UNIDIR: Life at 40

19 October 2020
UNIDIR: Life at 40

UNIDIR is all about the people, the amazing people who have worked to fulfil its mandate over its four decades and the people for whom they are working – ‘we the peoples’.

Established by the UN General Assembly as part of a special session to launch a bold new framework for multilateral security and disarmament, UNIDIR was mandated, as a research institute, to be innovative and on the cutting edge of thinking and analysis within the multilateral security system.

UNIDIR’s role is to conduct research and provide information to facilitate and assist in progress for ongoing negotiations and – here’s the best bit – stimulate new initiatives for new negotiations for the purposes of greater security for all. An area where the Institute has excelled in implementing this role is in connection to security and technology.

In August 1999, as part of the adaptation to a highly connected world, UNIDIR held the first research meeting in the United Nations on developments in the field of ICT in the context of international security and has continued to support the work of what became the Group of Governmental Experts and more recently, Open Ended Working Group on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security – a field that encompasses cyber security, cyber stability and responsible behaviour in cyberspace.

From the late 1990s, UNIDIR was at the heart of efforts to understand and address the international security implications of the Internet. As a tool that has the potential to connect every human being across the planet, the Internet is now embedded in the ways of life and thinking in every UN Member State. It is vital for conducting commercial business, for the affairs of state and diplomacy, and for our security and well-being. The Internet is used for education, health, development and human connection.

Indeed, during these turbulent days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Internet has played a vital role in keeping families and friends connected. It has been the conduit for teaching our young people in schools and colleges, and for doctors to perform triage and diagnostic consultations. Diplomacy has been able to harness the Internet and continue the discussions and interactions that help keep us safe. We also have been able to witness first-hand how we can conduct our work in ways that reduce our carbon footprint and mitigate the stress caused by the long hours and international travel that was the norm of international security processes.

But, as we are all too aware, not every person benefitting from the Internet is doing so in the spirit of human kindness and solidarity. Cybercrime has become a scourge for businesses and individuals. Cybercrime takes many forms from financial theft and fraudulent activities to child abuse, human trafficking and slavery, illicit drugs and espionage. Cyber interference and attacks on countries’ critical infrastructure have the potential to cause enormous general harm. Cyber manipulation of data on, for example, positional, navigational and timing signals from satellites in space could affect countless lives if such attacks were to undermine the energy and water infrastructure, health and emergency services. Assuring the integrity of data is one of the most important aspects of making sure that our information-driven world is fit for human security. Similarly, employing ‘under-the-radar’, grey zone attacks in cyber space on defence assets and on command and control systems might seem like fair game between states but could have the sort of impact that otherwise only weapons of mass destruction would be capable of – and just as we know we have to limit our behaviour in regards to those weapons, so it should be for cyber weapons.

In the twenty years since UNIDIR first began working on what the Internet and cyber vulnerabilities would mean for international security, the key issues and challenges are now more clearly delineated. The annual UNIDIR conference on Cyber Stability is a significant venue to enable this discussion and ensure that a wide range of views are heard, debated and explored.  

In 2020, collaborative approaches to international security are under severe strain. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated both how a fractured international system can make a serious problem much worse and, at the same time how, when countries work together, humanity can be so much more effective at fighting a common threat.

UNIDIR’s superpower is the enabling of frank dialogue between states so that tough challenges can be addressed. By bringing in academics and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines, government representatives are then exposed to a broader characterization of problems and to a wider, more creative set of solutions. Because UNIDIR was established by the General Assembly for the purpose of undertaking independent research on disarmament and related problems, particularly international security issues, UNIDIR is uniquely able to provide analysis that will both assist and challenge each and every Member State.

The value of UNIDIR is extraordinary. UNIDIR has demonstrated its importance during the Cold War, in the turbulence of the post-Cold War period and in the post-9/11 decades. And now, today, in the pandemic, in the tussles between multilateralism and unilateral action – as fears are stoked, international law is eroded and all the UN was created to do and uphold is under attack – the steady, insightful research UNIDIR produces has never been more important.

Congratulations UNIDIR on becoming 40. Here is to the next 40 years and your role in helping humanity navigate safely through them.

Dr. Patricia Lewis, from Ireland and the United Kingdom, was the fourth Director of UNIDIR serving from 1997-2008.

Click here to learn more about our 40th anniversary!