Intergovernmental engagement during COVID-19

By on 16 Jul 2020

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Joyce Chen participating in the APT virtual meeting.

In the last three months, APNIC participated in several intergovernmental meetings that happened virtually.

  • APNIC was invited to speak at two webinars, one organized by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and another one organized by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) about ongoing processes at the UN on ICTs in the context of international security.
  • We monitored progress in two International Telecommunication Union (ITU) processes: the Global Cybersecurity Agenda (GCA) and the World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF). 
  • We participated in the 2nd Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT) regional preparatory meeting for the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA) 2020 where 38 member states discussed common regional proposals, as well as the Internet Governance Forum Multistakeholder Advisory Group (IGF MAG) open consultation and meeting. 
  • We spoke at a series of virtual meetings commemorating the 5th anniversary of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise (GFCE). 
  • We also observed several meetings including the ITU Virtual Consultation of Councillors, ITU Telecommunication Development Advisory Group (TDAG) virtual meetings, and UN Secretary General Roadmap on Digital Cooperation launch, amongst others.

Reflections

For traditional intergovernmental institutions where the primary format for meetings has been face-to-face, going fully virtual has set a historical precedent. There were many doubts over whether intergovernmental meetings would be able to adapt, come to consensus, and make decisions in a virtual setting.

In the past three months, the ITU and the UN have held several fully virtual global meetings with varying degrees of success. In the Asia Pacific region, the APT also conducted several successful webinars and preparatory meetings for WTSA-20. 

One of the advantages of a fully virtual format is greater representation and diversity of participants. Previously, physical intergovernmental meetings were represented by a select few per economy that could afford to travel to these closed-door meetings. Economies with smaller travel budgets and small delegations tend to be at a disadvantage in terms of getting their views adequately represented.

However, virtual meetings have also brought to light the problems of unequal last-mile connectivity. Connectivity issues can present a governance risk when not all views are properly registered. In addition, virtual meetings do not lend themselves well to effective ‘corridor chats’, where many private conversations and negotiations take place at the sidelines of the meeting. The lack of corridor diplomacy affects participants’ ability to network, negotiate language or text for declarations and resolutions, or share information in a private setting. Remote participants in a virtual meeting generally come with pre-baked positions that sometimes become intractable due to the lack of opportunities for proper engagement. What results is the inability to reach a compromise in an effective and efficient manner. 

As digital platforms become more sophisticated, there is perhaps space for a hybrid engagement approach to evolve – allowing greater participation yet enabling effective discussion amongst remote participants, for example, using breakout groups and collaborative text drafting.

The transition to fully virtual meetings has not been easy, in particular, for intergovernmental institutions where traditional diplomatic rules of engagement have reigned supreme. In fact, many governments prefer to wait out the pandemic in anticipation that the more traditional forms of engagement will eventually resume. 

Although there is no rulebook or set of guidelines for engagement in a fully virtual environment, necessity dictates that policymakers will need to continue to adapt and evolve new rules of engagement to cope with this ‘new normal’.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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