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Q&A / December 10 2019

Q&A With United Nation’s Daanish Masood and Martin Waehlisch

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 24, 2019 in New York City.

Over the past year, the reimagined Doha Debates has brought diverse viewpoints together to debate and discuss some of the world’s most pressing topics. On December 12, we’re partnering with the United Nations for a new kind of Doha Debates event to discuss the role of technology in creating world peace with three experts.

Can technology help prevent conflict, de-escalate violence and build peace? Can so-called emerging technologies be deployed for the good of humanity? Or will the advances in technology spell disaster for our future? That is the subject of this special edition of Doha Debates, being put on in partnership with UNESCO-Qatar and the UN’s Department for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA). Daanish Masood and Martin Waehlisch work in the DPPA Innovation Cell that focuses on cross-cutting new methodologies and initiated this exchange with Doha Debates.


Q: How did the partnership between your work at the United Nations and Doha Debates come to be?

Martin: It was a lucky coincidence. We were going to have a training in Doha bringing together political experts and analysts from around the world on innovative means of using new technologies for peacemaking initiatives. We were connecting with local Qatari partners and we were thinking that this would be an opportunity to widen the conversation.


Q: Why this topic? Why focus on tech as an avenue to unlock world peace?

Daanish: Because we believe, as the United Nations, that we need to have this debate in a highly inclusive fashion and in a highly understandable way, which is what Doha Debates affords us, with groups of people across disciplines, backgrounds and ages. Aside from the benefit of maximizing awareness, we believe that this type of inclusive approach also has the potential to yield better answers, or at the very least lead us to asking better questions.

The truth is that these are difficult issues in our time — not just the rapid pace of technological change and the attendant ethical conundrums, but how these developments — AI, automation, robotics, drones, disclosure of sensitive data about individual preferences — specifically affect peace and security in our world. As the world’s premier norm-setting institution, it is thus a moral imperative for the United Nations to focus on this.


“Tech is just one area of innovation and of our work. It is about bringing public and private sectors together.”


Martin: There has been a new drive of innovation since United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres came into office. He has called on the whole system to be bold, to evolve. Innovation is the way — there is no other way to overcome the conflicts or challenges of our time.

Tech is just one area of innovation and of our work. It is about bringing public and private sectors together. Private companies, just like UN Member States, are trying to make use of new technologies and other advances. There is much to learn from and for each other. However, it’s a double-edged sword — on the one side new technologies can be used to cause war. And on the other side, it is really an effort of the United Nations to adapt, design and employ new technologies for peacemaking.


Q: What do you hope people will take away from this debate?

Martin: I hope it will be an eye-opening conversation on the good uses of technology for peacemaking and peace in general. At the moment there is a lot of debate about the negative impact of technology, and I hope this will provide a counterbalance within that conversation.

I also hope this will inspire young students, peacemakers and governments to think about this kind of workstream as an opportunity to invest further in.

The third hope I have is that it nurtures the ecosystem we have in mind — that it brings together media, member states, and obviously tech companies, for the greater good. That would be the ideal case — that people are inspired within this ecosystem and for people to have an idea about the positive uses of technology. That is really just the beginning of the conversation. I hope this debate serves as a catalyst for the conversation to continue.

Daanish: A sense of the depth and complexity of the issues. That there are no easy answers. Aside from the obvious existential risk scenarios, technology, while being a great equalizer, can also compound and exacerbate existing inequalities, often in ways that are hard to predict. That has ramifications for global peace and security.

I would also like younger viewers, in particular, to walk away with a feeling of empowerment and responsibility. As the inheritors of this tiny blue dot, it will fall upon them to continue to justly interrogate the possibilities and drawbacks of the use of technology in peacemaking. After all, they will be the ones assessing possible use cases from one context to another to arrive at where the balance lies.

Martin: This is an initiative and a challenge for the whole system — it’s not just something that concerns us on the political end of the house but also applies to the development and humanitarian field, human rights pillar, and the culture of peace at large which is part of the idea behind the partnership with UNESCO. Obviously there are issues technology can help with — for instance, to detect patterns of hate speech through natural language processing in the context of machine learning, or to make sense of refugee movements through remote sensing on social media — so I think it’s important to highlight that this is really something the whole United Nations system is trying to explore and make use of.


Q: Tell me about the Innovation Cell you’re a part of at the United Nations.

Martin: The department focuses on three things: on preventing conflict, on mediating conflict, peacemaking efforts, and peacebuilding initiatives. The Innovation Cell was recently established to serve as an incubator and catalyst for innovation across the department and its field presences to improve the delivery on our mandate. This includes creating space for new ideas, prototyping, and experimenting with new ways of informing and measuring our work. It also means deepening our commitment to evidence-based work, including in learning from and putting to use new sources of data.


Q: What’s your view of the future of peacemaking?

Daanish: The United Nations is entering the 75th year of its existence. This has occasioned, in our own view and in the view of our leadership, a necessary re-imagining of how we do our work. The conversation that will take place in Doha will help inform this process of re-imagining the United Nations and the future of peacemaking. In a way, what is said by all the young people on December 12th matters much more than anything I would say.

That said, my own vision, as a member of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs’ new Innovation Cell, is one of a world of much more inclusive processes of peacemaking. Processes that wrest decision-making from the hands of the few — who are often armed — to the many who are going to face the consequences of what will ultimately be decided. In our own work, we are already using AI to expand the scope of ongoing political and peace processes by running large-scale dialogues in real time with the public. Perhaps, in that sense, it is fair to say that the future is already here. Certainly, with all the ongoing protests around the world, the need is clear.


“As the inheritors of this tiny blue dot, it will fall upon them to continue to justly interrogate the possibilities and drawbacks of the use of technology in peacemaking.“