Unpacking the UN Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies

Personnel of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) using monitoring and surveillance technology. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Earlier this month, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres published a “Strategy on New Technologies.” Framed as an overarching guide for the entire UN system, the strategy sets out to define how new technologies—including artificial intelligence, biotechnology, material sciences, and robotics—can be utilized towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the goals of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This new strategy follows on the accelerated efforts over the past year by the UN system to grapple with rapid technological advances and the multi-faceted ways in which they impact its core work in peace and security, development, human rights, and humanitarian action. The secretary-general identified frontier technologies and their impacts as core priorities for the UN in a January 2018 speech, and appointed a High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation in July.

The strategy offers valuable insights into how the UN system views multilateralism and its role in shepherding societies and the UN itself into new eras of progress. It also raises important questions, without clear answers, that speak to core challenges that member states and multilateral organizations will ultimately need to tackle head-on.

The Strategy: What It Entails and What it Advances

Secretary-General Guterres frames the new strategy by highlighting the great promise and potential risks—both anticipated and unintended—of new technologies. He offers a birds-eye overview of how he will guide the Secretariat, as well as UN agencies, funds, and programs (AFPs), to engage and incorporate new technologies throughout their work. The secretary-general outlines five guiding principles that are accompanied by four strategic commitments. The strategy does not delve deep into any single substantive area (i.e., peacekeeping or innovative development financing), where specific strategies may already be in place.

The new approach in the strategy should help the UN better position itself to address and incorporate new technologies into its work. One of its positive attributes is the call for collective action. The strategy’s overarching symbolic message should not be taken for granted: it presents a clear case for multilateralism in addressing issues related to new technologies. It asserts that collective action is necessary to not only mitigate the potential risks of new technologies, but also to help ensure that new technologies help work towards achieving inclusive socio-economic development and sustainable peace. These positive affirmations speak strongly to recommendations emerging from the 2016 Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM), which underscored the urgency of collective action in the face of new technologies.

Another important factor is the emphasis on learning and partnerships through bottom-up approaches. Unlike most issues in the UN where governments are framed as the central actors, this strategy makes clear that the UN system, in addition to being a leader, must also continuously learn from and engage non-government actors. Private companies, institutions, and individuals have much more institutional space to conduct research and development (R&D). But beyond R&D, innovation is most often led by the individuals, communities, and institutions directly faced with certain obstacles. Proposed regular interactions between UN Country Teams and senior UN leadership, designed to share new projects and local solutions, epitomize this kind of interactive and bottom-up approach. 

A third positive aspect is the inward focus on incorporating new technologies into the UN’s work. The strategy explains that while some UN agencies and departments are already employing machine learning, robotics, and computational sciences, “…certain parts of the system still function as a 20th century institution trying to solve 21st century problems.” A more thorough incorporation of new technologies into the analytical and operational aspects of the UN’s work should improve efficiency and mandate delivery. In one small but significant example, machine learning techniques featured prominently in the dos Santos Cruz report’s pattern analysis of interview transcripts with peacekeepers and civilian staff. In addition to improving processes, it urges modernizing the UN’s workforce and having staff become proficient in new tools.

A fourth aspect is how the analytical deep-dives that new technologies make possible can be applied to critical human-security issues. Among the many industries and applications discussed in the strategy, the secretary-general commits to focusing on the future of employment and food security. These areas fall within the UN’s core development and humanitarian work. While various UN agencies are already seized with these topics, they are human-security driven issues ripe for integrated, analytical studies. Provided that new technologies will have disruptive and potentially unanticipated impacts on labor markets and food ecosystems, the UN is right to prepare itself and assume a leading role in developing and promoting collective, multi-stakeholder responses.

A final positive attribute is the strategy’s recognition of the nexus between new technologies and their risks for international peace and security. New technologies are increasingly changing the nature and dynamics of international conflict. Cyberwarfare, unmanned aerial drones, and combat robots are just three examples of the profound technological advances that may shape warfare over the coming decades. Beyond new technologies, state and non-state actors can employ existing technologies to advance their own goals in the midst of violent conflict and war, raising profound ethical, normative and strategic questions about the future of warfare. The secretary-general does not shy away from recognizing that the Security Council may not readily consider these issues, and thus the Strategy presents a positive role for the UN system in this regard.

Questions Left Unanswered

While the strategy offers some tangible advances for how the UN system will approach and engage new technologies, it leaves critical questions and gaps on the table. How these issues are addressed—or not addressed—may ultimately define the strategy’s long term impact.

Agreement on principles, values, obligations, and responsibilities: The secretary-general rightly acknowledges that the only way for new technologies to meaningfully address global challenges is through “agreement about the principles, values, obligations and responsibilities that should guide the design, development and uses of these technologies.” However, this represents the most arduous task confronting the UN system. There are no clear, universal normative approaches to dealing with core issues regarding frontier technologies. For example, the ubiquity of the internet leads to questions of: who owns information and who has the right to access it? What rights do individuals have to privacy? How should tensions between individual liberties and collective security be mitigated? Similarly, the role of new technologies in conflict settings raise important questions about the applicability of international human rights and humanitarian legal frameworks. Different communities, countries, and regions take divergent approaches to these issues, so the task of achieving consensus is enormous. While the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation may offer valuable insights and recommendations, the extent to which the secretary-general can foster consensus amongst member states will ultimately define the extent of the UN’s influence on shaping norms and policy.

Closing the “digital divide”: Surprisingly, the strategy pays little attention to the question of the “digital divide”—the inequalities between communities with and without affordable access to quality internet and technology. Recent research highlights growing inequalities across countries in terms of internet access; similarly, poorer countries are often burdened with the most expensive internet access. While internet is just one facet of technological development, it is a near ubiquitous aspect of contemporary social and economic life, and underpins virtually all modern technology. In 2017, the Human Rights Council passed a non-binding resolution affirming that all rights to individual freedom of expression apply to individual expression on the internet, noting its important roles in promoting socio-economic development and education. In the coming years, the UN system may face increasing pressure to ensure this is a central aspect of their strategic approach.

Aligning the strategy within the UN reforms process: The secretary-general’s strategy is unclear about the extent to which this new strategy will align or integrate with the management reform processes currently underway, including reform of the Office of Information Communications and Technology (OICT), and the pending Human Resources reform. The single, integrated OICT is expected to consolidate all of the Secretariat’s ICT functions “to ensure flexibility, opportunity and security, recognizing the different “business models” of the various entities in the Secretariat, and move away from the one-size-fits-all approach.” Oversight and monitoring for this strategy will be undertaken by the EOSG Strategic Planning and Monitoring Unit, through a newly created New Technology Reference Group. It is unclear what role OICT is expected to play in this strategy, or how it will support these strategic commitments.

Similarly, reforms to the UN Secretariat’s human resources system, expected to come under discussion during the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, will have to meaningfully take the strategy into account. In order for the UN system—and the Secretariat in particular—to create opportunities for staff to meaningfully incorporate these technologies into their work, they must be afforded the opportunity to “fail constructively.” Accountability for staff innovations and tools should not exclusively be measured according to narrow definitions of success, but must holistically examine innovative methods and approaches that offer value and insight, even if they do not achieve the desired outcome. This iterative process of learning should be reflected in accountability measures for senior and junior levels of staff alike. 

Mapping existing initiatives within UN system: While the strategy offers some guidance about proposed oversight and monitoring mechanisms, it understates the amount work necessary to ensure effective horizontal learning. The UN Innovation Network provides some overview of the various initiatives across the AFPs, but it is not a comprehensive record. The immediate step would be for the UN Secretariat and the AFPs to undertake a detailed mapping of all the ways in which new technologies already feature in their work (both internal work and external). These records and analysis would provide a valuable platform upon which the Executive Committee and the Chief Executives Board for Coordination could base their proposed stocktaking and coordination exercises. In addition, they would better support the secretary-general’s request for enhanced reporting on the impacts of new technology across the UN’s peace and security, humanitarian, human rights and development areas.

New technologies are becoming increasingly critical enablers for how the UN undertakes its work. The secretary-general’s forward-looking strategy better positions the UN system to capitalize on these technologies and incorporate innovations into its daily practices. Whether or not it succeeds, however, depends on how fast he can achieve consensus amongst member states and mobilize the UN system to change as quickly as the world around it.

Daniel Forti is a Policy Analyst in the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).