20 February 2005. For those who want a summary of the inter-governmental negotiations, you might as well stop reading. I barely peeked into most of the official WSIS meetings, having spent most of the week in civil society meetings and other support tasks. This Prepcom has so far been better than I expected. I don't really know what I expected, perhaps a repeat of Prepcom I in Hammamet. All I know is that I was dreading getting on the plane for Geneva a week ago, and now I am holding out the tiniest bit of hope that the Tunis summit will not be a complete disaster.
Official WSIS Meetings
Tuesday through Thursday were the open meetings of the Working Group on Internet Governance, with what appeared to be a rich exchange of views among the governments, business reps and civil society people present. After that the WGIG went into closed sessions of just their members.
Reportedly, Ambassador Karklins, president of the Prepcoms, was impressed with the open nature of exchanges among the various stakeholders, with a government diplomat speaking, followed by a civil society speaker, then a business person. This is a dramatic shift from the more formalized exchanges between stakeholders in the official WSIS plenaries, with the business and civil society reps only speaking during one bloc of time at the beginning or end of a negotiation period.
The WGIG will be presenting an interim report of their work next week to the Prepcom, with a final report at Prepcom III in September. Ambassador Karklins goal is to keep aside debate on the contentious and difficult internet governance issues until Prepcom III, reserving this Prepcom for discussions on ICT financing and other issues.
The WSIS official plenary began on Thursday February 17 in the grand Halle de l'Assemblee in the Palais des Nations.
After the initial housekeeping activities, the Secretary General of ITU, Mr. Itsumi, announced the status of funding received to support the Tunis Summit, which is at around 2.7 million Swiss Francs, about half of the goal of 5 million Francs (3 million USD). This is such a modest amount of funds, with some governments contributing as little as $5,000 and one NGO contributing $100.
Governments accepted the proposed texts prepared by Karklin's "Group of Friends of the Chair" (composed of 50 some governments from the various regional groupings). The proposed texts are divided into a "Political Chapeau" and an "Operational Part" roughly equivalent to the WSIS Declaration and Plan of Action in the first phase. This already accelerates the official work compared to WSIS Phase I, since during Phase I the governments rejected the proposed text prepared by the then-Chair Ambassador Samassekou, preferring to go with an amalgamation of the texts prepared by the regional meetings of the WSIS.
Debate commenced in earnest on the financing section (Chapter 2) of the Operational Part of the proposed texts, with wide-ranging debate on the text. Civil Society and the other stakeholders were able to intervene on two occasions on financing section, with representatives of the ICT Financing Working Group, the Community Media Group, the African Caucus, the European Caucus, the Gender Caucus and the CRIS Campaign making five minute interventions each
The Wired Summit
One of the coolest developments at this Prepcom was finally getting wifi access in the Palais des Nations. After having worked in Geneva for more than a year with very limited internet access, to have full wireless internet available in all of the civil society meeting rooms and in the Halle de l'Assemblee was welcome change. They even had an accessible SMTP server, so you could send as well as receive mail.
Several of us turned on our instant messanging clients so we could exchange information on the fly. Derrick Cogburn of Syracuse University organized a couple of virtual meetings for the internet governance caucus and the World Federation of United Nations Associations. And I saw Titi of the Youth Caucus using her skype program to make Voice over IP phone calls.
Robert Guerra has taken it upon himself to record many of the major CS meetings, including the bureau meetings and plenary and then make the audio files available as MP3s on his the website. There also is a pretty large cyber-café in the floor below the Halle de l'Assemblee. So the Information Society is in full effect here.
Civil Society Plenary
As has been our practice, the civil society plenary has met every morning starting on Tuesday from 9-10am. The meetings have typically been just information exchange sessions, with the various groupings of civil society reporting on their work, reports from the official processes, and announcements of upcoming events. All content related issues were referred to Content and Themes, which meets in the evenings from 6-7pm.
Content and Themes Group
The Content and Themes Group had a somewhat chaotic re-convening on Wednesday. At the 11th hour, Tracy Naughton of the Media Caucus volunteered to chair the initial meeting, and has done such a bang up job that she continues to chair. It's unclear if that will continue into next week, but I personally am having difficulty thinking of a better candidate at this point.
Content and Themes has mostly been absorbed with the pressing issues of selecting speakers for the official plenary and for the press briefing. I don't know if C&T will be able to move forward in the other parts of its work, namely drafting common texts for presentation to governments as civil society positions. I frankly think that this is probably too much for us to take on, given the large number of groups seeking to participate in C&T. Much better would be to refine out Working Group and Caucus processes so that they can develop their own proposed texts and feed those into the official process. C&T can help mediate among groups to see if we can agree on basic messages or common threads, or at least not directly contradict each other. But drafting global texts for all civil society seems to difficult to organize at this point.
Working Group on Working Methods
The newly formed Working Group on Working Methods had its first two meetings on Thursday and Friday afternoon, co-chaired by myself and Ramin Kaweh of NGLS. We have already had a rich exchange of views on civil society processes in the context of the Plenary, Bureau, Content and Themes, caucuses and other macro-level issues. We have also addressed ourselves to specific questions such as how is the chair of the CS plenary chosen and what could be some standards for working groups and caucuses to participate in Content and Themes. The range of views has been diverse and interesting, but summarizing and concluding with definite recommendations and agreements among the group has been difficult to fix. I have so far been doing a decent job of chairing, but whether or not I can help pull together the various inputs into a coherent set of proposals to take back to the Plenary, Content and Themes and the other bodies of civil society still is to be seen.
Human Rights Issues
The most contentious issues among civil society are of course human rights related. In particular, there is an emotional and heated fight between Tunisian and other groups seeking to highlight human rights violations in Tunisia that relate to the WSIS and other Tunisian groups seeking to curtail all criticism of the Tunisian regime in the WSIS process. Both sides have appeared in force at this Prepcom, with the first panel discussion arranged by the human rights caucus filled to brimming with mostly Tunisian groups. I have heard estimates that there are several hundred Tunisian participants at this Prepcom, which is quite high since there are maybe 300 civil society people in total present.
The other human rights-related issue is the denial of accreditation of the organization "Human Rights in China" which the People's Republic of China vetoed. The organization appears to have been accredited by another organization, so their representative is actually present here at the Prepcom. But she will not allowed to distributed documents or make statements on behalf of her organization since they are not officially participating.
Some groups have emphasized that at the Tunis Summit it is important to ensure that there is a free availability of information and free expression of views in the conference space, which is officially under UN protocols and rules. Of concern to some groups is the ability of some organizations to obtain visas from the Tunisian authorities to enter Tunisia, and the ability of Tunisian groups and citizens to participate in the Summit freely.
Related to this issue is the ability of organizations to freely organize side-events and exhibitions at the Summit, as was the practice at the first WSIS Summit in Geneva. Apparently there is a deadline of April 1 for groups to propose to organize meetings, which is sent to the Tunisian organizing body. Some groups expressed concern that there would be a vetting process to make sure that there would be no meetings organized that might be critical of the Tunisian regime.
Work in Week Two
Week Two will focus on the rest of the texts of the Group of Friends of the Chair, including the Operational Part and the Chapeau. In addition, negotiation on the exact shape and structure of the Tunis Summit should be decided by the Bureau, in conjunction with the Tunisian authorities. The Civil Society Bureau has already expressed their views on this subject, and has opened up a consultation with the rest of the civil society plenary to make sure that all critical concerns are expressed.
Whatever happens, groups should leave Geneva after February 25 with a better sense on what the lay of the land in Tunis is going to be, and if they want to be there or not.
Given the urgency of many of the organizational and political issues on the agenda, it has been difficult for many civil society participants to focus on the post-WSIS process. Not surprisingly, Bertrand de la Chapelle has been most absorbed with thinking about this, and has been in deep conversations with lots of government, civil society and UN folks on these issues.
On Monday there will be an open consultation on the proposal for a "Global Alliance" on ICT policy, a idea that came out of the last UN ICT Task Force meeting in Berlin. It will be difficult discussing the structure and mandate of this hypothetical future body without knowing its relationship with the WSIS process. As I understand there are only three basic criteria for the Global Alliance at this point: (1) that it be multi-stakeholder, (2) that it have a "light" structure, and (3) that it have some link to the United Nations. Beyond that, the drawing board is blank.
On Monday also, civil society will have its first opportunity to speak to the official plenary on the post-WSIS implementation process. Two of our speakers will address this question in their remarks, Bertrand and Francis Muguet of the Science and Technology Group.