Modalities of multistakeholder participation

13 Dec 2021 15:00h - 18:00h

Event report

The first substantive session of OEWG began with a hot debate on the pending issue of modalities of multistakeholder participation in formal meetings, as it was not agreed upon during the organisational meeting in June 2021. 

At the opening, Mr Burhan Gafoor (Ambassador and Permanent representative of Singapore), the Chair, invited the previous chairs of OEWG and GGE to take the floor. Mr Lauber and Mr Patriota recalled the lessons learned from the work of their groups, while they also stressed the importance of engaging the private sector, civil society, and academia in discussions. Also, Ms Izumi Nakamitsu (UNODA) spoke about the achieved progress of the last GGE and OEWG, while highlighting three areas of attention: the implementation of the agreed normative framework; the discussion on how the international law applies to cyberspace, including the acts carried out in the context of armed conflicts; deepening of multistakeholder engagement during the OEWG sessions.

Gafoor shared his perspective and expectations from this OEWG: “The length of this mandate gives us additional opportunities as well as responsibilities. With a five-year mandate we can, and we must take a longer-term view. It is important to make progress and show some early results in small incremental steps’’. He encouraged delegations in continuing to reach out and communicate with each other, especially to delegations which have a different point of view. Finally, he expressed his hope that the group can find a consensual solution to defining modalities for the participation of stakeholders.

Modalities of multistakeholder participation

When it was time to consider the item of organisation of work, the UK raised its concerns of the modalities of work and stated that it could not adopt the provisional program of work, due to the lack of consensus. This opened a discussion during which Gafoor asked the delegations to provide their positions on multistakeholder participation, and identify potential solutions towards building the consensus.

Notably, Gafoor mentioned that, in his letter to delegations dated November, he suggested ‘maintaining the precedent of the first OEWG with regard to the participation of stakeholders in formal meetings. As occurred during the previous OEWG, the OEWG can continue to engage stakeholders in informal consultative meetings.’ He also received an open letter from 40+ delegations and other stakeholders in December. The letter contained the principles of MS participation, including:

– Non-governmental stakeholders should be able to meaningfully participate in formal OEWG meetings

– A transparent process regarding any objection from a Member State to the accreditation request should be in place

– In the event that an interested non-governmental stakeholder is denied accreditation to formal OEWG sessions, there should be other channels for such stakeholders to regularly express their views and for those views to be available for review to all accredited delegations

– A hybrid format of participation should be utilized for formal and informal meetings in order to facilitate the participation of delegates and stakeholders who cannot travel to New York in person

The exchange of views was participated by 36 delegations. The majority favored meaningful multistakeholder participation in formal OEWG meetings, as well as transparent accreditation process for non-governmental entities, so that any objections by member-states would be known to the delegations.  Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, the EU, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Slovenia, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and the US were among them.

The Netherlands reminded that the last OEWG allowed substantive input from the NGOs, but only with the ECOSOC consultative status. The delegate stated there have been several UN processes which provided better transparency of the procedures for participation of non-ECOSOC accredited NGOs. In most cases this included a provision which required states to make the basis of their objections known to the group through the Secretariat. For example, in the UN Secretary-General ‘Our Common. Agenda’, an inclusive multilateral system is mentioned, too.

France provided its own examples of multistakeholder initiatives, such as Paris Call and Christchurch Call, which preserved the position of states without losing their privileges, while gaining from other stakeholders’ experience. 

Colombia and other states stressed the necessity of a hybrid format for formal and informal meetings with the goal of facilitating greater participation, both for delegates, as well as the stakeholders, especially in face of restrictions derived from the pandemic.

China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela were against the extended multistakeholder participation. They supported the Chair’s position of using modalities from the last OEWG. 

Russia, in particular, insisted on the in-person format of meetings because ‘it expands our possibilities of finding common ground, expands opportunities for a true democracy’’. However, Russian and Syrian delegates raised the issue of obtaining the visas in due time, leading to a significant number of delegations not being able to be present in New York. The USA was blamed for using its stance of a host-country for projecting political tensions and providing obstacles for equal states’ participation in OEWG. Also, it was stressed that the priority for participation in OEWG should be given to states, since OEWG is an intergovernmental process in the first place. Moreover, Russia pointed out that the current mandate of OEWG ’does not make it possible to involve stakeholders in formal meetings or have any kind of obligations to work to cooperate with them’. All the NGOs who are interested in the intergovernmental negotiating process can follow the formal meetings of the OEWG through online broadcasting. If they wish to express their views on any of the issues touched upon, they can submit their written statements to the chair who will later circulate them for consideration by the states, as well as convey them throughout the intersessional consultative meetings.

At the end of the first meeting, Gaffor concluded that there was still no consensus on the issue. He reminded that OEWG does not have an option to vote on a particular item of the agenda in order to adopt it. That is why it is important for the delegations to come to a consensus regarding the MS participation. An informal consultation during lunch break was decided upon in order to come to a decision on how to continue this substantive session. Finally, delegations decided to continue discussing other agenda items and return to the contentious issue at the end of the session.

At the ninth meeting, the chair decided to bring this question up to the agenda again, formally. The chair informed that the seven-point proposal he submitted on the first day was met by a mix of approvals and disapprovals by various delegations, which made him informally consult many delegations towards a possible compromise. In the meantime, he also held an informal virtual consultation with over 100 non-state actors. The chair then submitted a revised proposal to the delegations on the third day of the meeting, reminding them that the OEWG is supposed to reach decisions by consensus, and expressed his feeling that there was no opposition for greater engagement of other stakeholders in the OEWG. 

In order to agree on modalities for MS participation and make them functional for the second substantive session, starting on 28 March 2022, the chair suggested the following steps:

  1. He will continue informal consultations with delegations till mid-January;
  2. He will provide the final proposal to all delegations on 18 January 2022, allowing silent procedure till 25 January 2022;
  3. If the silence procedure is not broken, UNODA will start the two month long process of applications and accreditation, in order to complete it in time for the second substantive session. If the silence procedure is, however, broken, discussions will have to continue.

Though many delegates who took the floor clarified that they are not fully satisfied with it, almost all expressed support for the revised chair’s proposal and the suggested timeline for sake of achieving the consensus: the EU, France, South Africa, the USA, Switzerland, Turkey, Egypt, Mexico, Italy, Indonesia, Japan, Latvia, Korea, Costa Rica, Columbia, Brazil, Jordan, Germany, Argentina, Australia, Iraq, Israel, UK, Poland, Malaysia, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Estonia, Dominican Republic, and Czech Republic. Without supporting the proposal, Russia expressed its readiness to work constructively on this matter, and will provide detailed thoughts on it, in accordance with the timeline specified by the chair. Similarly, China stated that it will work with other states on this matter.

Transparency of the process

While it appeared that the revised chair’s proposal did not meet any open objections, states observed the desired modalities of involvement of other stakeholders differently. Estonia found the revised chair’s draft and the introduction of a transparency mechanism related to the objections for participation of certain stakeholders as a simple but a significant step forward from the previous OEWG modus operandi. The EU also supported greater transparency and improving on the experience of the OEWG last year, in order to avoid organisations not accredited with ECOSOC being vetoed by some states anonymously. The UK was clear that it does not want to see ECOSOC non-accredited stakeholders again being excluded from the OEWG process, as was the case in the previous OEWG.

France also asked for transparency of this process of objections, arguing that a sovereign state could reject a certain expert, while another sovereign state has the right to ask who refused that proposal in the first place. The USA was also concerned with the abuse of objection mechanisms, reminding that all the 18 stakeholders that applied for the OEWG 2019-2021 were vetoed, and regretted this subject not being immediately resolved. Mexico stated that consensus does not imply a right to veto. 

South Korea also confirmed the right of states to oppose participation of certain stakeholders, but in a transparent manner – which would contribute to better understanding of other countries’ concerns. Columbia shared the interest in a transparent, inclusive, and results-based process. Poland outlined transparency as the key element of the OEWG.

The importance of stakeholder participation

Switzerland emphasised the importance of sustained multistakeholder participation in the OEWG. Italy reminded that ‘Our Common Agenda’ of the UN Secretary General advocates for a stronger, better networked, and inclusive multilateral system, with involvement of all relevant stakeholders, and suggested that the OEWG open to other stakeholders would especially be of importance for small and less digitalised countries. Turkey supported making the OEWG a transparent and inclusive process, aware and listening to the expertise of other stakeholders. Columbia noted that cyberspace is a new challenge, and cyber diplomacy a new dimension of international relations, thus states should seek for mechanisms which could allow adapting to such a new reality.

Japan raised the importance of informal multistakeholder meetings and initiatives like Let’s Talk Cyber. Malaysia noted that cybersecurity architecture is a multistakeholder environment, where all the stakeholders need to exist in an ecosystem. For Latvia, involvement of other stakeholders is not just a matter of principle, but presents the essence for discussions and a key element of advancing the work in the rapidly evolving ICT environment. Mexico argued that businesses, academia, and the civil society are crucial for operationalising commitments on the national, regional and international levels, and reminded states of the commitment in the OEWG for building a new layer of understanding over prior processes. For Costa Rica, the participation of civil society, academia, and think tanks is a given, because their knowledge is greater than the knowledge of some of the states.

Modus operandi: from informal to formal participation

Egypt underscored the multilateral character of the OEWG, but also the importance of the participation of stakeholders in the process. South Africa stated that meaningful engagement with stakeholders can take on many forms, and should be in balance with retaining the intergovernmental nature of the formal sessions, including the decision-making process. 

The UK described the contribution by some of the stakeholders during the informal consultations over the previous days as ’stakeholders wanting a voice in the process – not a vote.’ Switzerland supported the systematic, sustained, and substantive engagement of stakeholders, as initially framed by the chair of the OEWG. Costa Rica took the position that informal consultations, implemented during the last OEWG, should not substitute formal participation of stakeholders in the OEWG, which is crucial for transparency, credibility, and effectiveness of the process. Many other countries, such as the EU, the US, Chile, Latvia, Austria, and Israel also called for formal participation of other stakeholders in the OEWG meetings – allowing them to present views and contributions in the official meetings and substantive sessions, as well as during the intersession periods. 

Iran, however, reiterated the need for preserving the intergovernmental character of the OEWG, and making sure that all the UN member states get the opportunity for interaction, while preserving informal consultative meetings introduced to the previous OEWG as a mechanism for inputs from other stakeholders. China followed the same line, reminding that the OEWG is an intergovernmental process led by member states, and arguing that the current arrangement of meetings – in particular the informal consultations as set-up by the previous OEWG – has already provided enough time and opportunities for non-government organisations to air their views. 

The impact of the issue on process

Russia argued that the initiative of a number of states to reach an immediate decision on stakeholder participation was an organised action which threatened to block the work of the OEWG. Czech Republic, however, argued that the issue of multistakeholder participation had already been raised by Canada at the organisational session, and that bringing it up had not disrupted the OEWG work since it managed to go through the entire agenda of the first substantive meeting. Mexico stated that this discussion is not only a decision on modalities, or on who would be in the room, but rather a discussion on the possibilities to make progress. 

In terms of the next steps and the timeline proposed by the chair, the UK made it clear that it considers the 25 January deadline non-negotiable, noting that, in case states block the deal and the Secretariat cannot begin the accreditation processes, the OEWG will be prevented from continuing the substantive work in March.