On the eve of the World Summit on the Information Society, Switzerland welcomed hundreds of delegates to Geneva at a ceremony on Tuesday evening.
More than 50 heads of state or government are expected to attend the United Nations gathering, which aims to bridge the digital divide.
Thousands of representatives of civil society, the private sector and international organizations are also expected to take part in the summit discussions and side events.
Tuesday’s ceremony was full of upbeat speeches and music, including a song entitled “Bright World”, which was performed by 130 children from Bern's International School.
“Switzerland is honoured and proud to host the WSIS and to contribute to narrowing the digital divide between rich and poor countries,” the Swiss president and leader of the summit, Pascal Couchepin, told the gathering.
"We have a responsibility to future generations to create a society based on information for all people of the world," he added.
His comments were echoed by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, who said that the goal of the summit could be summed up in one word: "connections".
Annan added that the role of the delegates was to help connect people to technology and to each other.
"This is an opportunity to highlight all that information technology can do," he said. "But it's up to us to break down the barriers that have left so many people untouched by the information society."
For the Swiss hosts of the summit, the start of events on Tuesday marked the end of two years of preparations and tough negotiations.
Discussions on two of the meeting's key documents - the draft declaration of principles and plan of action - came down to the wire on Tuesday as delegates held eleventh-hour talks to clear the last hurdle on the meeting’s agenda.
The thorny issue of who should pay for the development of information and communication technologies in poor countries had created deep divisions between industrialised and developing nations.
But Switzerland's state secretary to the summit, Marc Furrer, said negotiators had managed to strike a last-minute deal by including provisions in the draft documents stating that the question should be studied further.
He added that he had been forced to take a "hard stance" to push delegates to reach an agreement.
"I said 'Look, it's this or nothing', and then we reached a compromise," said Furrer, "So I'm very pleased."
The draft plan of action states that a UN-led feasibility study will be carried out in the period before the second phase of the summit takes place in Tunisia in 2005 to determine whether a fund should be established.
The UN is due to report back on its findings by the end of 2004.
Down to business
Following an official opening ceremony led by Couchepin and Annan on Wednesday, the heads of state and government will formally begin discussing the draft documents.
The two texts outline a common vision and “commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development oriented information society”.
Based on objectives set at past UN conferences, such as the Millennium Development Goals, they cover a broad range of issues from governance of the internet to press freedom.
Furrer said he was hopeful that they would be adopted at the end of the summit on Friday and that they will pave the way for universal access to information.
“I’ll be pleased on Saturday when everything has gone smoothly and we have good political content to move forward,” he told swissinfo.
While the government delegations will be turning their attention to official summit business on Wednesday, representatives of civil society and the private sector will have plenty to explore and debate over the coming days during the summit’s sideline events.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, presided over the launch of ICT4D – a platform designed to highlight the importance of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for development.
Over 200 exhibitors from around the world are taking part in the exhibition, which was jointly organised by the World Bank and the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development to showcase how ICTs can be used as a tool to reduce poverty and boost development efforts.
Another event taking place in parallel to the summit is the World Electronic Media Forum (WEMF), which is designed to give radio and television broadcasters an opportunity to discuss their role in the emerging information society.
Around 600 participants from more than 100 countries and over 300 organisations are taking part in the forum, which will also explore ways in which electronic media can be used to bridge the digital divide.
During a pre-recorded speech at the launch of the WEMF on Tuesday, Couchepin said the importance of the media in the information society should not be underestimated.
He cited Switzerland as an example of a country with full media access, freedom and coverage.
“Each culture has a strong voice in the media, regardless of its size,” Couchepin said.
He added that he hoped the WEMF would be a “source of innovation to create a more open and tolerant society”.
swissinfo, Anna Nelson at the WSIS in Geneva
The first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society gets underway in Geneva on Wednesday.
The second stage of the summit, which aims to bridge the digital divide, will take place in Tunisia in 2005.
Over 50 heads of state or government and thousands of representatives from civil society and the private sector are taking part in the UN-organised global gathering.
As the country hosting the summit, Switzerland has been working hard to make the event a success by organising a major media forum and a development platform.
Swiss negotiators have also been busy behind the scenes, helping reach agreement on major sticking points.
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