Cyber Peace & Security Monitor, Vol. 2, No. 7

Editorial: Consensus, multilateralism, and cyber peace—the marathon continues for the UN’s cyber working group
31 July 2022

Allison Pytlak

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In his closing remarks to an earlier session of the UN’s Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on information and communications technology (ICT), its chairperson likened the OEWG to being a marathon, rather than a sprint. “In a marathon, what is important is not how fast you run the first mile, but how strong you finish the last mile. This week I think we ran a good first mile. But we have many more miles to go. To go far, we need to go together. 

Building on this, one could view the OEWG’s third substantive session, which took place from 26–29 July 2022, as the challenging “middle miles” of the race. The initial euphoria has faded, and one must rely on fortitude and focus to keep moving forward. The primary task of the third session was for member states to adopt an annual progress report, which quite literally is intended to keep the group moving forward by recommending next steps. And while member states did adopt such a report, the process of getting there was not without its hurdles. Some of these obstacles relate to longstanding differences of opinion and perspective about topics relating to international cyber peace and security, while other hurdles are bringing into focus that states may have differing views on the role and purpose of the OEWG, which naturally has implications for its future work. States also have different views about how to connect the OEWG’s work with real-world instances of ICT misuse—in a uniquely challenging geopolitical context.

The political side of procedural issues

One of the first orders of business at the third session was to address pending organisational items on the agenda, notably the formal adoption of the modalities for civil society accreditation to OEWG sessions which were agreed to only in April, after months of painstaking negotiation. However, this discussion further revealed the political nature of procedural issues. Despite the establishment of a process and modalities that explicitly encourage member states to utilise the non-objection mechanism judiciously when reviewing accreditation requests from civil society groups, and the accreditation of 71 such groups, more than 30 organisations were denied accreditation. A small number of these are Russia-based groups, to which Ukraine objected. Ukraine explained that it had deemed the organisations to have a relationship with the government and that was the basis of its objection.

Russia objected to the other groups. They are not based in Ukraine, but many different countries. Most have significant records of work on cyber issues, and a few offer a purely technical perspective, such as incident first responders, and do not engage in policy work. No rationale or reason has been provided for these objections by Russia.

It should be noted that Russia also objected to civil society from participating in some of the meetings last week in the context of the Group of Governmental Experts on autonomous weapons in Geneva. As WILPF noted in its report from the GGE on autonomous weapons, “Russia’s attempt to unilaterally declare [the meetings] ‘informal’ and to demand its own interpretation of the rules of procedure is not only an assault on civil society, but on the entire process and on the Chair’s leadership. It is also an insult to all the other delegations trying to do real work, not to mention to the valuable contributions that NGOs, academics, and other civil society actors have made to this process over many, many years.” The same can be said for the OEWG.

For its part, Russia took the floor early on to note that its OEWG expert from capital had not been able to obtain a visa from the United States (US) to participate in the meeting. Iran, Cuba, and Syria also spoke up on this issue, stating that the US has violated its host country agreement in this context as well as in other forums. And China registered that some Chinese civil society entities had not been able to get a US visa either.

Other member states called out the civil society participation issue and welcomed those groups that were able to participate in the meeting. Many of these states also condemned Russian cyber (and physical) aggression against Ukraine, which further added to the opening day tension but also brought home the urgency and salience of the topics the OEWG is mandated to discuss. The UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu recalled in her opening remarks that, “At the second substantive session in March, I spoke frankly about the extraordinary challenges facing the international community, including those of direct relevance to the work of this body. I stated plainly that the use of ICTs in support of active hostilities is unfolding before us. I noted that the present reality has been marked by serious ICT incidents. Four months later, I am afraid my assessment remains unchanged.”

Evaluating impact, determining purpose

It’s important to not lose sight of so-called “real-world context” when in UN discussions, even though some states argue that this is necessary to some extent to avoid politicisation and make progress. And certainly, it is a privilege to be talking about war and peace and human harm from the relative comfort of a conference room in New York or Geneva.

But what does this all mean for the cyber OEWG?

Since the OEWG’s first session in December 2021, its Chair has stressed his interest in seeing the Group deliver “concrete and action-oriented outcomes”. In his opening remarks to this session, he shared that he wants the progress report to be a clear roadmap for the Group’s upcoming work and make future discussions more specific. But he also reiterated the importance of adopting a report for the credibility and effectiveness of the Group, in light of the current strain on multilateralism.  

This pragmatism has guided his approach to the annual progress report, but has inadvertently illustrated the different views of member states about the role and purpose of the OEWG, even while the vast majority expressed support for the action-oriented approach (only Iran questioned the words “concrete and action-oriented” as being too subjective, and requested their deletion).  For instance, many (but not all) developing countries tended to stress a preference for the OEWG to focus on cyber capacity-building and practical actions and activities that could, among other things, close the digital divide. At the same time, many member states expressed concerns throughout the week that a few of the proposed “practical” OEWG outputs, such as in the area of capacity-building or confidence building measures, would replicate initiatives already occurring at the regional or subregional level, sometimes as implemented by non-governmental stakeholders. A few member states questioned the operational capacity of the OEWG and the UN Secretariat to carry out proposed activities in relation to data gathering and issuing reports or compilations. It is evident that some states view the OEWG as a logical space for focused discussions about thorny unresolved issues relating to international law or policy. There are also countries who would like for the OEWG to dedicate time to explore developing new voluntary norms of behaviour.

Which is not to say that these activities are necessarily mutually exclusive, but taken together, they may be more action points than can be realistically taken on in the remaining time. The OEWG has two remaining substantive sessions scheduled before it concludes work in 2025. The Chair has indicated his interest in setting out a programme for intersessional work. As the United Kingdom said in its closing remarks, the OEWG must “work to find a balance between providing member states the support they need and addressing threats to international peace and security in cyber space, which are real and escalating.”

And then there is the current political climate, rising cyber violence, and the question of if this body should be doing more to deter and hold aggressive cyber action to account—whether that be from Russia, or any other perpetrator. In our preview edition, we called for bold and ambitious steps at this session that would “create a blueprint that will set up the OEWG for success in its future meetings and send an important signal to the outside world.” On the final day of this session, more than a few states were clear about the fact that it’s not possible to be ambitious right now that and it’s better to focus on finding agreement where it is possible or what is sometimes called the “low hanging fruit”. 

 “As all of us evaluate this report we must continue to keep in mind the question of what constitutes progress,” said the United States in its intervention on Monday. It noted that the word progress is being used a great deal when talking about the adoption of a report and further asked, “How will this report and the measures in it characterise the threats we face? How does it reduce risk? Having a report that omits answers to these questions, that dances around the key issues, will mean failure—not progress.”

The US was referring to the threats faced in relation to the Russian war on Ukraine, but the remarks go the heart of concerns about the costs of consensus-based decision making, and how to gauge the impact of diplomatic efforts outside the halls of the United Nations.

The spirit of consensus versus the spirit of multilateralism

When consensus is wielded as a veto, this will always be a struggle. In the GGE on autonomous weapons referenced earlier in this editorial, consensus made it impossible to advance on a policy framework in response to the threat of autonomy in weapons after nine years of work on the issue. 

Ultimately, the OEWG report was adopted because the Chair proposed to allow states to issue “explanations of position” (EOPs) to outline their views on the version of the report that was adopted. The EOPs will be compiled into a compendium and issued as a conference document.

In closing remarks on Friday, most delegations that spoke welcomed the report even while signalling that it contains elements they are uncomfortable with. In the words of Croatia, “we are not unhappy, but UNhappy.” Some of the delegations who spoke on Friday signalled that for them, it was important to have an agreement to show that multilateralism is alive in a troubled time. “There is a weak consensus in this document,” observed Mexico. “But even the weakest multilateral step can be as solid as this very organisation.” South Africa shared its view that it is of the utmost importance that we adopt a report to give momentum to process and affirm the value of the OEWG. Considering the tense standoff over stakeholder participation modalities that dogged the OEWG’s first two substantive sessions, adopting this progress report is a step forward.

Next steps—the marathon continues

We have included a summary of the recommended next steps contained in the progress report elsewhere in this edition, as well as brief highlights from the discussion. 

The Chair indicated that he will be setting out an intersessional plan of work and is also taking ideas for this, to make use of the time between now and the next substantive session in March 2023. This might include making use of the UNGA First Committee session in October, if feasible, or working around it. A clear date for the release of the EOP compendium is not known.

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