Disarmament Insight


Friday, 7 March 2008

Shall the geeks inherit the earth?

Outside the largest conference rooms at UN Headquarters in Geneva, there are several discreet booths containing telephones. Most delegates to UN conferences these days have no idea they're there. Many would be surprised, and probably bemused, to learn that the dusty, disused booths exist for their use, provided they can reach the international operator to authorize their collect calls to capitals.

Like certain other aspects of the 'community of practice' to which disarmament diplomats belong, the UN's delegate phone booths are something of an anachronism in today's world of mobile phones, wi-fi laptops and 'push' e-mail devices like the Blackberry. In a post on Disarmament Insight last year, Patricia Lewis shared some observations about how she thought such wireless devices were changing the practice of diplomacy in settings like New York.

As readers know, I recently attended the Wellington Conference on cluster munitions. Nowhere have the implications of new technology on a multilateral disarmament process been more stark to me.

Let's consider my own case, for instance. I carried a laptop of course, equipped with a built-in webcam, wi-fi and a flash card reader, which enabled me to transfer pictures or movies quickly from my digital camera. It also enabled me to save and edit the contents of my digital field recorder (sort of a souped-up dictaphone-cum-portable recording studio). It's also possible, of course, to record interviews and sessions using a laptop and the right audio cable. I saw several delegates doing this, which adds a new dimension to "the diplomatic record" of an international meeting.

While I wrote my daily reports for DI readers nightly, it would have been perfectly feasible to send out pictures, audio, messages and even video almost in real time from the Conference. In fact, like Geneva, New York and many other parts of the world, it's easy to get on-line with a commercial hot spot in Wellington for only a few dollars an hour, and upload to sites like YouTube or, indeed, Disarmament Insight.

Moreover, it's fair to say that digital equipment connected to the internet is transforming the ability of civil society advocates to co-ordinate internationally in order to try to influence government polices - not only with national delegates in the vicinity of the conference room, but indirectly by engaging with authorities in capitals to try to have delegation instructions changed.

Thanks to instantaneous communication, NGO information is sometimes more up-to-date and more comprehensive about negotiating dynamics than those of governments, thanks to the slower reporting cycles of encrypted official cables. Moreover, one Cluster Munition Coalition delegate, a veteran of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty process told me,

"Ten years ago, when we depended on faxes and international calls, we couldn't have afforded this level of co-ordination, let alone been able to sustain it".
And government officials themselves are looking more broadly for analysis and information. For many years, independent analysts like those of WILPF and the Acronym Institute have, for instance, published excellent analyses of multilateral processes like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meetings and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations. Diplomats take note of these. But such reports were usually not timely enough to feed directly into delegation decision-making cycles, and mainstream media analysis wasn't detailed or engaged enough. That's changing too.

Nevertheless, while keen to avail themselves of benefits like these, some government officials also seem a bit uneasy about the implications of greater transparency and the involvement of more of the great unwashed in multilateral processes. As diplomats they are, after all, the representatives of peoples - not largely unaccountable specialist interests like NGOs. And there was certainly some on-the-margins grumbling among a number of them about the degree and kind of NGO pressure on them. It was mixed with respect for the substantive knowledge and tactical ability of non-state experts to mix it with states in the informal consultations.

In the wake of the Mine Ban Treaty a decade ago, some claimed it heralded a "new diplomacy" between governments and civil society actors co-ordinating on international issues of human concern. But there was disappointment when it seemed not to eventuate in other areas of international security. Is it now almost here, thanks to collaborative technologies of the Web 2.0? Or is it just in the Oslo Process? And are these new developments entirely good or bad? What do readers think?

John Borrie

Picture of a sculpture in Kingston Upon Thames in the UK by David Mach called "Out of Order". Photo by Maria Kristin Steinisson, downloaded from Flickr.