Whereas digital technologies offer “boundless opportunities” for the United Nations to detect crises, position humanitarian stocks and design data-driven peacebuilding programmes, they can also affect conflict dynamics for the worse, the Organization’s political affairs chief told the Security Council today.
“The benefits of digital technologies for the maintenance of international peace and security are manifold,” said Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. In Yemen, the United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement has used mapping, geographic information systems and satellite tools to enhance its monitoring of the ceasefire, she noted, adding that the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has held five digital dialogues — each involving more than 1,000 participants — increasing the legitimacy of a process in which communities see that their voices can be heard.
At the same time, the number of State- and non-State-sponsored incidents of malicious use of digital technologies for political or military ends has nearly quadrupled since 2015, according to some estimates, she said. The targeting of vital infrastructure, such as health and humanitarian agencies, is a particular concern, while lethal autonomous weapons raise similar questions about human accountability for the use of force.
“Machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant, and should be prohibited by international law,” she affirmed, emphasizing that more must be done to counter such behaviour. She drew attention to the call for a global digital compact, outlined in the Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda report, that would outline shared principles for an “open, free and secure digital future for all”.
Along similar lines, Nanjala Nyabola, Director of Advox — the digital rights project of Global Voices — said that after years of unchecked tech optimism, the world is now in a moment of cynicism, as many risks previously discussed are materializing today. “Our appetite for digitalization is outpacing our awareness of its implications, and with the mounting evidence of the harms this disordered approach makes possible,” she added.
Citing an alarming rise in “the global surveillance economy” and widespread use of technologies such as Pegasus against political leaders, journalists and civil society members, she echoed calls for a global moratorium on the development and sale of surveillance technologies and pressed the Council to exert pressure on private corporations to comply with such a ban. She also pointed to a dramatic rise in the use of laws that unjustly expand the definition of criminal libel to make almost all criticism of State officials illegal. “Digital rights and human rights, and any effort to address these challenges, must first begin with the protection of the human from excesses of power of the State and private corporations,” she emphasized.
On that point, Dirk Druet, Adjunct Professor at McGill University Center for International Peace and Security Studies and Non-resident Fellow at the International Peace Institute, said United Nations operations have been drawn into the strategies of parties aiming to influence the outcomes of conflicts in their favour. Emphasizing that the United Nations should take on a more explicit and deliberate role as an information actor in conflict environments, he said access to accurate information can increasingly be considered as a human right in situations of information warfare. The Organization has a role in truth-telling, and as a conduit for reliable information, he added.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates outlined the challenges of calibrating the use of digital technologies, with several pointing to their abuse in ongoing conflicts around the globe.
The representative of the United States, Council President for May, spoke in her national capacity, pointing to disinformation campaigns against United Nations peacekeepers in the Central African Republic and Mali, as well as the disconnection of Internet access by authorities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. “These practices are as wrong as they are widespread,” she stressed.
Albania’s representative was among several who pointed to the Russian Federation’s actions in Ukraine. He blamed Moscow for causing communication outages in critical infrastructure in that country and other parts of Europe by deliberately attacking a satellite just one hour before launching the invasion. He said countries of the western Balkans are being targeted by campaigns of interference and information manipulation to trigger instability and undermine their Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
In turn, the Russian Federation’s representative blamed a cyberarmy under the command of Western Governments for spawning numerous uncorroborated sources. While Western media have become “factories for fakes”, IT giants have blocked the accounts of anyone who contravenes the Western elites. Denouncing cybertotalitarianism, marked by the shuttering of Russian channels and the blocking of Russian sites, he demanded the demilitarization of the information space, pointing to a set of draft rules for responsible conduct proposed by the Russian Federation on behalf of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
China’s representative said it is “worrisome” that some Governments politicize scientific or technological issues, abuse State power and want only to suppress the gains of companies, adding that they have imposed technology blockades on certain countries and bullied them over their scientific and technology practices. He called for a rational and open-minded approach, a halt to the creation of divisions around the globe, including in the Asia-Pacific region, and an end to the use of coercive measures to force countries to take sides as well as other destructive measures to destabilize supply chains.
More broadly, India’s representative emphasized the need to address abuse of digital technologies by terrorist groups, highlighting, in particular, the emergence of new financial technologies, virtual currencies, online fundraising methods and crowd-funding platforms.
Taking a nuanced view, Gabon’s representative said the use of drones is becoming “the option of choice” for monitoring and surveillance, which allows for timely reactions and minimizes collateral damage. However, he expressed concern about the robotization and digitization of battlefields, underlining that United Nations peacekeepers and national armed forces must have adequate technology to respond to emerging threats.
The representative of the United Arab Emirates similarly stressed that terrorist and extremist groups must not be allowed to use the Internet to propagate their agendas and manipulate its billions of social media users.
Also speaking today were representatives of France, Kenya, Mexico, Ghana, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Norway, United Kingdom and Ireland.
The meeting began at 10:03 a.m. and ended at 12:35 p.m.