On Thursday 9 July, WILPF attended a conference on ‘Cyber Stability and Regime Coherence’ organised by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). During the conference the various panels addressed cyber stability from different angles and explored the difficulties and steps taken in reaching a common understanding of the cyber space. Here there is an overview of the main issues tackled.

Benefits and Risks

Cyber stability is a very important and often debated topic. Cyber resources have the great potential to improve both economic and social well-being and modern society is becoming more and more dependent on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). However, Mr Karsten Geier, Head Cyber Policy Coordination Staff of the German Federal Foreign Office, warned that while traditional military capabilities are not available to the common public, cyber capabilities can be easily accessed by the wider civilian public and, therefore, the risk for misuse is higher.

The Key Role of International Collaboration

On a pessimistic note, according to Mr Karsten Geier, the potential of misuse of cyber capabilities becomes quite worrisome if we think that they might be used to cause damage in the real world and not only in the cyber space. On a brighter note, the international community is taking important steps in approaching this problem.

The work of international organisations and programmes like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in promoting and enhancing the understanding of the cyber space and cyber-crime is fundamental. Moreover, during this conference the key role played by Groups of Governmental Experts (GGEs) in addressing the questions of how to promote peace and stability in the face of a widespread use of ICTs was underlined.

One of the main messages of this conference is that no State can efficiently tackle cyber security issues alone and cooperation between States both at regional and inter-regional levels is necessary. For example, the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) agreed so far had a key role in promoting the exchange of information and enhancing communication levels and their focus on policy makers. In this effort to reach global cooperation it is crucial not to forget to include States from developing regions, which need to create their own capabilities and approach to cyber security.

A Legal Consensus?

While some steps have been taken to harmonise international law on the issue of cyber security, an overall legal consensus is lacking. There are many difficulties that impact negatively on the effective implementation of existing regulations. In particular, the anonymity of those perpetrating cyber crimes is an obstacle to persecute them. Moreover, as Ambassador Kriangsak Kittichaisaree of Thailand and Member of the International Law Commission of the UN noticed, for example, it is unclear what would justify and regulate responses by States to a cyber-attack. Hence, whether States’ right to self-defense does apply in these cases is still contentious.

Having said that, we might question whether we need a more detailed and newer legislation regulating the cyber space or whether the existing International Law just needs to be reinterpreted. This issue has no easy answer, however Mr Nils Melzer, Senior Adviser, Division for Security Policy, Directorate of Political Affairs, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland, suggests to reinterpret the existing military law in order to apply it to the cyber space. According to Mr Nils Melzer, in this way we can find the gaps in the existing legislation and develop new laws when and if necessary.

The Need For a More Inclusive Process

Given the potential impact of cyber threats on everyone’s life, there is a need for including as much as possible civil society in the debate surrounding the cyber space. In line with this view, Ambassador (RET), Daniel Stauffacher, ICT4Peace, underlined civil society’s role is to provide expertise and ensure transparency and accountability of the process.

Nevertheless, while legitimate national security concerns were raised on non-public aspects of CBMs norms and related issues, there are not enough examples of how governments and regional organisations have tried to make them more inclusive.

What Is Next?

From the discussion, it became clear that there are still many unresolved issues in the realm of cyber stability. As we have seen, international measures have been taken in order to promote national, regional and interregional collaboration. Nevertheless, there is a need for a more collaborative culture or, as Mr Ben Hiller, Cyber Security Officer, OSCE Transnational Threats Department, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), argued ‘coordinative fragmentation’, which consists of both focusing on the individual needs of the different regions and facilitating information exchange and collaboration among the different actors.

In addition to this, the international community needs to decide whether to create a new legal framework regulating cyber space or re-interpreting the existing framework in order to be applied to cyber security. Whatever approach States decide to take, there is a need for a consistent legal understanding of cyber space as the lack of consensus on legal norms, including their diverging interpretation, risks to undermine relationships between States. We believe that States’ future action in the process of creating a safer cyber space will have to be inclusive and give space to a more active participation of civil society.

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