Estonian President Kaljulaid at the UNGA75

Emphasises importance of transparency, inclusion in digital transformation and need to rethink global (free) labour market

President Kaljulaid in her office in Tallinn, Estonia. Source: Twitter (@KerstiKaljulaid)

The 75th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 75) opened on 15 September 2020 and ends tomorrow. The high-level General Debates commenced last Tuesday, 22 September with the theme ‘The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism — confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action.’

Estonia was represented at the General Debates by its President Kersti Kaljulaid, who made her official statement by video link. She emphasised Estonia’s experience in digital transformation and the importance of rolling out digitisation in other countries with equal goals of transparency and fair access:

“Digital solutions can make our societies more equal, more resilient, more accessible and sustainable.”

The President also shared Estonia’s wish for equal opportunities for a global free labour market, i.e. so people can work from distance wherever they are, regardless of ability, gender, or other factors. Her words carry weight at a time when countries including her own are launching visas for remote workers to live and work there legally but are still constrained by a complex web of national and international tax and social insurance laws and treaties in place.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is causing more and more people to look at participating in the global labour and service markets, whether that be working remotely from home or becoming a digital nomad. So, now is the perfect opportunity for states to review the antiquated rules in place and introduce a flexible system to allow countries and companies to compete for talent in a global free labour market.

The President’s speech carries extra significance for Estonia in a year in which it has already taken a front seat in global policy and leadership. Earlier this year, Estonia became a temporary member of the United Nations Security Council for 2020–2021. Among other things, Estonia has prioritised sharing its experiences of building a digital society and advanced e-governance structures and services from this privileged position on the world stage, including in the UN system itself.

When Estonia held its first ever presidency of the UN Security Council in May 2020, most of the world were subject to lock downs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. People from all sectors and of all levels and profiles — including member representatives of the Security Council — had to quickly adapt to working, schooling, and even socialising from home. While many countries struggled to adapt, Estonia’s e-governance infrastructure came into its own. Perhaps it was lucky for the Security Council that Estonia was responsible for presiding over remote meetings by video conference in May!

Estonia is supporting the digital transformations of and development of e-governance in countries as well, including (as the President noted in her speech) those part of the African Union, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Ukraine, and Mongolia.

As the UN turns 75 this year, it is caught in the middle of debates over its effectiveness, relevance, and impact. That the UN needs reform is undeniable (the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has made this a mandate of his term), but it’s the only — and therefore the most workable — vehicle currently in existence for multilateral decision making and development. No matter your view, 2020 has highlighted that there remains a need for an assembly of states of all sizes to come together and work through global issues, from pandemics to economic recession, cybersecurity challenges, natural disasters, violence and conflict.

At the end of her speech, President Kaljulaid strongly affirmed Estonia’s commitment to the UN as:

“the cornerstone of our multilateral world order… (and) the best possible forum to address global issues from peace and security to new emerging threats.”

From where I sit, as an Australian working for e-Residency, an innovative initiative of the Government of Estonia, the President’s words ring true. It’s encouraging that a small nation like Estonia can have a loud voice on the global stage on a topic in which it is well-versed. This country has experienced first-hand the benefits of developing a digital society. Not only that, but it has opened them up to the world with initiatives like e-Residency and the Digital Nomad Visa.

The UN may not be perfect but it does provide an equal platform for all nations, even small ones like Estonia, to influence the policies and practices of the highest levels of government. In this case, to push for a fair and open version of digital governance that will benefit all.

Read the President’s full speech here or watch the statement:

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