Geneva Peace Week 2017

6 Nov 2017 to 10 Nov 2017
Geneva, Switzerland


Event report/s:
Barbara Rosen Jacobson

Throughout the 2017 edition of the Geneva Peace Week, it became clear that digital technology has important implications for conflict prevention, albeit in two distinct and contradictory ways.

Throughout the 2017 edition of the Geneva Peace Week, it became clear that digital technology has important implications for conflict prevention, albeit in two distinct and contradictory ways. Some sessions identified the ways in which digital technology can assist in the prevention of conflict. They highlighted the potential of e-commerce, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and geographic information systems. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, there was a focus on the ways in which digital technologies have given rise to increased threats. How to respond to the risk to cyberconflict? What will happen if new technologies, such as big data and AI, are used for the wrong purposes?

Opportunities for conflict prevention

One of the opportunities posed by digital technology is in the realm of e-commerce. With the launch of the e-caravan for peace, the International Trade Centre and the Permanent Mission of Japan showed that e-commerce can advance economic empowerment, including that of women and migrants in conflict situations. Trade in war zones can be a force for good, and e-commerce can allow for the integration of disempowered communities in the economy.

Gaming is another emerging avenue of contribution to conflict prevention. UNITAR presented its recently developed peacekeeping game Mission Zhobia. Throughout the game, skills and knowledge can be developed and tested in the safe environment of a simulated game. By training on issues such as conflict analysis, engaging stakeholders, building trust and adapting to new challenges, the game teaches key competencies for peacebuilding.

Emerging technologies may have extensive potential in untangling the complexity in which conflicts are embedded. Big data could provide real-time, objective information to conflict analyses and early warning systems, and the visualisation of big data could provide clarity on conflict patterns. Geographic information systems and satellite data – which could be considered one of the earliest forms of big data – can provide important insights in early warning systems and the utility of open source-based information was also discussed. Yet big data can be complex, biased and multi-interpretable, and their collection can give rise to data protection concerns that need to be taken into account. AI systems have turned out to be effective in tackling well-defined problems; nonetheless, their utility in complex settings and social contexts has so far remained limited.

Threats to conflict

One of the recurring themes during the Geneva Peace Week was the search for an appropriate response to the risk of cyberconflict. One initiative was brought forward earlier this year by Microsoft’s President Brad Smith, who proposed a Digital Geneva Convention. The utility of such a convention was discussed during one of the roundtables at the opening of the Geneva Peace Week. Discussants agreed that challenges brought by digitalisation require new norms and regulations. However, due to the important role of non-state actors in cyber warfare and the key concerns regarding the responsibility of the private sector, a Digital Geneva Convention might not be able to solve the key issues.

Further building on this topic, the session on Preventing cyber conflicts: Do we need a cyber treaty?, discussed, among other things, whether the existing legal framework is sufficiently equipped to deal with cyber threats. The panellists agreed that any new convention needs to be drafted with the participation of all the stakeholders and that governments need to take action to address vulnerabilities and externalities. Another session tackled a particular cyber challenge – the creation of a safer Internet for children, dealing with the development of a strategy to combat sexual violence against children.

The topic was concluded with a keynote lecture by Smith, who explained the rationale behind the proposed Digital Geneva Convention, relating it to the history of the establishment of the ICRC and the Geneva Conventions. His keynote was followed by a panel discussion with humanitarian and human rights perspectives and comments from the participants and online audience.

Besides the Internet as we know it today, emerging technologies are giving rise to new threats as well. Big data risks leading to mass surveillance and AI could empower lethal autonomous weapons systems. The face of war and conflict prevention will continue to be affected by technology, highlighting the need to continue the discussion on how to mitigate technology threats while promoting technology as a conflict prevention tool. 

Arto Väisänen

The session moderator, Ms Barbara Rosen Jacobson, Programme Manager, DiploFoundation, introduced the topic by pointing at the big data hype, which often leads people to focus on ut

The session moderator, Ms Barbara Rosen Jacobson, Programme Manager, DiploFoundation, introduced the topic by pointing at the big data hype, which often leads people to focus on utopian ideas of big data as the key to unlocking all dilemmas, or the dystopian approach that big data will lead to mass surveillance, discrimination, and the end of privacy. Both approaches are relevant for conflict prevention, the former identifying big data as a tool to prevent conflict, and the latter considering big data as a factor that could contribute to conflict. The focus of today is to look for a middle ground and to identify the actual potential of big data, as well as its limitations and recommendations for its responsible use.

Mr Marco Musumeci, Project Coordinator, United National Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), explained that technology can be seen from two perspectives: it can constitute a risk to conflict, as well as a risk mitigation factor. The UNICRI handles a wide-range of issues, from cybercrime and big data to artificial intelligence (AI). He presented a tool that the UNICRI has developed with CERN, which seeks to track crime patterns through the visualisation of big data. The data comes from a variety of sources, including confiscated assets. The visualisation demonstrated changes in the existing crime patterns, while enabling an assessment of the effectiveness of crime-related policies that have been implemented. He concluded by presenting the UNICRI’s latest establishment of a centre for AI and robotics in The Hague, which has been set up to examine the impact of AI for the security of member states.

Mr Jean-Marie le Goff, CERN, outlined that big data at CERN is not just about the size of the datasets, but rather about its complexity. This means that data may have multiple interpretations and facets. Visualisation plays a key role in helping analysis and provision of knowledge based on data. This visualisation usually occurs in networks between issues and provides information to the content expert in addition to mapping the information.

Mr Einar Bjorgo, UNITAR, Manager, Programme Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), started by presenting UNOSAT and explained that satellite data can be seen as the first form of big data. He outlined that despite the size of big data and satellite imagery, there is still a large amount of big data that is not currently used. According to him, satellite data can contribute to conflict prevention, by reporting and documenting early warning indicators, while providing actionable information for the national and international community. Satellite data can also provide input for reporting about human rights and humanitarian violations. He then presented case studies about how satellite data was used in Chad by providing more scaled or detailed mapping. He pointed out how satellite mapping enables monitoring areas that are inaccessible. Bjorgo finished by concluding that while satellite data can impact many areas related to conflict prevention and can provide comparisons across a span of time, it should be considered as one of the tools in the prevention toolbox.

Dr Karz Aznavour, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), started by outlining that big data and data analytics need to be considered in the humanitarian field. Big data is both collected from various sources and structures internally and acquired externally from other actors and sources. However, the protection and security of sensitive and personal data need to be ensured. According to Aznavour, the discourse around data protection is changing from individual anonymity towards community-based data protection, which ensures the safety and rights of communities or groups. Considerations on data protection should be complemented with views from the field, to better understand the perceptions around data analyses among those whose data is collected. He finished by pointing out the central role of secure communication when transferring data and insights, as even insights from open data can be detrimental to the safety of data subjects.

Throughout the discussion, participants raised issues such as co-operation with regional organisations and private actors in the field of satellite images, and Bjorgo pointed out how the current legal framework enables the free utilisation of space-based satellite imagery. In addition, while human analysts can bring bias into the analysis of satellite images, UNOSAT addresses this through a varied background of employees and scientific openness. The last point was the role of legal and security frameworks related to the hosting of servers, which the ICRC seeks to address by keeping servers internally located.

Rosen Jacobson thanked the panel and audience before formally concluding the event.

Roxana Radu

The roundtable discussion, moderated by Dr Roxana Radu, Manager at the Geneva Internet Platform and Internet Governance Associate at DiploFoundation, was part of the World Café Rec

The roundtable discussion, moderated by Dr Roxana Radu, Manager at the Geneva Internet Platform and Internet Governance Associate at DiploFoundation, was part of the World Café Reception marking the start of the Geneva Peace Week.

Background: The global Internet regulation is in an ambiguous situation. On one hand, international law applies online, including rules on state responsibility, territorial integrity, non-intervention, and self-defence. On the other hand, there is no agreed practice nor rules on how to apply these rules to Internet disputes. The fast-growing cybersecurity challenges require faster action at an international level. Several calls were made by governments (such as those in the UN GGE) and by the private sector to start a discussion around the norms of behaviour in cyberspace. Among the latter was the recent proposal by Microsoft for a Digital Geneva Convention, which should ‘commit governments to avoiding cyber-attacks that target the private sector or critical infrastructure or the use of hacking to steal intellectual property’. According to this proposal, the Geneva humanitarian conventions provide inspiration for considering the tech sector as neutral, similarly to medical personnel in war zones. 

Q1. Is a Digital Geneva Convention needed? Will it solve the issues?

There is a need to have rules for applying existing international law to online matters as well as introducing new rules whenever there are gaps. The open question is whether such rules can be introduced by a Digital Geneva Convention. The predominant view was that such an instrument is not realistic to adopt in the current international atmosphere. Some discussants argued that it is not even desirable. Since cybersecurity conflicts are likely to increase, there will be increased pressure to have some solutions at an international level. The session discussed some alternative solutions that could address two challenges: increase the clarity of applying existing international law and introduce new implementation mechanisms. One solution is the so-called Montreux process for the application of international law to private military and security companies present in an armed conflict, which apply existing rules (humanitarian law) via a multistakeholder implementation mechanism.

Courts are likely to fill this lacuna in global digital governance. For example, the Court of Justice of the European Union has created rules on mass-surveillance, the right to be forgotten, and privacy. Courts are applying rules that were formulated 20-25 years back and may not reflect today’s reality. The challenges of digitalisation – exposing all sectors to rapid tech transformations – make it urgent to agree on norms.

The perceived exceptionalism of the tech sector (limited or no regulation) is increasingly challenged and Microsoft’s initiative appears as a pre-emptive move. Many questions arise around the intent of this proposal, the target audience and the substantive provisions. Participants pointed out that many issues are left out of the discussion, in particular questions of bioweapons further powered by digital innovations, excessive collection and control of data for cybersecurity, as well as the responsibility and accountability of the private sector in these discussions. Relatedly, the increasingly asymmetrical nature of cyber warfare and the role of non-state actors were emphasised, raising doubts about the extent to which a Digital Geneva Convention would solve the key issues.

Q2. Geneva is the world’s humanitarian capital. What can the emerging digital policy field learn from the long history of humanitarian protection?

The Geneva Convention established the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (a Swiss non-profit association) was founded as the custodian for the strict implementation of the treaties of the Convention. If we are to have a Digital Geneva Convention as proposed by Microsoft, what existing or new international organisation could take on the role of monitoring the implementation of the convention? The tech sector cannot be treated as neutral when it has vested interests and owns the Internet infrastructure. The participants to the roundtable also expressed concern around the uneven rates of Internet penetration around the world and the position of developing countries in the Digital Geneva Convention discussion. The scale and speed of technological developments should be considered in the approach to the convention, which applies in times of cyber-peace rather than cyber-war. Distinguishing between offensive and defensive attacks in cyberspace and adopting a citizen-centred perspective would also be imperative in order to substantiate the debate. 

Marco Lotti

The session was opened by Ms Hang Nguyen, Secretary General at the Diplomatic Council.

The session was opened by Ms Hang Nguyen, Secretary General at the Diplomatic Council. She reminded the audience about the work of the Diplomatic Council: being a think-tank, business, and a charity foundation at the same time, the council carries out multiple programmes, including in the fields of fight against child pornography and ending violence against women. In particular, she presented the ‘Diplomatic Council Safer Internet for Children’ Initiative, which is a  partner of the White IT project which was initiated by the German State of Lower Saxony and stands up for the prevention (together with offering a service support to victims) of sexualised violence against children and its representation in the digital world.

Mr Thorsten Nowak, Chairman of the White IT Project at the Ministry of the Interior of Lower Saxony (Germany), stated that the core of this project is to prevent child abuse. He said that this is a challenge as it is estimated that about 1% to 4% of the entire male population has paedophile tendencies and that children often suffer sexual incidents in the course of growing up. He further explained that about 50% of the consumption of abuse content is outside social control. Nowak explained that multiple strategies are now being taken in order to tackle such issues. For example, they offer a self-prophylaxis tool (i.e. auto-denouncing service for paedophiles), publications of materials, and deployment of virtual reality app in order to raise awareness among children. Furthermore, they conduct studies on child abuse legislation in different countries in order to identify ‘the world’s most common legal denominator’ for the crime of child abuse.

Dr Klaus-Ulrich Moeller, Chairman at the Diplomatic Council Global Speaking Forum focused on the importance of speech for peace, because he considered that ‘the way of communicating in public is one of the strongest drivers for peace or for hate’. He added that there is a lack of standards in addressing false information, which often results in the fact that fake news is given the same importance as validated information. He introduced the council’s Code of Trusted Public Communication as a code of conduct, comprising the most significant principles for trust-building in communication and information in the public sphere. The reasons for this code are twofold: on the one hand, governments and regulations alone cannot solve such issues; and on the other hand, hate speech is not a transitional phenomenon, but rather the result of a dramatic transformation of our societies. Moeller considered that with the use of the Internet, ‘democracy 4.0’ encompasses five dimensions: to the traditional three traditional branches of power (legislative, judiciary, executive) we ought to add press and individuals who use social media platforms, not only to communicate but also to get information and build their opinions. In order to address hate speech in the social media era, he considered that seven dimensions need to be addressed and taken into account:

  • Responsibility of the individual: Internet users not only consume content but they also produce it. It follows that individuals bear responsibility for the content they create which respectively contributes to creating other people’s opinion.
  • Respectful language: the importance of social conventions and politeness are paramount in off-line life as well as for online social interactions.
  • No state intervention: states cannot control public opinion, rather it is a matter of individual responsibility (for the production of online content) and the private sector.
  • Open climate: repression of public opinion is not a solution of hate speech.
  • No anonymity: as individuals bear responsibility for the content they produce, anonymity would hinder users’ accountability.
  • Communications skills: this aspect is linked to the use of respectful language as it is important not only what we say but how we say it.
  • Reflection: tackling hate speech should be accompanied by serious reflection on the strategies and actions to be taken. In particular, Moeller pushed for better education regarding digital skills starting in schools, for the inclusion of such issues in MBA and graduate curricula. Finally, he encouraged scientific research about public language and on how communication can influence the peace process.

Mr Jamal Qaiser, Diplomatic Council Commissioner for UN Affairs, concluded the session by agreeing with Moeller’s argument that language is indeed a strong drive for either peace or conflict, and he further added that countries’ economic behaviour also strongly influences this relationship. In particular, he reflected on the fact that economic isolation is a strong peace-threatening factor and economic sanctions are perceived as ‘an act of war’. 

Barbara Rosen Jacobson

This session addressed the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in conflict resolution, and considered its positive and negative effects on society.

Providing a technical perspective, Mr Marc-Oliver Gewaltig, co-director of Neurorobotics at the Human Brain Project, emphasised: ‘Don’t believe everything you hear about artificial intelligence’. According to Gewaltig, it is important to think about what intelligence means, and to consider that not everything that appears intelligent actually is intelligent. The capabilities of today’s AI systems are still very narrow, even though people mistake them for being intelligent. Although AI systems are able to tackle well-defined problems for which information is generally available, difficulty arises when they have to deal with ‘noisy, vaguely defined problems’, such as social contexts. Therefore, AI systems are far from able to deal with the human, emotional, social, and economical aspects of decision-making.

Relating AI to global security, Mr Jean Marc Rickli, global risk and resilience cluster leader at the Leadership, Crisis and Conflict Management Programme of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), pointed at today’s exponential technical growth. Although he agreed that there is a lot of hype around AI, there are important consequences related to the deployment of AI technologies, such as the robotisation of the workforce and the risks related to autonomous weapons systems. He concluded that although success in the creation of AI ‘could be the biggest event in the history of civilisation’, there is an urgent need for education on the impact of AI, and for the improved governance of dual-use technologies.

The remainder of the session took the form of a debate between participants, on whether society will gain from AI or lose from it. Those who were convinced of AI’s positive aspects argued that it will help us better understand the complexity of today’s world, drive sustainable development, and remove language barriers. Those who were less optimistic about AI’s positive impact pointed at surveillance, the dehumanisation of war, and the lack of regulations and checks on these systems.

Arto Väisänen

Ambassador Stefano Toscano, Director of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), started the session by stating that we need to take pragmatic approach to

Ambassador Stefano Toscano, Director of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), started the session by stating that we need to take pragmatic approach towards data from a geographic information system (GIS), especially how to turn a system for recording, into a system for observing and analysing, as it can provide clarity and evidence. This is because a GIS helps to find paths to action while giving visual means of accountability among stakeholders. Toscano then went on to introduce the panellists.

Mr Corrado Scognamillo, Early Warning Specialist at the Crisis Response Unit, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), started by outlining how to harness data for early warning tools. To Scognamillo, early warning has several stages, from collection of information to taking action through analysis and use of data by decision-makers. With the existing wealth of information, connecting dots becomes an issue, which was addressed by making data flows more rational. This was done to increase emphasis on data and evidence based decision-making through combining various open source indexes into a single dashboard. He finished by stating that the organisational inertia together with balancing between scalability and context remains an obstacle. 

Mr Daniel Hyslop, Research Director at the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), said that despite the focus on big data, there is still a need to put small data to better and more coordinated use. He demonstrated a predictive model which is based on a variety of open source indexes through aggregate data analysis. According to him, models do not need to be fully accurate, as structural measures taken to address conflict still contribute towards positive peace. He finished by pointing out the need for breaking down the silos between risk management tools.

Dr Andrew Thow, Humanitarian Affairs Officer at United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), presented OCHA’s developed analytical tool which seeks to combine various forms of data and information into a geospatial model. The purpose of such a tool is to provide open source-based information to multistakeholder decision makers, and enable a more coordinated humanitarian approach in terms of analysis and decision-making in, for example, capacity building. Challenges remain in how to ensure that the sector and individual personnel know how to incorporate the tool into their analysis, while ensuring data security and sensitivity.

Mr Olivier Cottray, Head of Information Management Division at the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), said that despite the progress being made with the incorporation of GIS and data in the work of institutions, there is still a long way to go for creating systems of engagement. He also mentioned the changing role of information managers, from gatekeepers into service enablers. He ended by presenting ‘GIS for Peace’, which was created to collect good practices and procedures in the peace sector.

Mr Einar Bjorgo, Manager of the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), presented how geospatial data has so far been used for conflict prevention in Chad to defuse a potential water conflict. UNOSAT also seeks to provide capacity-building and satellite image for countries and other UN agencies.

Ms Jen Gaskell, Co-founder and Co-director of BuildUp, started by sharing how BuildUp seeks to bring new technology and innovations into peacebuilding in order to widen participation. She outlined key lessons, namely that the context still matters, together with understanding the risk to yourself and to others. She highlighted the issues of data privacy, security and sensitivity, while making data accessible to decision-makers. She finished by pointing out that while technology can widen participation, it is just a tool.

Ms Renée Larivière, Deputy Director General at Interpeace, started by saying that a GIS is a powerful tool and has evolved to cover peace activities. According to her, a GIS can provide us with robust data in mapping conflicts. She then highlighted the importance of combining hard and soft data. Such a combination is essential, as a GIS can also escalate conflicts if used poorly. She finished by pointing out analysis needs to keep sensitivities and context/nuances in mind at all times.

Open discussions ranged from other existing UN data tools, which could be even more sophisticated than the ones presented. Hyslop pointed out that the slow moving institutional root causes of conflicts are not forgotten in the analysis. The importance of providing the right information to the right decision-makers at the right time, was seen as key for the effective use of data analysis, as such personnel skill-sets need improving.

Toscano closed the debate by summarising that the models provide a tool for risk management, but that it is important to have a shared understanding and process of analysis across different sectors. He then thanked the panellists and audience, thus concluding the event. 

Guilherme Cooper Vicente

Made by Women (MbW) is a Syrian-based social enterprise that is responsible for an improvement in the livelihoods of 100 women.

Made by Women (MbW) is a Syrian-based social enterprise that is responsible for an improvement in the livelihoods of 100 women. This was achieved through international sales of the products made by these artisans. These sales, in turn, were made possible through knowledge of digital commerce tools. In this launch, sponsored by the International Trade Center (ITC) and the Permanent Mission of Japan, MbW showcased their products and discussed their experience.

Ms Dorothy Tembo, Deputy Executive Director, ITC, spoke first. She stated that the event brought together four different goals:

  • advancing women’s economic empowerment;
  • addressing the issue of refugees;
  • focusing on the power of technology; and
  • assisting micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in developing economies.

Behind them all is the notion, espoused by the ITC, that trade is a force for good, which can be used to help MSMEs contribute to their countries’ growth. In certain countries, such work requires strategic partners, such as MbW. Technology facilitates the search for such partners.  In addition to promoting the economic empowerment of its associates, MbW’s focus on native crafts is key to uniting 100 collaborators originating from diverse backgrounds. Tembo finished by recommending that the international community consider peaceful trade as part of the solution to the issues of disempowered women and migrants.

Next, Mr Kansuke Nagaoka, Minister, Permanent Mission of Japan, remarked that collaborating on this project was not only his responsibility, but his pleasure. He stated that, when assisting in capacity-building programmes, the Japanese government strives to accommodate the specific needs of its partners. To exemplify this notion, Nagaoka cited his country’s recent announcement to provide Syrian students with educational opportunities. To him, that same perspective is present in Japan’s decision to sponsor MbW.

Ms Rania Kinge, Social entrepreneur, told the story of MbW, explaining how it was ‘conceived and made’ in a ‘complete warzone’. In 2012, while visiting shelters for displaced women in Damascus, Kinge wondered how she could help them look beyond their situation and ‘educate their children in a more stable environment’. She decided to teach them how to make a product. Four criteria informed her choice of the ‘I love Syria’ bracelets:

  • the product had to be made within one day;
  • it had to generate income in that same day;
  • production had to be independent of electricity; and
  • it had to be sold in bulk.

Starting with a team of six, MbW sold 50,000 bracelets in their first year. Nevertheless, if it is already difficult for social enterprises to break even, the odds increase tenfold for such businesses in warzones. Thus, in 2015, when she could not bear it anymore, Kinge typed ‘ethical fashion’ on her browser’s search bar. This ordinary use of technology led her to the ITC, a like-minded organisation that also believes in empowerment through trade. Although they could not immediately finance MbW, ITC staff personally contributed to bring part of the MbW team to Geneva, to showcase its products. The proceeds of this visit enabled MbW to sustain 20 workers for two years. Later, with the assistance of Japan, this number doubled, and then quintupled.  Now, 100 women who had no prior skills earn twice the salary of a Damascus graduate professor. Kinge believes that this model should be replicated around the world. Indeed, following MbW’s appearance in the media, she received requests to share their expertise with groups not only in other cities in Syria, but also in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, and Turkey.

To conclude MbW’s presentation, Kinge invited Mr Esmaeel Eid, Production manager, MbW, to share his experience of the project. Replying to her questions, Eid described the dangers of their activity and what motivates him to risk his life for it. In his view, providing a better future for 100 women is enough incentive to persevere in the face of bombardments or road checkpoints. When asked about the organisation’s expectations, he listed the increase in the number of associates as a priority, second only to the need to find an easier way of obtaining their raw materials.

In the ensuing Q&A, Kinge fielded questions pertaining to the instrumental role of the ITC in aiding MbW, the difficulty of working in a country under sanctions, and how the humanitarian community can assist MbW.

The 2017 edition of the Geneva Peace Week will be held on 6–10 November 2017, in Geneva, Switzerland. 

The initiative is facilitated by the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, and the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform, in collaboration the Swiss Confederation. Through meetings and events on topics related to the promotion of peace, the Geneva Peace Week aims to maximise synergies between organisations in Geneva focused on peace, and attempts to break down the silos which often characterise the international community and can limit more creative responses.

This year, the Geneva Peace Week will focus on the theme of 'Prevention and effective pathways for implementation'. It will give participants from multiple sectors and institutions an opportunity to take stock about the progress towards solutions for the prevention of violent conflicts and to look into the future of prevention practice.

For more information, visit the event website.


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