issues in a way that would put human rights at risk.

2.  It determines how open or closed the ITU is to civil society engagement

It’s not just the substantive mandate of the ITU that is decided at Plenipot, but also its modalities and working methods. As we saw in the first blog post in this series, despite the importance of the issues discussed, the ITU is a relatively closed organisation with few opportunities for participation, particularly for civil society. Decisions made at Plenipot on the ITU’s working methods might lead to more open, inclusive and transparent processes, but they could also mean existing opportunities for engagement are further restricted or closed. To make sure we end up with the former, rather than the latter, civil society engagement is crucial.

3.  It’s a good opportunity to influence the ITU’s work on the Sustainable Development Goals

One of the key items on the agenda at this year’s Plenipot will be the discussion and adoption of the 2020-23 Strategic Plan. The Strategic Plan sets out the ITU’s broad vision, mission, values and strategic goals. It also details all of the ITU’s planned objectives, outcomes and outputs, and how they link to different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By seeking to influence the text of the final Strategic Plan, civil society can also influence the ITU’s work around the SDGs and associated human rights, such as increasing internet access and bridging the digital divide.

 

WHAT SHOULD HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS BE LOOKING OUT FOR?

A large number of issues will be discussed at Plenipot. Many of these discussions will be technical and entirely uncontroversial. In some cases, however, proposed amendments to ITU Resolutions might be concerning from a human rights perspective. At this year’s Plenipot, some things to watch out for include:

  • Proposals for the ITU to undertake more work on cybersecurity and potentially for the ITU to facilitate the development of a global cybersecurity treaty. Although greater confidence and security in the use of ICTs can be an enabler of human rights, in many cases action taken in the name of cybersecurity can actually threaten human rights, meaning caution is needed with respect to how the issue is framed and the action that governments take.
  • Proposals for the ITU to develop standards related to the internet of things and to make digital object architecture the new global standards for information management, raising concerns around privacy and the possibilities of surveillance and censorship;
  • Proposals for the ITU to undertake further work (including the development of recommendations or standards) on ‘over the top services’, which could potentially undermine freedom of expression.

 

What can civil society do at this stage?

There are a number of ways that civil society organisations can engage on ITU-related issues ahead of Plenipot.

  1. Join the civil society coordination mailing list here.
  2. Follow our calendar / forum map of ITU processes to keep track of what meetings are taking place and where.
  3. Find out the details of your national delegation by clicking on the name of your country here. Get in touch with them to see whether it’s possible to join your national delegation, take part in preparatory meetings, or simply communicate your thoughts and concerns.

You can also join GPD’s ITU Info Hub mailing list to get updates on new resources and blog posts by emailing Richard (richard@gp-digital.org) using the subject line ‘ITU mailing list’.

Finally, to help inform your advocacy, we recommend you read our Advocacy Bytes case study on the 2014 Plenipot, looking at civil society engagement before, during and after the event – the challenges faced, tactics employed, and lessons learned.