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Position Statement on Public-Private Partnerships under the UN

Submitted by Ankur Pandey, Associate Editor, The Indian Learning & Stuti Modi and Vedant Sinha, Research Interns.

  • COVID-19 has recalibrated the modicum of engagement to inflated levels following the evolving requirement of the businesses that prefer work from home, in countries affected by the coronavirus. Various organizations that require vast outreach have sprung up new avenues of demand and so do new solutions offered by ICT companies have responded in kind. Modes of public engagement through video conferencing, targeted delivery of advertisement and messages are the requirements of a socio-political nature to deliver messages that fulfil commitments to public and international law, so assumed by an organisation of stature of the UN. Thereby to execute such predicament, the UN entered into a Private-Public Partnership with Tencent, to provide its online platform for the upcoming 75th anniversary of the UN. However, the decision faced an immediate backlash from US officials and privacy advocates as Tencent was accused of being complicit to surveillance and censorship efforts of the Chinese Government, especially during the early stage of the COVID-19 outbreak when the access to vital information was suppressed from domestic and foreign media. The contract with Tencent was cancelled subsequently.

  • The incident, however, raises larger questions on the public-private partnership engagements of international organizations such as the UN. Are the private entities involved with the UN selected after due diligence, with adequate safeguards in place to ensure free participation without a threat to the privacy and security of the stakeholders? Are these private entities genuinely committed to the principles of human rights and transparency? In times when the global geopolitical order predicates mistrust upon entities of Chinese origin, with the Chinese government being threatened with extraneous bills, claims for damages and transfer of industrial proprietary out of China, another question that needs redress is whether it is fair to exclude all Chinese entities while seeking partners for public-private engagements? While engaging with entities having problematic human rights and transparency record will surely be counterproductive to the ultimate aims of the UN agencies, an explicit commercial blacklisting of Chinese social media giants might result in the exclusion of the representation of the Chinese populace, as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are stuck in the shadow region of the great firewall of China. The growing influence of China on the global stage, with the US retreating on its commitments, financially and otherwise, also needs to be considered. Blacklisting of all Chinese entities cannot be the solution. Instead, efforts must be made to ensure that the contracting entities provide for adequate safeguards to redress the grievances related to security, transparency, and privacy.

  • The United Nations has the reputation of a champion of human rights and freedom of speech and expression is recognized as the core of such rights. Hence it is imperative that the UN follows due diligence while entering into a partnership with private players so as to not affect its credibility by engaging with organizations having a dubious position on principles the UN stands for. It is thus recommended that the negotiations for such partnerships are fully transparent and not confidential so as to allow various stakeholders, including civil society, to participate. This will enable the scrutiny of the partnership contracts on the parameters of transparency, privacy and human rights to mitigate any potential conflict of interest. It must be obligatory to ensure that adequate data protection, security, and privacy safeguards are in place before implementing any such outreach measure. Grievance redressal mechanisms must be incorporated to ensure any intimidation or reprisal that a participant faces on such digital platforms is addressed promptly. The commitments to transparency and freedom of expression must be advertised so as to ensure maximum participation, without any fear of State coercion. Setting up of a dedicated UN office or Special Representative to supervise such Public-Private Partnerships will go a long way in reinforcing public trust in international institutions under the aegis of the UN.

  • The role of Information and Communication Technology in establishing wider engagements and improving accessibility for all stakeholders to various processes of the UN cannot be overstated. However, it must be acknowledged that the medium of communication has an impact on the message. A partnership with an organization with a questionable human rights record might result in self-censorship or reduced participation in the UN processes and discussions. An organization cannot be allowed to whitewash its abysmal human rights record by partnering with the UN. It will surely affect the credibility of UN agencies and public trust will suffer. Thus it is essential that the UN agencies prioritize their public-private partnership engagements after ensuring due diligence to further the cause of transparency, security, and human rights.

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