Greetings from Dubai! As an advisory member of the U.S.
Delegation, I am not really able to comment on the substance of what is going
on since there is only one spokesperson for the delegation. That said, I can provide some basic
guidance for those trying to follow this at home. Because, for the first time,
you can (sort of) follow along at home through the ITU webcast of the Plennary
and Committee 5 of WCIT and the transcription of captioning. (I get to what Plenary and “Com5” are below). There is also an official ITU
Folks in the U.S. get a rather warped view of the U.N.
because we only notice it when some big news is brewing and member states are
pretty resolved in their positions. ITU – and WCIT – involves lots of nerdy
details of the kind that never get debated in the General Assembly. That means
the usual U.N. politics don’t play out as much here. Instead, a whole different
set of politics plays out here.
But lets get some nuts and bolts down. . . .
What Is The ITU and
Briefly the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is holding a meeting to consider
amendments to the International Telecommunications Regulation (ITRs). This meeting, the World Conference on
International Telecommunications (WCIT or WCIT-12; official hashtag #wcit12,
but lots of folks using #wcit) is going on right now in Dubai. You can see
general background and our involvement here.
To follow along, the ITU is a treaty org with just about
every country in the world. It is
based in Geneva and run by a Secretary General. United Arab Emirates (UAE) is
the host country, and therefore the Chair is from UAE.
Who Can Play?
Member States. The
various countries of the world are in ITU, and are the only ones who actually
vote. The term “member state” finesses a bunch of things that are kinda-sorta
country-like or situations like China and Taiwan, where each claims to be the
actual “China” and refuses to officially acknowledge the other as an
Organizations relating to international communications can join as Sector
Members. They don’t vote, but they can attend all the meetings and get access
to all the working documents. Since this is all about editing documents in
meetings, that is kind of important.
Unafiliated non-members willing to pay the registration fee can attend as
individual observers. Individual observers can attend the Plenary and Committee
5 meetings, which are webcast. They cannot get into the working groups and
cannot get access to the documents.
Where Does WCIT-12
Working Texts Come From?
WCIT operates under the general rules and procedures of the
ITU. The Secretary General, Dr. Hamadoun Toure, does not actually run the
meeting (that is the job of the Chair, Mohamed Nassir Al-Ghanim). The ITU
Council set the rules for the WCIT when they convened it, and the ITU
procedures—which are insanely confusing and require lots of experience to
understand. As a result, you can expect to see lots of points of order raised.
This also gives the chair of the plenary, and the chairs of the Committees and
the working groups.
members got to submit proposed changes to the ITRs. In addition, member states
get together in regional groups and the regional groups can submit proposals.
Generally, countries in region try not to explicitly contradict the regional
positions, but this is not absolutely true or required.
There are six regions:
[CITEL], a part of the [Organization of American States] ,
covers North and South America.
[CEPT] Covers Europe
[African Telecommunications Union] (ATU) Covers Africa.
[Asia-Pacific Telecom] (APT) Covers the Asia Pacific Region
Arab Block – Covers Middle Eastern countries not covered by
ATU and APT.
Russian Consortium – Russia and Former Soviet Republics not
covered by other regions.
As a pragmatic matter, regions tend to have their own
internal regional differences and subgroups. For example, North African
countries such as Algeria and Egypt have a lot in common culturally with the
Arab Block. West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, and South Africa have
their own concerns as well having somewhat different perspective as Sub-Saharan
Africa v. North Africa. Then there is the Francophone v. Anglophone division,
because these countries have different legal systems and perspectives. These
kinds of division – by language, by economic interest, by legal system, and
others – are replicated in every regional group.
For the last year or so, we’ve had iterative proposals submitted,
and the regional groups have met to develop regional proposals and positions.
ITU had an official deadline for final substantive proposals, although
countries can still submit process proposals at any time, as well as suggested
compromise language. (Again, this becomes a possible debating point on whether
something is new or merely process related or a modification of something
already approved for consideration.) Everything got shoved in a blender,
translated into the official languages of the conference, and distributed to
the members in the form of numbered “Temporary Documents” (DTs).
How Does Stuff Get
Things work in the following structure.
The Plenary. This
is the big gathering of all the members and the place where all official decisions
get made. Actual changes in text
must get approved by the Plenary, as do decisions on credentials and any other
In theory, the Plenary decides things by vote – one vote per
member state. But the Plenary hates to vote, because it exposes serious rifts
between member states that undermine the value of the ultimate finished
product. Also, members that are behind on their dues can’t vote in Plenary. So
Plenary tries to get a consensus draft. This does not mean that people aren’t
obsessed with vote count, since whether you think you could win or lose a vote
influences how hard you press and what you’re willing to agree to on compromise
Needless to say, Plenary does not handle the heavy lifting
itself. Plenary delegates the heavy lifting to the Committees.
(Com5). Committee 5 handles the substantive agenda, and all the nasty, prickly
definition issues (more on those below). Committee 5 also can’t handle the
volume of necessary work, so it delegates down to working groups.
(WGs) are where the hard work gets done. These tend to focus on specific issues
either relating to a subject area or defined around a specific article. Working
groups are created by the Chairman of the Committee or at the request of the
Chair of the Plenary.
But even this level of granularity can be too much to handle,
especially for highly controversial items. That leaves two other mechanisms. Ad Hoc Groups (AHG)can be created
whenever a new issue crops up and the chair of the relevant WG, Com or Plenary
decides that it doesn’t need a full working group. (Working Groups can only
form Ad Hocs, Committees can form WG or AHGs). Ad hoc working
groups are basically working groups, but on an even more specific subject than
But wait! There is a level even below AHG. The Chair of an
AHG (or anybody above in rank0 can ask a member delegate to lead an “informal
discussion” around a particular point or issue. The primary difference between an informal discussion and
anything above it is that the informal discussion does not get a text to play
with. The idea is that the parties may be able to talk something through and
come to some form of agreement without resorting to dueling texts.
So, to sum up:
Plenary –> Committee,
of which Committee 5 (Com5) is the important one –>
Working Group (WG) –>
Ad Hoc Grop (AHG) –>
Everyone reports back to the group that birthed it. So AHGs
report back to their WGs which then take that input and send it back to Com5,
which will report back up to Plenary, which will then make the necessary
changes in the ITR (or whatever other action is required).
What Happens In The
The goal is to get a text back to the Plenary, which then
passes on some number of readings. This means that all these various and sundry
working acronyms are focused on taking the various proposals and editing them
into a text that can get consensus. That means, basically, lots of people
sitting in a room arguing about specific wording for these various provisions
and whether these proposed provisions should even be added or not.
As you might imagine, this exercise is not merely painfully
complicated and painfully boring, it is also insanely confusing – especially
for those of you following along without the text. Anyone who has watched a Committee Markup on C-Span knows
how painful this can be. Now do it in five languages, with incredibly huge
stakes, over highly technical and interrelated issues. And everyone here are
professional talkers. Seriously, you do not get to be a diplomat at this level
if you cannot talk up a storm or know your procedural points and tricks. So
this stuff goes back and forth for hours.
Needless to say, you don’t tend to get a lot of agreement on
text, at least at first. So contested proposals go in square brackets (“”).
The idea is that you will mark stuff that doesn’t get consensus and keep
moving. If you can’t reach consensus at your level, then you kick it up with
square brackets to the next higher level and see if you can get resolution of
the issue at that level. Ultimately, you would vote on a potential version, but
no one wants to do that.
All of this gets captured in “temporary documents” (“DT” –
because we want to confuse you by switching to French for the acronym). The
documents are numbered in some arcane system I have not yet figured out. The
agenda for a given day gets printed with a hyperlink to the relevant DTs for
each item. The entire thing starts to get very confusing, as the chair says
“OK, Article 6, Africa Proposal 6.5A in DT 27.” At which point I expect the
delegate from Iceland to shout “Bingo” and start dancing around the room.
But of course, it is even more confusing for those at home
who don’t have access to the documents. If ITU is ever hoping to make public
participation meaningful, then access to the documents has to be a priority.
A WCIT Glossary.
DT – Temporary Document, but we will use French for the
acronym just to confuse you. Issued by the ITU Secretary through the TIES
document system and captures the proposed changes not yet agreed to.
Square brackets – Text that does not have consensus
agreement is marked by square brackets . It gets used as a noun and a verb. To
“square bracket” something means to take an exception to including it.
“I don’t understand what [X] means” – “I don’t like your
proposal, so I will pretend I can’t understand it.”
“The Chair proposes to adjourn” – signal to start arguing
for at least another half hour, usually on what the actual finished product is
and what is the next time you will meet.
Com5 – Committee 5, the substantive committee everyone is
WG – Working Group. The level below Committee.
AHG- Ad Hoc Group, the next level down.
Informal Discussion – “Please get together and work
something out so we can vaguely hope to get to at least the square bracket