UNDESA vs CSTD at the February 2010 open consultation

Since the last post here, I have been elected the co-coordinator of the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus (though I don’t wear that hat while blogging here). So rather than submitting my own statement to the February open consultation meeting, I guided the development of a consensus statement, in which the IGC called for better accountability and transparency of the Secretariat, highlighted the need to ensure that the IGF’s outputs are transmitted to relevant external institutions, and suggested the formation of thematic working groups to develop background material, synthesise discussion on major themes, and so on.

Whilst there was no consensus within the IGC on the point, there was an obvious overall consensus of the open consultation meeting that the number of workshops should be reduced, and more strongly linked to the main sessions. Nitin Desai, ever resistant to such proposals for increasing the IGF’s focus and effectiveness, protested that “if we are not going to have so many workshops, how shall we handle it? – because then we clearly cannot have an open house.”

Frankly, it isn’t an open house anyway. Three years after reactionary forces in the MAG lost their battle to keep discussion of critical Internet resources out of the Forum, they are still filtering out the most contentious themes. This was made clear by one of the IGC’s MAG representatives, in explaining that we can call for a main theme on human rights until we are blue in the face, but that it will never be adopted whilst certain MAG members (read: China) can veto it. Thus it has been determined that the overall theme for the Vilnius meeting will be the suitably bland “Internet governance, developing the future together”.

But the most entertaining part of the meeting came at the end, with the fight between UNDESA (the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs) and the CSTD (Commission on Science and Technology for Development), regarding the former’s decision to withhold from the latter the UN Secretary-General’s recommendations to the General Assembly on the desirability of the continuation of the Forum. Instead, UNDESA proposed to deliver those recommendations directly to ECOSOC for its comment.

To understand this, the roles of these three organisations should be understood. UNDESA hosts the IGF Secretariat and is directly responsible for reporting to the United Secretary General on the views of stakeholders on the continuation of the IGF; it is not a representative body. ECOSOC is a UN body with 54 member states, and accredited NGO observers, that amongst other functions advises the General Assembly. The CSTD is a committee of ECOSOC specifically tasked by the Tunis Agenda with responsibility for conducting system-wide followup on the implementation of WSIS, using a multi-stakeholder approach; it has 42 member states plus non-state observers (who need not be accredited NGOs).

So, logically, the Secretary-General’s recommendations should probably have first gone to the CSTD, which will be meeting in May, before ECOSOC; since ECOSOC will probably end up consulting CSTD anyway, but we will lose several months while the document is forwarded back and forth. These were the points made by the CSTD representative, who acidly remarked as follows:

I am, first of all, very pleased to learn today that we will not have the CSTD report of the Secretary-General concerning the future of the IGF. That’s very interesting, very interesting piece of information. I take note of it and I think I am not the only one here to take note of that.

However, I should like to make one or two points. In the whole summit of the system and follow-up to the summit, the CSTD was given the task of considering the well-known WSIS follow-up. And I believe, and I think everyone agrees with me, that IGF is part of the WSIS follow-up.

Secondly, I should also like to draw attention to a point. The CSTD in May is to consider the well-known report on NS cooperation. Why does the CSTD have to consider this report? Because this report, last year, went directly to ECOSOC, and ECOSOC said ECOSOC cannot discuss this report. It’s far too complex. It’s a difficult issue. And therefore, experts need to consider it. So ECOSOC decided to send this NS cooperation, NS cooperation to the CSTD. Perhaps, Mr. Chairman, that is also what is also being contemplated here, that this year the report is going to go to ECOSOC and then ECOSOC will send it back to CSTD for the following year. But that, of course, will mean we will have lost a year in the meantime.

Finally, I would like to make another point concerning the multistakeholder approach. The CSTD has the advantage of taking a broader approach to the multistakeholder aspect. By that I mean that the CSTD also provides for consultations with the private sector, which ECOSOC does not do. And also with a broader view of consultations with civil society. Thus, as the chair of the CSTD this year, these are the points I wanted to make so that everyone can also have a clear idea of what is needed for the next meeting in May 2010 in Geneva.

It may have been an entertaining exchange, but was also important. By bypassing the CSTD, consideration of the Secretary-General’s recommendations is being kept away from the broadest number of non-governmental stakeholders. It is to be hoped that UNDESA has the good sense to reconsider its position.