4.3 THE ROLE OF THE UN
The UN’s three foundational pillars – peace and security, human rights and development – position it well to help spotlight issues emerging in the digital age and advocate on behalf of humanity’s best interests. In our consultations, we heard that despite its well-known weaknesses, the UN retains a unique role and convening power to bring stakeholders together to create the norms and frameworks and assist in developing the capacity we need to ensure a safe and equitable digital future for all people.
Digital technologies are increasingly impacting the work of the UN in three ways: changing the political, social and economic environment in the ways this report has discussed; providing new tools for its core mandates; and creating new policy issues.
UN entities have begun to embrace the digital transformation and are revamping programmes and launching initiatives to apply digital technology to further their missions. Some UN agencies – such as UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – have made a priority of exploring how the digital transformation can provide them with new approaches to achieve their mandates. The Task Force on Digital Financing of the SDGs, for example, will explore how digital technologies can be leveraged to finance the SDGs.212
When digital issues often do not fit neatly within the traditional mandates of UN agencies, some have sought to expand their mandates, causing overlaps and friction. This duplication also causes confusion for external partners and stakeholders, who find it difficult to discern among the many fora, events and initiatives hosted by various parts of the UN on science, technology and innovation issues and policy setting. Some UN entities have responded to converging mandates by launching cross-cutting initiatives. For example, in 2010 the ITU and UNESCO established the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development; in 2016 the ITU, UN Women, the International Trade Centre (ITC), the GSM Association (GSMA), UNESCO and the United Nations University set up the EQUALS partnership to tackle the digital gender gap.
UN entities have also tended to go about digital issues in their own way, often without sharing information, at times duplicating each other’s work, and not reflecting on whether the systems they are building might scale to other UN entities. UN agencies can do much more to pool their human and computing capacities and develop shared tools and common standards – for example, through joint procurement of cloud computing, to reduce price and increase interoperability, and promoting open and interoperable standards for data produced and used by the UN.
The UN has begun to engage the private sector and tech community much more directly. For example, Tech Against Terrorism, a public/private partnership launched in April 2017 by the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, aims to support the technology industry to develop more effective and responsible approaches to tackling terrorists’ use of the internet, while respecting human rights. However, working with stakeholders such as the private sector and civil society is still not part of the DNA of many UN agencies. More can be done to partner with other stakeholders effectively and consistently.
How can the UN add value in the digital transformation?
As a convener – The AI for Global Good Summit, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, ITU’s Global Symposium for Regulators, the WSIS Forum, the Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (STI Forum).
Providing a space for debating values and norms – the IGF, the Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security, Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Privacy and on the promotion and protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, UNESCO’s Artificial Intelligence with Human Values for Sustainable Development initiative, UNICEF’s efforts around children’s online safety.
Standard setting – ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector, the UN Statistical Commission and its Global Working Group on Big Data for Official Statistics, WHO guidelines on digital health interventions, the Humanitarian Data Exchange – an open platform and standard for sharing data across crises and organisations.
Multi-stakeholder or bilateral initiatives on specific issues – EQUALS: The Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age, the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster hosted by WFP, the UN Global Compact’s Breakthrough Innovation for the SDGs Action Platform, the Famine Action Mechanism hosted by the World Bank and the UN in partnership with industry.
Developing the capacity of member states – UNDP’s Accelerator Labs, the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, UN Global Pulse Labs, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s trainings, the Digital Blue Helmets initiative, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Programme on Cybercrime.
Ranking, mapping and measuring – the annual E-Government Survey produced by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research’s Cyber Policy Portal, an online reference tool that maps the cybersecurity and cybersecurity-related policy landscape, ITU’s Measuring the Information Society report and Global Cybersecurity Index.
Arbitration and dispute-resolution – The World Intellectual Property Organization’s Internet Domain Name Process, the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law.
Created by the innovation units of several UN agencies in 2015, the UN Innovation Network is working on sharing best practices and recommending harmonisation of policies which may help reduce fragmentation across the UN system. The UN’s highest-level coordination body, the Chief Executives Board for Coordination, is trying to encourage more system-wide coordination through initiatives such as the UN Data Innovation Lab and UN data privacy principles. The High-level Committee on Programmes could also have a role to enable more knowledge sharing, efficiencies of scale and scaling up of successful practices and initiatives across the UN system.
The development of the UN Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies, issued in September 2018, has helped identify points of overlap and convergence, and UN agencies meet regularly to track progress. The strategy notes that the Secretary-General may consider appointing a “Tech Envoy” following the work of this Panel.
The UN can play a key role in enhancing digital cooperation by developing greater organisational and human capacity on digital governance issues and improving its ability to respond to member states’ need for policy advice and capacity development.