Two-part info summit faces united opposition

Information is power. Most of the world doesn't have any. imagepoint

Tunisia is getting ready to host the second part of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The first part took place in Switzerland in 2003.

This content was published on November 10, 2005 - 08:42

Opponents of the Tunisian government are also gearing up for the conference, which will expose delegates to challenges such as the sticky issue of internet governance.

The WSIS is the first United Nations summit to take place in two parts – the result of a decision taken by the International Telecommunications Union Council in 2001 and endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2002.

This has turned out to be not without problems for the second phase, which begins in Tunis on November 16.

Indeed, human rights organisations say that, over the past few months, the Tunisian authorities have stepped up levels of intimidation against those opposed to President Ben Ali.

In October several Tunisian anti-government protestors went on a hunger strike in protest at the lack of political and human rights in the country.

As a show of support for the Tunisian opposition and the rest of the country's civil society, which has not been recognised by the Ben Ali government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from around the world have organised a Citizens' Summit, which will take place alongside the official summit (see related stories).

Thorny subject

The risk, however, is high that denouncing the authoritarian Tunisian government will overshadow the summit's other key points.

"Civil society deserves praise for highlighting gaps in the host country's record on civil liberties," said Bruno Lanvin, an expert on information technology at the World Bank.

"But for progress to be made, governments which are the object of criticism need to be given a way out. If not, any denunciations will be pointless."

Guillaume Chenevière, former head of television in French-speaking Switzerland, was clear on the issue.

"It would be serious indeed if discussion on the information society covered up human rights and civil liberties."

Chenevière, who is also a member of the Swiss NGO platform for the information society, pointed out that the Tunisian government is by no means the only one to muzzle freedom of speech.

He feared that, as a result, the summit in Tunis could end up ratifying documents that contained no mention of human rights.

Internet break-up

Some experts however think Tunis could also be the scene of another major turning point: the breaking up of the internet into several rival management systems.

Viviane Reding, European commissioner for information society and media, has said she believes that the lack of agreement on internet governance threatens the internet's universality.

Chenevière agrees.

"This subject – as with all the others at the WSIS – concerns the question of global governance as a whole," he underlined.

"Government delegations can lay down the foundations for an information society that is open and participatory," he said.

"Equally they can satisfy themselves with a less ambitious version in which information and communication technologies (ICTs) will only benefit business and the circulation of capital."

In other words, to prevent the WSIS turning into a litany of pious vows, participants need to adopt control measures and follow-up mechanisms with the aim of ensuring that states apply their commitments for the benefit of poor individuals and countries.

It is this constructive cooperation that is the official desire of Tunisia, which has named the conference "the Summit of Solutions".

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand

Key facts

The WSIS is due to be held in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, from November 16-18.
The aim of the summit is to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor nations, as well as tackle issues such as internet governance.
Some 11,000 delegates from governments, UN agencies, private sector organisations, civil society and media and more than 50 heads of state are expected to attend.

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In brief

Following a proposal by the Government of Tunisia, the ITU adopted a resolution at its plenipotentiary conference in Minneapolis in 1998 to hold a World Summit on the Information Society and to place it on the agenda of the United Nations.

In 2001, the ITU Council decided to hold the summit in two phases: the first from December 10-12 2003 in Geneva – where participants adopted a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action – and the second from November 16-18 2005 in Tunis.

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