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WSIS II warm-up degenerates into human rights punch-up

Tantrums in Tunisia

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The first preparatory conference (PrepCom I) for the forthcoming second World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS II) managed to agree a roadmap for next year's Tunisian get-together, despite an unseemly human rights row which held up the conference's plenary session in Hammamet, Tunisia, for an hour on Saturday night.

The final PrepCom I press release indicates that governments have agreed on a "summit of solutions" after WSIS I's "Declaration of Principles" and "Plan of Action".

What the delegates - including representatives from 127 nations and 113 civil society organisations - decided was to present a "final document comprising a concise political part and an operational part" to WSIS II in Tunis summit that would show how all the preparatory legwork would be converted into concrete action. All well and good. However, the conference was actually dominated by a somewhat more fundamental issue: can those critical of the host nation (Tunisia) express their views at WSIS or not? It was this thorny question which bogged down the Saturday night delegates.

Latvian Janis Karklins, newly-elected PrepCom President, had to interrupt the session after the Tunisian ambassador objected to a statement made on Friday by Tunisian human rights activist Souhayr Belhassen, designated by the Civil Society Human Rights Caucus. The ambassador cited complaints against said spokeswoman by Tunisian Civil Society representatives.

The statement itself was not particularly criticial toward Tunisia, but rather gave the Tunisian Government a little slap on the wrist. It asked for the host country "to show exemplarity, especially in the realization of freedom of expression, of information, of communication, as well as of freedom of association and the right to privacy." But that it singled out the host country was not acceptable to the GNGOs - even if the guests thought activists had legitimate reason to raise the issue.

As an ITU spokeswoman put it: "The designation of a spokesperson for the Human Rights Caucus as well as the content of the statement to be made was contested from within the Human Rights Caucus. This was an issue internal to that Caucus. The PrepCom, including Tunisia, was ready to give the floor to any spokesperson designated by the Caucus to express its views as long as it was relevant to the issues under discussion as per the Rules of Procedure of PrepCom."

And that was not an end to the matter. The Tunisian Human Rights league later complained that when - after protracted negotiations - Souhayr Belhassen actually delivered her statement, she was not shown on the big screen as was a subsequent delegate who read a more government-friendly version, minus the poke at the Tunisian authorities.

But it was this invitation to speak that finally allowed business to continue - albeit sporadically. The European Union even protested formally against the ban on speaking: "The Union expects the governments, institutions, and non-State activists taking part in the WSIS process to respect fully the declaration of principles agreed in Geneva on 10th and 12th December 2003. The declaration reaffirms the right of opinion and expression, including the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers. These rights must be upheld in all countries in order to promote the building of the global information society and ensure a successfull second phase of the summit," it declared.

The EU did, nevertheless, stop short of demanding that WSIS II be recalled to Geneva - as some observers had expected. PrepCom II will be held in the Swiss city, but only for purely practical reasons - including the fact that ITU is based there and for financial considerations. Just 26 per cent of the 5m Swiss francs budget for the WSIS II preparatory process was stumped up during the Hammamet get-together, and the special UN working groups on Internet Governance and Financing are short of cash, observers claim.

In the end, though, the small matter of a few million francs may prove a lot easier to resolve than who can say what at WSIS II and whether they can say it on the big screen. ®

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