After the launch of the UN Action Plan for Libya in September 2017, the UN Support Mission in Libya started to prepare for one of its key components, a national conference that would point the way out of the country’s political impasse. An immediate concern was how to ensure that the process was as inclusive and transparent as possible. How would politically and socially marginalized groups and people located in areas too dangerous for the holding of consultations participate?
For the answer, the Mission turned to the internet. A website created by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) enabled Libyans to contribute to the national conference process online. The website included information about the national conference process as well as the dates and locations of the meetings, meeting reports, and information about how Libyans could organize their own events. Most importantly, the website included an online questionnaire on the agenda for the consultations through which Libyans could provide their insights and feedback. In addition, an outreach campaign was organized to ensure the broadest online participation. As a result, half a million comments were generated over the course of 14 weeks on social media platforms. Some 1,700 questionnaires were completed on the Conference website, which made up 30 percent of the overall contributions to the consultative phase of the national conference process.
Katia Papagianni, Director of Mediation Support and Policy at HD, said: “For those [peace processes] that are meant to be inclusive, through technologies, you can reach out to parts of the population that are marginalized, may not have the financial means or the social norms that would enable them to participate”.
The Libyan experience is captured in the just unveiled Toolkit on Digital Technologies and Mediation in Armed Conflict, a resource put together by HD and DPPA’s Mediation Support Unit (MSU). Over the last year, MSU and HD surveyed multiple mediation experiences to draw out the opportunities and risks related to the use of digital technologies in peace processes. The Toolkit showcases what technologies can offer, but also the risks, in four key areas: conflict analysis, engagement with the parties, inclusivity and strategic communications.
Social media, for example, opens up enormous benefits and possibilities, as well as enormous risks in a conflict environment, said Teresa Whitfield, Director of DPPA’s Policy and Mediation Division. “We seek to help our mediators navigate this web and understand both.”
While many of the peace and security practitioners surveyed see clear benefits in the use of digital technologies, concerns were raised over the negative impacts of either the lack of information or misinformation.
The process of compiling the Toolkit identified a clear need for tools that can “sort, clean and digest relevant information” derived from social media. “A significant body of political discourse is now conducted through digital technologies. News and political developments are often driven by developments on platforms such as Twitter. (…) Without a structured and timely social media monitoring system and resources, our ability to conduct analysis would be seriously impaired,” stressed one respondent in the HD/MSU survey.
For mediators, in-person exchanges with conflict parties and other stakeholders remain the most effective means of engagement. Nonetheless, many mediators increasingly rely on digital means for engaging with conflict parties.
The toolkit also reports on less successful uses of digital technologies in mediation. In Nicaragua in 2018, social media, TV broadcasts and livestreaming, initially seen as means of increasing the transparency of a dialogue process, were used instead by all parties to affirm or market their own positions to the public, rather than for stimulating fruitful dialogue.
One mediator mentioned that digital technologies sometimes make mediation work harder, mainly due to security concerns. “Hostile governments and groups can easily track, intervene, monitor digital devices and communications. As a result, many conflict actors fear any digital device or communication. As a mediator, I have had to work with NO digital or electronic device or communication many times, as conflict actors insist on my being completely ‘non-digital’ and ‘non-electronic’ before they agree to meet. In most conflicts I have no device (…). I have seen many cases where mediators are monitored, recorded, and conflict actors are arrested or killed after meeting a mediator who carried a digital device”.
The Toolkit provides more examples of the use of different technologies in mediation processes and cites a number of potentially useful applications. But Whitfield cautions: “In recent years, the proliferation of new technologies and the rapid emergence of a variety of new technologies is certainly changing the field of mediation. I think we have to be very humble and recognize that this is a fast-moving field.”
Title picture: Secretary-General António Guterres (seated, centre) attends a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) event on digital coding at the thirty-second Assembly of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 9 February 2019. UN Photo/Antonio Fiorente