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COVID-19 thrusts technology, diplomacy into spotlight at UN Security Council

This photo taken in New York on March 27, 2020, shows a view of the joint virtual briefing for member states on the COVID-19 pandemic held by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres; Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly; Zhang Jun, Permanent Representative of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations and President of the Security Council for the month of March; and Mona Juul, 75th President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations. The briefing is moderated by Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

NEW YORK (Mainichi) -- When Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, received the first telegraph message in the 1860s, his immediate response was, "My God, this is the end of diplomacy!"

    The telegraph did not kill off diplomacy, but it certainly shaped the way it was performed. Diplomacy had to adapt. The same could be said of the digital revolution that we've been experiencing since the end of the 20th century. Diplomacy was not killed off by email, Facebook, FaceTime, and YouTube, but certainly had to adapt.

    Diplomacy is now being tested once more by the novel coronavirus pandemic that we are living through, and again technology has come into spotlight -- but this time as a way to facilitate negotiations between nations.

    At the beginning of March, the United Nations, headquartered in New York, started postponing many meetings "until further notice" as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. These included conferences on marine biodiversity and indigenous issues and a conference on the Treaty on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. According to a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the pandemic will also likely affect the General Assembly -- the most important diplomatic event of the year -- in some way. New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said that according to the city's "best guess", the coronavirus crisis might end "sometime in September."

    But diplomacy continues in the Security Council on many digital platforms.

    On March 24, the Security Council convened its first video teleconferencing meeting, covering the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The same month, to minimize the risk of the virus spread, the Security Council approved new working methods, moving all discussions online, with voting on all resolutions taking place through a written procedure.

    Richard Gowan, U.N. Director of the International Crisis Group, commented, "The Security Council should try to use new technologies more to understand the crises it faces better and faster."

    At the start of every year, work at the U.N. usually picks up. In January this year, the Security Council had 26 meetings of various formats, followed by 30 in February. In March the number of planned meetings dropped from the original plan of 33 to 14 with no monthly open debate. For April, the scheduled number of meetings stands at 23. Furthermore, the Security Council's mission to Africa and all receptions were cancelled.

    "We certainly have fewer opportunities than before to discuss things, but it is still possible as we can use the technology," Ambassador of Belgium to the U.N. Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve told the Mainichi Shimbun. "Now, you need to have a good reason to call a colleague, so it is a little bit different. But we are still working, and we are in contact."

    On March 30, for the first time historically, the Security Council members voted in writing, conveying their positions via email, and the president of the Security Council announced the results through a video conference. The members unanimously approved four resolutions: one on the U.N. Assistance Mission in Somalia; one relating to the Panel of Experts assisting the work of the 1718 Democratic People's Republic of Korea; another on the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur; and a new resolution on improving safety and security of peacekeepers.

    "We were in unprecedented circumstances, and we had to find a way out of this, so we technically could not call meetings as usual, and now the solution is found, and we go on," Dmitry Polyanskiy, Ambassador and First Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the U.N., told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    So technology keeps the Security Council going. But technology cannot replace the personal level of diplomacy.

    "I think that it would be sad if the personal dimension of diplomacy is forgotten. The U.N. is still a space where diplomats can work out some problems through personal interactions and discussion, and that is still valuable," Gowan said.

    History also shows that the absence of personal interactions among diplomats can potentially unfold into dire situations.

    According to former diplomat Jovan Kurbalija, director of the DiploFoundation, a nonprofit organization promoting the use of information communications technology in diplomacy, in the July before World War I, many diplomats and politicians were physically away from their desks, enjoying their summer holidays. They relied on the telegraph and its perception of constant "presence." The confusion in telegrams and "broken messages" between Tsar Nicholas of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, slid both sides into conflict. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. What would have happened if diplomats had had the chance to meet in person?

    "The Security Council is a place where crises are managed. Members should be in direct contact in order to avoid any possible miscommunication, as was the case at the beginning of World War I," said Kurbalija.

    The war in Syria is another case where increased presence could have brought different results, according to Martin Griffiths, a U.N. Special Envoy in Yemen. Many countries decided to close down embassies after 2012 to comply with the international view criticizing the government in Syria. The lack of personal diplomacy led to the international community having "very little knowledge" of the situation on the ground.

    "I am not claiming we could have changed history. Alas, I think not. But if you want to change something first, you have to understand it. And second, you have to engage with it," Griffiths said.

    In March, the Security Council members could not agree on how much personal presence was necessary for sensitive meetings, such as voting on mandates and the adoption of new resolutions. There were also doubts about voting through video teleconferencing among the member states, with delegates of the Russian Federation, in, particular, objecting. After lengthy discussions, the members finally agreed on a written procedure to adopt resolutions.

    "There are still many glitches in technology. The video channel is not safe from cyberattacks," Ambassador Polyanskiy said. "There are many programs that can plant the image of a person and make him act like he is alive, and you will not be able to check whether it is a real person or an imposter. It is too risky. And to use electronic voting through video is a breach of the U.N. Charter."

    Furthermore, technology struggles to cover the same dimensions as personal interactions that can help to cross bridges.

    "There is nothing like physical contact, certainly when starting a new relationship, but that is different for existing relations, for which I think it is OK. But we have to see how long it will last," Ambassador Buytswerve said.

    Kurbalija added, "A genuine smile can be distinguished from a sarcastic one. But reactions to snide remarks may be difficult to disguise. ... Currently, technology is filtering parts of our communication, which affects the way we build trust, send signals, and engage in negotiations."

    It is estimated that up to 90% of conflicts come from misunderstanding. According to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles, when communicating with a person, 93% of understanding comes from non-verbal cues, such as gestures (55%) and the tone of voice (38%), and the remaining are words (7%). Unless we know the person very well, it can be difficult to assess someone's mood or interests through online communication. The help of emojis and avatars is not unlimited, and interruptions with "Can you hear me?" can worsen the atmosphere.

    Gowan, further noted the advantages of personal connections between diplomats in the Security Council. "Despite the rise of technology, diplomats in New York can use close working relations to hammer out deals that would be much harder to achieve without their personal contacts. Even if Russian and European diplomats fight a lot in public at the U.N., for example, they still often have quite good relations in private. Sometimes that helps them compromise," he said.

    Another point to consider is that technology does not allow for full transparency and openness of the meetings as before. Yet, transparency and public visibility is crucial in the impact of the Security Council. The video teleconferencing meetings of March were closed to the public. And in April, while the remarks of briefers in the open video teleconferencing debates will be streamed live, the speeches of the 15 members won't be.

    "We need more technical support," China's U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said as president of the Security Council in one of his last briefings on March 27.

    The new president of the Security Council for the month of April, Ambassador Jose Singer of the Dominican Republic, said in a briefing on work on April 1 that the Security Council would try to issue press elements after every meeting to increase transparency and circulate speeches of all 15 members.

    "The most important thing is to make it transparent (so) that the international community sees we are engaged," said Ambassador Singer. "That's the technical issue right now. It is like a big sailboat, wherever it takes us. It still needs improvement."

    But it is true that diplomats can also grow and learn from the new situation.

    If proven to be effective, the Security Council members may even end up using video more than before, and the members may end up having shorter and more focused speeches, according to Ambassador Buytswerve, who noted, "It is difficult to make very long statements online."

    Kurbalija, meanwhile, predicted, "Online tools will promote more frequent meetings. It will open the space for new actors beyond traditional diplomats. Soon, we can also expect AI at the negotiating table -- providing deeper insights based on big data beyond human processing capacities."

    Envoy Griffith says that amid conflict, technology can fulfill his dream "for an interactive conversation to be taking place with large numbers of those affected by the conflict, at the same time as their leaders sit across a table from each other and debate and decide the future of their country."

    "Any complex negotiation is better-practiced face to face. And certainly, the negotiations necessary to end a war qualify as complex. But the truth is that increasingly we are going to have to find that trust through virtual contact as opposed to our traditional reliance on meeting face-to-face. We will have to read nonverbal cues virtually," Griffiths said.

    (By Lenka White, United Nations correspondent)

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