COVID-19 has stirred global diplomacy in a new direction. The European Council was the first major organisation to hold a video conferencing summit, in which they discussed how to co-ordinate the European response to the current crisis. The EU has also moved to e-mail voting, and, for the first time ever, the 15 member states of the UN Security Council unanimously adopted four resolutions via email.
Given the importance of reflecting on the challenges of COVID-19 challenges in global diplomacy and in plans for the future, Diplo’s ConfTech Lab organised the fourth in a series of web discussions on ‘How to ensure the functional continuity of global diplomacy in a time of crisis’. Ms Dalsie Green Baniala (Palau’s Telecommunications Regulatory Advisor), Amb. Stefano Baldi (Ambassador of Italy to Bulgaria), Mr Imre Karbuczky (Director of the Meetings and Publishing Division in the UN Department for General Assembly and Conference Management), Ms Chrystiane Roy (First Secretary of the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN in Geneva and the World Trade Organization), and Mr Moctar Yedaly (Head of the Information Society of the African Union Commission) shared their experiences, the challenges they face, and their expectations for the future.
Challenges posed by ‘emergency-driven innovation’
Panelists discussed several factors that can explain why some sectors are more successful than others, such as IT infrastructure and the associated digitalisation, the skills that employees need to shift from paper-based work to a completely online environment, and the ability of employees to use the same platforms they have in their office when they work from home.
One of the major challenges to high-level meetings held online is language interpretation. To that end, UN charter bodies, such as the Security Council or the Economic and Social Council are conducting virtual meetings in English as the multilingual aspect of diplomacy is difficult to adapt to in the online arena in an agile manner.
The transition of traditional voting systems to the online space was another important challenge addressed by the panelists as the constitutions of UN agencies, such as the International Telecommunication Union, stipulate that national delegates need to be in the room in order to be allowed to vote.
What about developing countries?
The panelists agreed that the voice of small island states is yet to be heard in the UN and that more action needs to be taken by the UN, especially as functions are sharply transitioning to the digital space.
What is taken as a given in certain areas of the world is not a given everywhere, such as a reliable power supply or secure connectivity with appropriate bandwidth. An additional obstacle pertains to the language used in online meetings. English is the official language of high-level online meetings and those who do not speak the language tend to be excluded.
What will the ‘new normal’ look like?
Panelists agreed that virtual meetings will become a major part of the new reality once the crisis is over. They described a few scenarios.
In the first scenario, all participants and service providers (the secretariat and the chairperson, the meeting assistance, the documentation distribution staff, and the interpreters) will work from their individual homes. The second scenario are blended meetings - some service providers, such as interpreters, will be on the established premises, while some or all other participants will be participating remotely. In the third scenario, everybody will go back to the old normal, be on site, and only occasionally will a presenter appear remotely.
A sneak peak into Q&A
There were questions on whether it is possible to implement traditional diplomatic procedures in the online environment, or if we need to devise something new. The UN Economic Commission for Europe has drafted new special rules of procedure that will be available on their website next week.
Questions of security, particularly the confidentiality of discussions and the integrity of data shared (eg. how to ensure that voting is not altered), were also raised.
The participants also noted that there is a significant difference between webcasting and interactive meetings with simultaneous interpretation. However, there was agreement that excluding video to help improve bandwidth would hinder the assessment or the uptake of an idea or policy, and that body language and other forms of interaction cannot be observed virtually.