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The United Nations, as a “family” consisting of agencies, institutions, and treaties, represents the pinnacle of international diplomacy. As it stands today, we do not have a better, or more advanced forum for multilateral diplomacy for states to utilize. Yet, just as the UN headquarters in New York City requires a much-needed revamp to catch up with the times and remain functional, international diplomacy and laws also need to catch up with the speed of technological change to remain relevant in an increasingly uncertain future. Unlike, the UN headquarters, however, the UN – the institution – is not getting the much-needed change in its approach to technology and its effects. As it stands, the UN resembles an immovable object facing an unstoppable force.
For an organization that is created to ensure peace and security in the world, UN is not reflecting on the impact of technological innovation on it core mandate as much as it should. Elsewhere, I wrote on the brewing crisis in the South China Sea, and the China’s rather unorthodox and “creative” approach to the particular problem posed by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). China’s efforts to build islands on existing coral reefs is an attempt to by-pass the existing international laws and re-invent the rules of the game, by imagining new conditions of possibility for international law. China can do so, because it is a powerful state. Not all states are equally powerful. It is the task of the UN to ensure that states do not exploit their power in such “creative” ways. As I mentioned in that post, Chinese authorities are pursuing this strategy, “in order to strengthen their territorial claim for the upcoming international arbitration over the territorial water disputes, they are building islands that can be populated by military personnel; an ultimate de facto sovereignty claim that would be recognized favourably by de jure interpretations by the jurists responsible for making a decision.” China can do this, because jurists and diplomats that authored the UNCLOS did not envision a future in which building islands in the middle of the ocean was a possibility. As we teach our students in courses on international organizations or international law, most of international law is yet to be written. So to paraphrase R.B.J. Walker’s famous line on the IR theories as “expressions of the limits of the contemporary political imagination” (Walker 1993, 5), international laws and treaties represent the limits of their authors’ imagination at the time of their drafting.
A similarly “creative” interpretation of international law is taking place in relation to the so-called drone warfare in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, among other places. The relationship between international law, military power, and sovereignty gets reinterpreted during this process. Whereas, having American drones fly over the Af-Pak region, or Yemen, requires at least the implicit acknowledgement by the governments of these countries, those countries can have plausible deniability over their knowledge of the drones’ operations. Surveillance through drones is one thing, targeted killings, are another thing altogether.
Finally, the Snowden revelations provided us with an insider look at the world of signal intelligence (SIGNIT) community and their increasingly concerning methods for collecting, sorting, and analyzing personal data. The so-called “big data” revolution, which has become a buzzword for “smart and efficient government,” requires a great deal of data to pursue predictive governance on a wide-range of issues. This puts governments in opposition to the personal privacy of individuals. As we have learned from Snowden revelations, as well as reports from organizations such as Privacy International and Citizen Lab, governments around the world are using various types of software to collect data from their citizens in order to suppress opposition movements, undermining basic human rights as defined by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the effects of the so-called “internet of things” and its impact on personal privacy is not something that we hear UN agencies speak out about. Debates surrounding these issues are still driven by investigative journalists, NGOs and think tanks. UN agencies and treaties fail to address the increasing impact of our networked lives on our rights and freedoms.
My third year International Organizations students at Bilkent University tend to criticize or dismiss the UN agencies for their inability to solve major crises in Syria, Ukraine, Central African Republic, by identifying the UNSC veto as major problem. Yet, UN agencies nevertheless provide much needed support for the most vulnerable and in-need populations around the world, in most cases. The UN, however, is a reactive organization; it reacts to crises. These crises, for the most part, have to be identified by the states. At this point in time, however, the technological changes and their implications do no spell out crises for the UN members, as they are still exploiting these gaps in international law and diplomacy for their benefit. Technological innovation, as I discussed in the introduction of this post, however, can both be a curse and a panacea, depending on the situation.
Cover Image: Electric cars line up at the official start of the Zero Emissions Race outside the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), Switzerland. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré (Flickr)
Why is the relationship between technology and international relations important, and how UN should deal with the technological change? Leave your comment and join the discussion in the comments section below.