UN CYBERCRIME TREATY: ‘Civil society is fact-checking the arguments made by states’

IanTennantCIVICUS speaks with Ian Tennant about the importance of safeguarding human rights in the ongoing process to draft a United Nations (UN) Cybercrime Treaty.

Ian is the Chair of the Alliance of NGOs on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, a broad network of civil society organisations (CSOs) advancing the crime prevention and criminal justice agenda through engagement with relevant UN programmes and processes. He’s the Head of the Vienna Multilateral Representation and Resilience Fund at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a global CSO headquartered in Geneva, focused on research, analysis and engagement on all forms of organised crime and illicit markets. Both organisations participate as observers in negotiations for the UN Cybercrime Treaty.

Why is there need for a UN treaty dealing with cybercrime?

There is no consensus on the need for a UN treaty dealing with cybercrime. The consensus-based bodies dealing with cybercrime at the UN, primarily the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ), could not agree on whether there was a need for the treaty since the issue was first raised officially at the UN Crime Congress in 2010, and in 2019 it was taken to a vote at the UN General Assembly. The resolution starting the process towards a treaty was passed with minority support, due to a high number of abstentions. Nevertheless, the process is now progressing and member states on all sides of the debate are participating.

The polarisation of positions on the need for the treaty has translated into a polarisation of views of how broad the treaty should be – with those countries that were in favour of the treaty calling for a broad range of cyber-enabled crimes to be included, and those that were against the treaty calling for a narrowly focussed treaty on cyber-dependent crimes.

What should be done to ensure the treaty isn’t used by repressive regimes to crack down on dissent?

Balancing effective measures against cybercrime and human rights guarantees is the fundamental issue that needs to be resolved by this treaty negotiation process, and at the moment it is unclear how this will be accomplished. The most effective way to ensure the treaty is not used to crack down on dissent and other legitimate activities is to ensure a treaty focused on a clear set of cyber-dependent crimes with adequate and clear human rights safeguards present throughout the treaty.

In the absence of a digital rights treaty, this treaty has to provide those guarantees and safeguards. If a broad cooperation regime without adequate safeguards is established, there is a real risk that the treaty could be used by some states as a tool of oppression and suppression of activism, journalism and other civil society activities that are vital in any effective crime response and prevention strategy.

How much space is there for civil society to contribute to the negotiations process?

The negotiations for the treaty have been opened for CSOs to contribute to the process through an approach that does not allow states to veto individual CSOs. There is space for CSOs to bring in their contributions under each agenda item, and through intersessional meetings where they can present and lead discussions with member states. This process is in some ways a model that other UN negotiations could follow as a best practice.

CSOs, as well as the private sector, are bringing vital perspectives to the table on the potential impacts of proposals made in the treaty negotiations, on practical issues, on data protection and on human rights. Fundamentally, CSOs are providing fact-checking and evidence to back up or challenge the arguments made by member states as proposals are made and potential compromises are discussed.

What progress has been made so far, and what have been the main obstacles in the negotiations?

On paper, the Ad Hoc Committee has only two meetings left until the treaty is supposed to be adopted – one meeting will take place in August and the other in early 2024. The Committee has already held five meetings, during which the full range of issues and draft provisions to be included in the treaty have been discussed. The next stage will be for a draft treaty to be produced by the Chair, and then for that draft to be debated and negotiated in the next two meetings.

The main obstacle has been the existence of quite fundamental differences in visions for the treaty – from a broad treaty allowing for criminalisation of and cooperation on a diverse range of offences to a narrow treaty focussed on cyber-dependent crimes. Those different objectives mean that the Committee has so far lacked a common vision, which is what negotiations need to discover in the coming months.

What are the chances that the final version of the treaty will meet international human rights standards while fulfilling its purpose?

It is up to the negotiators from all sides, and how far they are willing to move in order to achieve agreement, whether the treaty will have a meaningful impact on cybercrime while also staying true to international human rights standards and the general human rights ethos of the UN. This is the optimal outcome, but given the current political atmosphere and challenges, it will be hard to achieve.

There is a chance the treaty could be adopted without adequate safeguards, and that consequently only a small number of countries ratify it, thereby diminishing its usefulness, but also directing the rights risks to only those countries who sign up. There is also a chance the treaty could have very high human rights standards, but again not many countries ratify it – limiting its usefulness for cooperation but neutering its human rights risks.

Get in touch with the Alliance of NGOs on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice through its website and follow @GI_TOC and @IanTennant9 on Twitter. 



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