The ITU’s Ukraine report is important – so why is it hidden away?

Source: ITU

Source: ITU

  • The ITU, as a United Nations agency, deplores the Russian aggression against Ukraine
  • It has adopted a resolution to help Ukraine rebuild its telecom sector
  • An ITU report outlines the extent of Russian damage to Ukraine’s telecom sector
  • The estimated cost of fixing the damage caused in just the first six months of the Russian invasion is $1.79bn
  • ITU member states have been clamouring for the report for months and it has now been published
  • So why is the report hidden away in the recesses of the ITU website?

Visit the website of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies, and you’ll be greeted on the home page with the illustrated news that a new leadership team, headed up by secretary general Doreen Bogdan-Martin from the US, began its four-year term on 1 January. The ITU is still an important body in world telecom, so the introduction of a new team was worth reporting last week on TelecomTV. “The world is facing significant challenges – escalating conflicts, a climate crisis, food security, gender inequalities, and 2.7 billion people with no access to the internet," said Bogdan-Martin upon her election to the post last year. “I believe we, the ITU and our members, have an opportunity to make a transformational contribution. Continuous innovation can and will be a key enabler to facilitate resolution of many of these issues." 

Stirring words. What you won’t find on the home page is anything about or any links to Interim assessment on damages to telecommunication infrastructure and resilience of the ICT ecosystem in Ukraine, which is the ITU’s report into the impact on the country’s communications sector of the Russian invasion that began in late February 2022. The report was much in demand in the latter months of 2022, but for reasons as yet not properly explained, the ITU, having published it on Friday 23 December (the final working day before Christmas) following a final sign-off by the then secretary general Houlin Zhao, has squirrelled it away in the recesses of the ITU website, within the ITU Development Bureau’s section, on a page that appears to be impossible to find through the site’s regular navigation. The report is also not listed with other ITU publications and does not show up in the ITU website’s search results. When the report was published, the head of the ITU Development Bureau was Doreen Bogdan-Martin. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was arguably the biggest single ‘event’ (for want of a better word) of 2022, condemned by most of the world and certainly by the United Nations, and it was only right, and to the ITU’s credit, that a report into the impact on Ukraine’s vital communications infrastructure was commissioned and published.

So why is this important document so bloody hard to access?

First, let’s do what the ITU appears reluctant to do itself and point you directly and without ambiguity to the report – you can find it on this page and the report in all its 71-page glory is here

That the report exists at all has now been widely reported – Reuters alerted the world to its existence late last Friday and TelecomTV and others reported some of the key findings early this week (9 January). The report, which was commissioned last April and covers the period from the initial invasion by Russia in late February 2022 until late August of last year, is based on testimonies and contributions from a broad range of experts from the ICT sector in Ukraine, neighbouring countries and across Europe. Here are the key takeaways from the executive summary:

"The report states that at the level of public and private policies, and emergency measures, the Ukraine telecommunication sector has proven to be resilient, however: 

  • ICT networks of operators were partially and, in some instances, fully destroyed or occupied; 
  • within a period of six months of war, 1,123 cyberattacks were reported, targeting all the sectors of the economy of Ukraine, including IT and telecommunications; 
  • as of July 2022, 12.2% of homes lost access to mobile communications services (3.1% partially), 11% of base stations of mobile operators were out of service and 20% of the country’s telecommunication infrastructure was damaged or destroyed; 
  • the economic losses of the telecommunication sector have been estimated to be more than US $0.1bn; 
  • telecommunication companies provide 22% fewer services, which has resulted in reduced income and revenues; 
  • US$1.79bn is needed to restore the telecommunication sector;
  • direct damage of telecommunication facilities, networks, systems, and equipment is estimated at $0.71bn. [Based on a report from Ukraine’s ministry of digital transformation, which cited the World Bank.]"

And that’s just up to the end of August: The report notes that Ukraine’s telecom infrastructure may have suffered further damage since then (which of course it will have).

The report was commissioned as a result of the adoption in March 2022 by the ITU Council of Resolution 1408 on “Assistance and support to Ukraine for rebuilding their telecommunication sector". The ITU Council resolved to instruct the directors of the three ITU bureaux (Radiocommunication, Standardisation, Development):

  • ​To monitor and provide regular reports on the particular needs of Ukraine in the field of telecommunications, and to prepare proposals for effective technical assistance;
  • to carry out an assessment on the impact of the war in Ukraine to ITU programmes and activities in the region, and provide a report thereon;
  • to ensure adequate financial and human resources mobilisation, including under the internal budget and the Information and Communication Technology Development Fund, for the implementation of the proposed actions.

By any standards, carrying out an assessment and producing a report was always going to be a mammoth task: A lot of information had to be gathered from a large number of people and organisations, and time would have been needed to pull all the information together, check it, and produce a final document.

Significant demand

But there was real anticipation around, and demand for, the report. At the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference in Bucharest in October 2022, the ITU’s then secretary general, Houlin Zhao, informed member states that the report required more work. A delegation of representatives from (draws deep breath) the Republic of Albania, the Federal Republic of Germany, Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Republic of Bulgaria, Canada, the Republic of Cyprus, the Republic of Croatia, Denmark, Ecuador, Spain, the Republic of Estonia, the United States of America, Finland, France, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, the State of Israel, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Latvia, the Principality of Liechtenstein, the Republic of Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Principality of Monaco, Norway, New Zealand, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Peru, the Republic of Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Romania, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Republic of Slovenia, Sweden, the Confederation of Switzerland and Ukraine – so, a lot of countries – then issued a joint statement to the following effect:  

“The delegations of the mentioned countries thank the Secretary General for his oral update on the implementation of the 2022 ITU Council Resolution 1408 on ‘Assistance and support to Ukraine for rebuilding their telecommunication sector’. We look forward to the release of the first written report assessing the impact of the war in Ukraine in the field of telecommunications, and providing proposals for effective assistance, at the earliest opportunity and in any event no later than the end of 2022. The very first line of the ITU’s Constitution recognises the importance of telecommunications for peace, and in order to foster the economic and social development of all Member States. The support for Ukraine provided by the ITU and its Member States is uniquely valuable for the rebuilding of Ukraine’s telecommunication sector. We are proud that our Union has stepped up to support a Member State in urgent need. 

"We welcome the establishment of a special Task Force at the level of the General Secretariat, and of a Special Fund in Trust, in order to provide assistance and support to rebuild Ukraine’s telecommunication infrastructure and to provide the necessary support and technical capacity building. We are grateful to ITU Member States for the contributions they have made to support these efforts, including the projects and pledges announced on the occasion of the ITU Partner2Connect High-Level Digital Development Dialogues held at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Kigali in June 2022. We call on Member States and the Union not to lose this momentum, but to continue to provide assistance and financial contributions to Ukraine for rebuilding its telecommunication sector and to support the use of telecommunications/ICTs for recovery and sustainable development. In addition, we call on the ITU to ensure adequate financial and human resources mobilisation within its budget in order to support this effort, in line with Council Resolution 1408. 

"As an important member of the UN family, the ITU cannot ignore the fact that it is Russia which is responsible for the war in Ukraine. As recognised by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 2 March 2022 on Aggression Against Ukraine, Russia’s unprovoked and unjust invasion of Ukraine violates international law, including the UN Charter, and shows flagrant disregard for human suffering. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, Ukraine has suffered attacks on critical telecommunication infrastructure, failure of telecoms services and outages of the mobile networks. Russia’s actions have had a devastating impact over the operation of telecommunication facilities and services in Ukraine and on the exercise of Ukraine’s sovereign right to regulate telecommunications within its internationally recognised territory. These unjustified actions stand in clear contradiction to the ITU’s mission to promote digital connectivity for sustainable development worldwide and fails to respect the fundamental principles enshrined in the ITU Constitution. Russia has lost its status as a credible partner for ITU activities and cannot claim to promote its values. We firmly reject and unequivocally condemn the illegal attempted annexation by Russia of Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. These actions, based on sham "referenda" carried out by the Russian-installed officials in temporarily seized Ukrainian territories, are a further blatant violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and of international law. The results of these illegal "votes" are null and void and these areas will never be recognised by the international community as anything but a part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. 

"We call on the ITU to refrain from any actions or publications that might be interpreted as recognising or endorsing any alteration of the internationally recognised borders of Ukraine, and to support Ukraine in exercising its sovereign right to regulate telecommunication within those borders. The supporters of this declaration stand firmly and unwaveringly in solidarity with Ukraine. We strongly condemn the Russian Federation’s violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and deplore the suffering and loss of life that it has caused. We reiterate the call of the UN General Assembly Resolution of 2 March and urge Russia to immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine and to immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders. And in doing so we urge Russia to respect, in full, the obligations which arise from ITU membership.”

That’s pretty clear, then. 

The ITU-led Partner2Connect coalition effort mentioned by that delegation has attracted numerous pledges of assistance to help maintain communications services in Ukraine, and includes the donation of satellite communications units, datacentre and cybersecurity systems, (unspecified) finances, human resources and more from countries such as Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Spain, Slovenia, Japan, US, UK and Germany, as well as collective support from the European Union. The ITU estimates the pledges to be worth more than $120m and “encourages all stakeholders to join this initiative”.

Indeed, the ITU press office notes in one of its responses to TelecomTV’s questions about the report that the “outcomes of this assessment [the report] will serve to mobilise necessary technical assistance to Ukraine with the aim of mobilising the international community to support rebuilding information and communication (ICT) infrastructure in Ukraine”. That’s how important the report is – it could be the catalyst for further pledges of support to Ukraine’s technology and networking sector. 

Questions still remain unanswered

So why isn’t this report – which was signed off by the previous secretary general and published last month by the bureau that, at the time, was being run by the new secretary general, and in high demand by government delegations from all over the world – being highlighted by the ITU? Why no media announcement? Why is it not available in the publications section of the ITU website? Why does the report not show up in ITU website search results?  

These questions were asked of the ITU multiple times during the past couple of days. A response was received each time but answers pertaining directly to these questions were not forthcoming (though the question about the omission from search results was met with a pledge to “check with technical colleagues”). Obliquely, the ITU media team repeatedly stated that “notifications that the assessment was published were made based on inquiries received” (which is how TelecomTV found the report – we had to request a link as it is not discoverable via website navigation or search). But when asked why a link to the relevant page and, thus, the report has to be requested in order to be found, the response was that the website page and the document “are public, access is not constrained by the need to inquire.” Except it is, because unless someone else (like the media) publishes the link, there is no way to get to the page or the report. 

Also, on four separate occasions, a request about the availability of Bogdan-Martin for an interview regarding the report’s publication was ignored – not declined, just ignored. 

It’s hard to know what to make of the ITU’s actions and responses: It’s as if it isn’t very keen on the report being read. Is it worried about upsetting Russia? Are there political forces at work within the ITU that are holding back the promotion of the report’s availability? Or is it that it just can’t be bothered? When human beings are involved in making decisions, even the most trite possibilities should never be completely dismissed.

As we pointed out in the TelecomTV coverage of the new leadership team, the ITU is an important organisation (still) with laudable intentions but it is, and always has been, riven with political and factional tension – see ITU’s new leadership team gets down to work in geopolitically tense times.

Whatever it is that has been keeping the clearly important “interim assessment on damages to telecommunication infrastructure and resilience of the ICT ecosystem in Ukraine” report out of the ITU spotlight so far, let’s hope it doesn’t constrain the easy availability of any future, similar reports and that more can be done to highlight how much Ukraine needs help in rebuilding its critically important ICT infrastructure. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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