More Consensus Needed Over Digital Technology in Africa for ‘People and the Planet’

While digital technologies have offered “boundless opportunities” for sustainable development, education and inclusion, the UN political chief warned on Monday that there is also a clear downside.

“We have a critical opportunity to build consensus on how digital technologies can be used for the good of people and the planet, while addressing their risks,” Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peace building Affairs, told the Security Council.

“But collective action by Member States remains essential towards this goal”.

Digital technologies for good

She noted that social media has transformed human rights and humanitarian advocacy, “making it possible to mobilize people around the world quickly and efficiently around issues requiring urgent action”.

In maintaining peace and security, technical developments have improved the ability to detect crises, better pre-position humanitarian aid, and create data-driven peacebuilding tools, she said.

And in conflict prevention, new digital tools have strengthened peace-making and peacebuilding, providing better information and early warning data, Ms. DiCarlo added.

She pointed to the UN Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA) in Yemen, which uses mapping and satellite technology to enhance ceasefire monitoring and increases the UN’s ability to “understand, analyze and respond to crises that may have a digital dimension, and… address digital risks”.

Political assistance

Furthermore, new technology can support political processes, particularly in promoting inclusion.

“In various peace negotiations, we have used artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted digital dialogues to reach out to thousands of interlocutors, to hear their views and priorities,” she said.

“This has been a particularly useful way to reach traditionally excluded groups, including women”.

Safety and security

They can also improve the safety and security of peacekeepers and civilian staff on the ground.

“The launch of the Strategy for the Digital Transformation of Peacekeeping represents an essential step towards this goal, and towards more effective mandate implementation – increasing early warning capacities,” said the political chief.

These tools also help visualize information and convey data-rich analysis to inform Security Council decisions – as illustrated by a recent virtual reality presentation on Colombia, highlighting the UN’s work on the ground for ambassadors.

Worrying trends

However, there are areas of concern, Ms. DiCarlo continued, citing estimates that the number of national and non-State-sponsored incidents of technology being used maliciously, has nearly quadrupled since 2015.

“Of specific concern is activity targeting infrastructure that provides essential public services, such as health and humanitarian agencies,” she said.

At the same time, lethal autonomous weapons raise questions regarding human accountability when force is used.

Echoing the Secretary-General, she called machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement, “politically unacceptable, morally repugnant, and should be prohibited by international law”.

“Non-State actors are becoming increasingly adept at using low-cost and widely available digital technologies to pursue their agendas,” warned the UN official, highlighting that terrorist groups such Al-Qaida are actively using social media platforms to recruit, plan and fundraise.

Mounting challenges

From surveillance technologies that can target communities or individuals, to potentially discriminatory AI, she drew attention to the human rights implications of new tech.

“We are also concerned about the increasing use of internet shutdowns, including in situations of active conflict, which deprive communities of their means of communication, work, and political participation,” said Ms. DiCarlo, recalling Myanmar, in which these incidents have grown in number and duration since the military coup last year.

Moreover, she continued, social media can fuel polarization and violence by spreading disinformation, radicalization, racism, and misogyny – heightening tensions and exacerbating conflict.

“In Ethiopia, as the fighting escalated, there was an alarming rise in social media posts spreading inflammatory rhetoric, with some going as far as inciting ethnic violence,” the senior UN official reminded the Council. “We also know that disinformation can hinder the ability of our missions to implement their mandates, by exacerbating falsehoods and fuelling polarization”.

Moving forward

While embracing the opportunities that new technology provides to advance peace, the risks must be mitigated and responsible use promoted by all.

Driven by the Plan of Action on Hate Speech and communication initiatives such as Verified, the UN is acting to allay these dangers by avoiding misperceptions and misunderstandings, Ms. DiCarlo told the meeting.

“However, more must be done,” she concluded, spotlighting the Global Digital Compact, which would outline shared principles for an “open, free and secure digital future for all”; the New Agenda for Peace, which takes a holistic view of global security’ and the proposed Code of Conduct for Integrity in Public Information.

Digital rights

Briefing virtually, Nanjala Nyabola, Director of Advox, the Digital Rights Project of the online community, Global Voices, highlighted the need for upholding and enforcing digital rights.

“In the last two decades we have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the use of digital technology,” she said, however it has “unfortunately not been complimented by a similar investment in protecting ourselves from the harms that the expansion has caused”.

The speed of technological progress has created problems that could have been prevented at an earlier stage, said Ms. Nyabola, calling for a broad moratorium on new surveillance technologies.

She turned the Council’s attention to digital access policies and internet shutdowns, underscoring how they negatively impact cultural and economic minorities and pose obstacles to women’s access.

“Digital rights are human rights,” she said, adding that users must be protected.

Improving peacekeeping

Dirk Druet, Adjunct Professor at McGill University’s Centre for International Peace and Security Studies, highlighted sophisticated monitoring and language-translation technologies that can improve peacekeeping effectiveness and protection.

He urged the UN to take a more deliberate truth-telling role in conflict zones and reminded that peacekeeping operations must forge their own digital technology protocols beyond those of the States they support.

Finally, Mr. Druet maintained that for local constituencies, truth-telling is directly tied to trust-building, advocating for an increased capacity to monitor and engage the “information landscape” in conflict zones.

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