How a Secure Cyberspace is Negotiated at the UN

By Maya Plentz

United Nations, 24th February 2020

The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), organized a talk with Ambassador Guilherme de Aguiar Patriota, the current Chair of the Government Group of Experts (GGE), and Ambassador Jürg Lauber, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, who leads the multi-stakeholder Open Ended Working Group (OEWG), to discuss issues of cybersecurity, more precisely the norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace.

With the OEWG, the UN has opened the discussions to actors in the private sector and NGOs. The Government Group of Experts is composed of 25 state-members, only governments are allowed, and they will be presenting a report in 2021.

The OEWG is more inclusive and focuses primarily on issues of ransomware attacks and other cybercrime activities that are so called “below the threshold of what would be called cyber warfare”.

The discussion was moderated by Ms. Renata Dwan, the Executive Director of United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, (UNIDIR), who leads the UN institute in Geneva.  UNIDIR organizes theses events to informally bring together the main actors in the disarmament sector. 

The debate on norms is becoming a priority issue, as threats have escalated in recent years, and technology changes at an incredibly rapid pace.  The GGE and the OEWG are sharing the same secretariat, so there is a sense that the discussions will be more inclusive, meaning, the NGOs and private sector actors will have a say and indirectly influence outcomes on normative frameworks.

What is the role of multistakeholder groups? This event has been “a step in the direction of creating greater cooperation between the two groups”, stated Ms. Dwan.

Ambassador Lauber praised the participation of all stakeholders, reminding that ultimately it is the governments will decide on the outcomes, in terms of a convention, but all stakeholders play a crucial role in advancing the negotiations.

How do the OEWG shapes the GGE discussions?

Ambassador Patriota stated that although the outcomes, reports of the different bodies, are separate (the GGE delivers a report in 2021), they certainly inform each each other. The GGE priorities are international peace and security, while the OEWG focus on the operationalisation of cyber norms. What does success looks like? A report that is far-reaching, with a common layer of agreements.

Consensus is what also success looks like, according to Ambassador Lauber. Delegations need to come together and be much more ambitious, he suggests. The variety of topics and how complex the issues are, both at international security level and at the level of its economic impact in the day-to-day lives of citizens, and in the continuity and trust in business environments.

But how can we move away from the “doom and gloom” narratives? Are the inputs from NGOs and private sector useful to GGE? Are the existing protocols and the aimed for norms compatible?

Capacity building concerns two aspects. How can these two groups help governments at the policy level, how can governments be supported? There is a positive narrative in what touches the GGE, as they are calling for “responsible state behavior”.  To regulate cyberspace is not easy, the question is how to encourage countries to adopt responsible behavior? Capacity building and international cooperation are going hand-in-hand. Less developed countries are perhaps the most vulnerable.

The question of the blurring of issues regarding international peace and security and transnational crime arise frequently,  in terms of the scope of the mandates of each group.  One challenge, an issue often brought up, is the proliferation of processes, so it seems that coordination is fundamental.

For some it is not really a concern, as the GGE is at the forefront at the discussion at the national level, and the GGE experts brings their own perspectives, they are not representing their government views.  International Humanitarian Law (IHL),  applies to some circumstances, but the changing landscape of emerging threats require that a greater range of technical and diplomatic expertise be absorbed in both groups.

There are lots of common ground and synergies that the OEWG and the GGE can explore and develop. Both the knowledge base of the GGE, and the familiarity of the processes are necessary for the development of normative frameworks of international weight. It is progressive in nature, which is not bad, and will certainly be a discussion that will continue to drive and change policy at the international level.

 

END

By Maya Plentz