24 June 2004. The first official meeting of the civil society human rights caucus during the Tunis phase of the summit sparked a lively debate on the future work of the caucus and the human rights situation in Tunisia.
Caucus work in phase one and two
Meryem Marzouki, one of the co-chairs of the Human Rights Caucus, gave an introduction to update the many newcomers and inform them on the structure and the work already done by the caucus. She emphasized that the caucus is open to new members and is especially interested in having Tunisian human rights organizations on board. Of course, as she added, any new member has to be in support of the positions and the actions already taken and developed in the first phase of the summit. Needless to say, any new member of course has to subscribe to the idea of the universality and indivisibility of human rights.
The caucus so far has about 45 organizations as members. It has been supported by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and also has received financial support by the organization of francophone countries.
The caucus has among other projects published a petition during the first phase of WSIS that voiced its concern about the human rights situation in Tunisia. This petition stated the caucus' conditions for the summit to be acceptable in Tunisia. Among these were the release of imprisoned journalists.
The other caucus chair, Rikke Frank Joergensen, then explained the strategy and the challenges for human rights in the information society on a global level. The noted that the task ahead is not so much a lack of internationally agreed legal documents or texts (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1949), but more on implementation. One central challenge is to get the knowledge of human rights to the local level to insure that people actually know their rights.
In the second phase of the WSIS, the challenges lie on two levels. On process, it must be assured that the human rights groups as civil society in general have full access to all summit events and discussions. On substance, the human rights community is very much in line with what the government delegates had said this morning during the opening debate: The task of the summit now is to move out of the meeting rooms and make sure that the real world out there is actually changed. "From principles to actions" - the motto for phase two proposed by the EU - also applies here. If it will also be a "Summit of Successes" - as the Swiss government has suggested to call it - remains to be seen.
Lively discussion, more needed
In the discussion after these presentations, the president of the Tunisian League of Human Rights gave an overview on the situation in Tunisia. Some progress could be seen, for example a number of web sites that had been blocked from Tunisia are now accessible. But still, a number of journalists are imprisoned, people are accused of terrorism for accessing websites, and critical groups are denied legal status by government authorities. According to human rights activists, the situation in Tunisia has even worsened during the last years.
Here, a hot discussion set in among the audience. Some Tunisian civil society members questioned the human rights problems and said they had not seen any journalists in jail so far. The meeting quickly transformed into a lively exchange of arguments, sometimes with more shouting than listening. Unfortunately, the time was too limited to use this for a real discourse and for more discussion on concrete next steps and activities. This will hopefully be possible later during this week. Still, the human rights caucus is facing the challenge of being open and inclusive towards all interested civil society groups while at the same time making sure it is not undermined by so-called "non-governmental" groups from Tunisia.
At the German civil society WSIS event in Tunis yesterday evening, there was a similar clash of views between Tunisian civil society groups. But because there was more time, it was at least possible to start a more serious discussion. Though the participants also did not agree on the issues there, they at least agreed that it is absolutely needed to have these possibilities to speak freely and without censorship.