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SPECIAL COMMITTEE: International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communications technologies (ICT). Tracing its lineage to the International Telegraph Union, founded in 1865, it is the oldest specialized agency, with a strong focus on ensuring collaboration on standards and best practices in ICT to support a reliable and evolving system of communications.

ITU organizes its operations into three sectors: radiocommunications (ITU-R), which covers satellites and the radio-frequency spectrum; telecommunication standardization (ITU-T), which studies and facilitates international standards necessary to create seamless global communications; and telecommunication development (ITU-D), which supports sustainable development and social policy surrounding the implementation of ICT, particularly in emerging markets. ITU is governed by the Plenipotentiary Conference, the supreme decision making organ that determines the direction and activities of the ITU.

Facilitating digital inclusion initiatives for indigenous peoples Facilitating digital inclusion initiatives for indigenous peoples

The United Nations estimates that the population of indigenous peoples internationally exceeds 470 million, representing approximately six percent of the world’s population. While the United Nations has not adopted a formal international definition for “indigenous peoples,” the functional working definition used by the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) and the international community is as follows: “Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them.”


Indigenous communities worldwide face consistently disproportionate negative outcomes in a variety of poverty metrics, including education outcomes, health outcomes and access to resources. Lack of access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) has directly exacerbated existing issues like lack of access to healthcare and education resources, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, it contributes to existing difficulties for advocacy both within and outside indigenous communities about their need.


Prior to the mid-2000s, many of the issues that indigenous communities face fell into the Economic and Social Council’s purview, namely through the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). Throughout this time, the body was largely focused on advocating for human rights and the recognition of indigenous people within their country of origin. In 2000, ECOSOC established the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, followed by the creation of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2001. Throughout this time period, the body advocated for increased legal rights, particularly around access to resources and respect for indigenous cultural practices. The body furthered the creation and adoption of these policies throughout the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which lasted from 2005-2015, culminating in the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.


On 13 September, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which recognized the legitimacy of indigenous populations worldwide and asserted the United Nations’s commitment to preserving the right of indigenous communities to preserve their cultural heritage, access ancestral lands and self-determination. UNDRIP had overwhelming support, with 111 members voting in favor. The four members voting against—Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States—have all since reversed their positions and adopted the terms of the resolution.


In recent years, matters of indigenous peoples have been a recurring topic for the international community as the United Nations and other international organizations have worked to implement the Declaration’s goals. The Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy of Technology released a roadmap for connectivity, which outlines the Secretary-General’s stated goal of universally affordable access to broadband internet for all by 2030. The ITU and its work were central to the policy’s creation.


United Nations reports consistently find that access to technologies, including access to ICTs, is a key factor in improving economic and social conditions for indigenous and other marginalized communities. Moreover, modern discourse in the international community has moved to increasingly strong pushes to declare internet access a human right, again citing the vast disparities in access and its direct link to negative economic and health outcomes. The United Nations has also cited technology as a tool for educational advancement and for fulfilling language and cultural preservation efforts that directly serve the goals in UNDRIP.


In more recent years, the ITU has purposefully incorporated digital divides as the impact indigenous peoples into its deliberations, including featuring discussions about indigenous people and connectivity in the WSIS+10 2021 programme. While digital inclusion initiatives’ goals are frequently lauded on the international stage, the largest issues the ITU faces are in political will and action. Implementing initiatives often involves large infrastructure investments, particularly in areas where indigenous communities were historically forced into rural areas or reservations. ITU estimated in 2021 that it would cost 428 billion US dollars to bridge the digital divide across all sectors by 2030, with even developed countries, such as the United States and Canada, struggling or failing to connect rural indigenous communities to broadband internet. Moreover, indigenous communities have raised questions about sovereignty and self-determination in the implementation of ICTs and associated training and access programs, expressing concerns regarding inclusion and leadership in areas where States have historically excluded indigenous voices from decision-making processes.


Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:

  • How can Member States and the ITU best facilitate information spread both as a matter of technological infrastructure and as an issue of education?
  • How can the United Nations better account for and accommodate the wide variety of needs and cultural differences indigenous communities face in regard to technology access?
  • What role can the United Nations play in facilitating programs and bridging the divide between indigenous communities and Member States, particularly where there is existing tension?

Bibliography Bibliography

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Telecommunication/information and communication technology accessibility for persons with disabilities and persons with specific needs Telecommunication/information and communication technology accessibility for persons with disabilities and persons with specific needs

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.3 billion people, or one-sixth of the global population, live with some form of disability or special need. Of them, approximately 80 percent live in developing countries. Information and communications technologies (ICTs) can help facilitate the social, cultural, political and economic integration of individuals living with disabilities into society. ICTs can help expand access to key public services, enable distance learning for access to education when there may not be local infrastructure, and prevent economic exclusion by connecting people to employment and financial services who might otherwise struggle to gain access. For persons with disabilities, ICT services can be made further accessible through both computer-based and web-based accessibility applications such as screen readers, speech recognition, video communication (for sign language communication and video relay interpretation), voice-to-text services (open and closed captioning, both realtime and embedded) and visual assistance. However, people with disabilities often lack the same ability to access to these technologies as people without disabilities. This can be due to the need for special adaptations to technology, the relegation of persons with disabilities in some societies and difficulties in accessing persons with disabilities in developing countries.

The international community has taken multiple steps to promote access to ICTs for people with disabilities in recent years. The 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states that States Parties shall promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems. Article 9 of the CRPD calls upon Member States to adopt laws, legislation and regulations that support the integration of accessible ICTs into society. In 2010, the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference adopted Resolution 175, which set ITU’s mandate for improving access to ICTs, including assistive technologies, for persons with disabilities and special needs. Resolution 175 also considered how the United Nations’ approach to rights for persons with special needs has evolved from one focused on health and welfare to an approach based on the promotion of human rights.

In 2013, ITU participated in the High-Level Meeting on Disabilities and Development, which produced a report on creating a disability-inclusive development framework for ICTs. The report noted several “pervasive barriers” to expanding ICT access for persons with disabilities. These include the cost of implementation, technical challenges such as the limited availability of ICT technologies in the language in users’ principal language and a broader lack of policy at the State level to ensure successful implementation of disability-inclusive strategies. ITU also adopted an Accessibility Plan that year, with the goal of making ITU itself a more accessible organization. In 2014, the Plenipotentiary Conference set the Connect 2020 agenda to promote inclusiveness in accessibility to ICTs. Embracing ITU’s previous work, such as Resolution 175, the Connect 2020 agenda outlined the accessibility goals of the ITU, such as quality education for all, reduced inequalities and promoting peace, justice and strong institutions. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Agenda for Sustainable Development, which contained 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While none of the SDGs focused explicitly on ICTs, SDG 10 is focused on reducing inequality, with specific targets for reducing inequality for persons with disabilities. A subsequent report by the United Nations expanded ways in which the SDGs help persons with disabilities, including with regards to assistive technologies.

In 2018, the Plenipotentiary Conference revised Resolution 175 with information gathered from the implementation of the Connect 2020 Agenda. The Plenipotentiary Conference also adopted the Connect 2030 Agenda as a successor to Connect 2020. Target 2.9 of Connect 2030 called for the establishment of “enabling environments” for accessible ICTs for people with disabilities in all States no later than 2023. In 2019, the United Nations Secretary-General released the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy, a high-level approach designed to increase the inclusion of persons with disabilities and special needs in decision-making processes across the United Nations System. In 2020, the United Nations released the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, a report outlining goals for increasing equity and access in the digital world. The Roadmap sets digital inclusion, including improving ICT access for people with disabilities and special needs, as one of its eight priority areas, and the Secretary-General commits to improving data collection around digital inclusion, promoting public-private partnerships and working with Member States to enhance national policies on digital inclusion. In 2021, the ITU Council adopted the ITU Accessibility Policy for persons with disabilities. The Accessibility Policy sets two key overarching goals: to make ITU itself a fully accessible organization and resource for people with disabilities and special needs, and to increase the output of accessibility-related outcomes and activities to achieve universal accessibility in ICTs. This strategy includes a set of 12 objectives and a larger framework for implementation and reporting to the ITU Council. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum also hosted a special event on ICTs and accessibility for persons with disabilities and specific needs in 2021.

While the United Nations System has provided thorough thought-leadership on disability inclusiveness, implementation, especially in developing countries—where persons with disabilities are often hidden members of society—can be difficult to enact. Many current efforts focus on expanding accessibility to ICTs for people with special needs and disabilities through broader analysis and information collection on the subject, yet action is needed on implementing the findings of these studies. In a 2022 report, the United Nations Secretary-General noted that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a loss of access to needed assistive technologies, even as the pandemic demonstrated the importance of access to ICTs and assistive technologies to accessing education and health care.

ITU maintains a number of resources, standards and frameworks for implementing specific technologies and programs pertaining to accessibility across its three sectors. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs (G3ict) also maintain resources and best practices for improving access to ICTs for people with disabilities. However, many of the “pervasive barriers” identified in 2013 remain, even with increased international attention, and ITU has not met the goals outlined in the Connect 2030 Agenda. A 2021 report by ITU points out the continued need for the development and implementation of policies and regulation at the Member State level, with a need to tailor approaches specifically to the communities being served.

Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:

  • What role do governments play in facilitating the introduction of accessible ICTs to persons with disabilities? What about the role of the private sector or civil society organizations?
  • How does a lack of dedicated general ICT infrastructure within developing Member States exacerbate the challenges faced by persons with disabilities?
  • How can ITU further support and develop international standards to promote and implement accessibility into ICT infrastructure?

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