25 June 2004. The first scandal of the Tunisia phase of the summit about civil society participation has already started even before the activists could make their first intervention in the governmental plenary session. In the civil society plenary yesterday evening, it was agreed to have four interventions from civil society: On the context of the summit, on the importance of human rights, on sustainable development, and on civil society participation. Afterwards, a smaller, open group of volunteers met to draft the interventions and also discuss about the speakers, following the usual procedures that have also been used in the first phase.
Governmental plenary suspended over civil society speakers
This morning, though, some representatives from Tunisian civil society objected to a Tunisian human rights activist who was scheduled to speak on behalf of the Human Rights Caucus, as well as to some of the content in their presentation emphasizing the hope that human rights, privacy and freedom of expression are fully respected during the Tunis phase of WSIS. They complained to the Tunisian ambassador, who then approached the new president of the Prepcom, Janis Karklins. The president suspended the meeting for five minutes to discuss with the host countries Switzerland and Tunisia. They could not find a solution, and the governmental bureau was called to a meeting.
They decided to not mingle into civil society's internal affairs, and gave more time to the NGOs to discuss. This actually is very good news, as Roberto Bissio from the Third World Institute in Uruguay noted on the plenary list:
"One lateral but interesting aspect of the civil society debate around the human rights statement and who should read it was the very unusual circumstance of having a UN plenary meeting adjourn for around an hour in order to wait for Civil Society to put its act together! I can not recall anything like that in some 15 years of following UN meetings."
Civil society statement on human rights prevented
Meanwhile, the civil society groups also reconvened for an emergency meeting to discuss this matter. The meeting was immediately hijacked by Tunisian agent provocateurs, who started to shout and complain and basically requested to withdraw any language on Tunisia from any civil society statement. It was impossible to have an orderly discussion or even to decide on anything. The NGOs were only able to submit the other three speakers to the president and use these speaking slots.
If you look at the outcome, the Tunisian close-to-government "NGOs" got what they wanted: There was no public civil society statement on human rights, and the woman from the Tunisian Human Rights League could not speak.
Keeping in mind that the PrepCom venue looks more like a Las Vegas spaceship that landed here in the middle of nowhere than it looks like Tunisia, it seems that Tunisia just does not exist in this summit process.
There was another attempt to reach a consensus on the whole matter during the "content and themes" group of civil society in the evening. The meeting even went worse, and people felt physically threatened by the totalitarian faction some times. The governmental NGOs from Tunisia were joined by some other African delegates in preventing a meaningful session.
There is also evidence that the Tunisian organizing committee issued a huge number of new participants' badges today although the registration deadline is long over. The authorities then carried these new people in Buses from Tunis to the civil society content and themes meeting this evening. We also found that the website of the Tunisian Human Rights league has not been accessible anymore from the conference venue.
How to move on?
A number of like minded civil society groups are currently forming their own structures to make sure that they can speak about all issues that are important to them. If civil society goes on trying to inclusive and listening to everybody, there will be a de facto censorship on many things that are fundamental and have already been agreed upon during the first phase of the summit. The provisional name of this new group of NGOs is "Salsatec" after the restaurant it is meeting at. The group will attempt to be able to present the human rights statement that could not be read today, and is also preparing another statement on the disruption of civil society in Tunisia.
The European Union troika invited some civil society representatives this afternoon for a discussion on the matter and was clearly supportive of the freedom of speech and assembly of civil society. There are rumours that the EU might request to move the whole summit from Tunis to Geneva tomorrow morning. PrepComs two and three have already been moved to Geneva.
A lot of other government representatives present in Hammamet have also asked civil society groups for written statements on this development. They want to report back, and they want to be able to start official investigations and actions on this.
Even if the summit in 2005 takes place in Geneva, civil society has to make sure that Tunisia is still an issue there. It might be in any case. At the recent Berlin meeting of European and North American Groups, there was also a number of Tunisian government-friendly people who tried to prevent a discussion on the human rights situation in this country. They will definitely show up again in Geneva.
From the perspective of the Tunisian government, this whole development has clearly backfired. They might not lose the summit in the end, but they have lost all credibility right now.