2 September 2005. Civil society groups active in the WSIS have voiced their protest against a serious development related to the Tunis summit outcomes. The latest draft for the summit document on implementation and follow-up is lacking a meaningful commitment to implementation, and they also are a serious setback for the multi-stakeholder approach.
The draft "operational part" of the Tunis summit declaration that had been produced by the "Group of the Friends of the Chair" (GFC) at PrepCom-2 in February was not great, but it was reasonable. It especially contained language that would ensure the continuation and expansion of the inclusive process that had distinguished the WSIS from previous summits. It also would have included a serious implementation mechanism to ensure the summit did not just produce tons of documents and travel expenses, but actually has an impact on the reality of the global information society. The latest draft of the "operational part", released by PrepCom president Janis Karklins on 16 August, is a serious setback compared to half a year ago. It will be discussed at the upcoming meeting of the WSIS GFC in Geneva on 5-7 September. Civil Society groups have no access to these meetings and are only allowed to comment at the open consultations on 6 September.
Implementation in Danger
Summits first and foremost are huge efforts in collaborative text production. Governments from all over the world, with additional input from other stakeholders, have to unanimously agree to a document in the end which states their common goals and defines actions to reach them. The latter part is often forgotten in all the fight about the politics, but it is the one that is needed to ensure these processes have any impact on the reality at all.
WSIS was such a pure political summit in most of the first phase. All of the energy was consumed agreeing on a common vision for the information society, and in the end, there was no time left to seriously discuss implementation. The Geneva Plan of Action was only briefly and superficially discussed right before the summit, and therefore it is more a draft or the outcome of a first brainstorming experiment than a serious implementation plan.
There still was time, though, because the second part of the summit was two years away. Implementation and follow-up, together with the left-over political conflicts Internet governance and financing, therefore were considered the three pillars of the second summit phase. The process and commitments after Tunis are defined in the "operational part" of the Tunis summit documents. Prepcom-2 last February ended with a draft for this chapter that seemed okay. Now, preparing for the upcoming PrepCom-3 and having gotten a number of inputs from governments and other stakeholders, PrepCom President Janis Karklins has released a new draft. In this version, the commitment to implementation is almost lost.
The old text had started, "we agree to establish an implementation mechanism". The new version only states "we agree to establish a process of follow-up" (old paragraph 10). This sounds like a minor change of words, but it is a huge difference in reality. "Implementation mechanism" means institutionalizing the translation of the summit decisions into concrete action on the ground, while "follow-up" implies only a more or less regular assessment of the things that others have done voluntarily.
And it goes on like this. Where the old version said that the coordinator of each action line "should periodically prepare a report on the implementation" (old paragraph 11), the new draft only states that the respective UN agencies, "based on decisions of their respective governing bodies, could facilitate activities" which "could include information exchange" (new paragraph 14). There is a thick line between "should" and "could", as there is between regular reporting mandates and just "information exchange". This way, the UN agencies involved will have no incentives to take the WSIS decisions seriously and mainstream them into their day-to-day operations.
The old version envisaged a "defined coordination body" and listed four options, including two new UN forums that would be supported by a small 2 to 3 persons secretariat. This would be a very lean mechanism, but having some paid staffers to do the organizational work is indispensable for these kinds of efforts. The text accordingly called for the UN Secretary General to ensure "sustained follow-up" and to provide "effective secretariat support" (old paragraph 29). The new draft only speaks about benchmarking, evaluation and stock-taking, but remains silent on "effective secretariat support".
Parminder Jeet Singh from the Indian NGO "IT for Change" stated in a comparative analysis of the two versions:
"Without commitment to actual structures and activity, such pronouncements of what is needed are meaningless. The language of the new draft in this part is a complete repetition of issues mentioned in much greater detail in part E - on evaluation and follow-up - of the Geneva Plan of Action."
Good-Bye, Multi-Stakeholderism? Welcome, ECOSOC?
This new perspective on the post-WSIS period is related to another development of even more concern to civil society. The draft repeatedly states that "multi-stakeholder participation" is "essential". The first paragraph of the operational part even opens with saying
"We acknowledge that multi-stakeholder participation in the building of the inclusive and development-oriented information society is essential. We underline that the continuous and substantial involvement of all stakeholders in implementing WSIS decisions on national, regional and international levels with the overarching goal of helping countries to achieve internationally agreed development goals is a key of success." (new paragraph 10).
But if you look closer, it seems to be a mere lip-service. The idea that implementation on the international level is left to the discretion of the existing UN agencies correlates with a very government-centred and voluntary perspective on the national level. The governments in the new draft are only "encouraged" "to set up a national implementation framework with full and effective participation of civil society and business entities" (new paragraph 12). They are also the ones who will be able to start or block regional activities:
"Upon request from governments, regional inter-governmental organizations could carry out WSIS implementation activities, exchanging information and best practices at the regional level, as well as organizing policy debate on the use of ICT for development" (new paragraph 13a).
Again, you only have a "could" here that even is depending on the governments' will. And so on. All concrete actions and follow-up structures mentioned in the draft are built around governments, UN agencies or regional organizations - the world of traditional diplomacy. The idea that the information society intrinsically has made a more meaningful and more important inclusion of civil society possible and necessary - from the national to the international level - has not really resonated yet in the governments who finally decide about the Tunis summit outcomes.
The two last paragraphs especially make it clear. Paragraph 33 reads
"Review and policy debate should be organized in the framework of the follow-up to the outcomes of the major UN conferences and summits in the Economic and Social fields, as provided for in UNGA Resolution 57/270."
The chapter then ends with paragraph 34:
"Continuous involvement of all stakeholders in the policy discussion after Tunis Summit is essential and the modalities of such participation should be established."
The irony is: The modalities mentioned in the last paragraph are spelled out in the one before, which relates to the UN General Assembly Resolution 57/270. This resolution from January 2003 was an attempt to establish "an integrated and coordinated implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic and social fields". It also tried to re-establish the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) "as the central mechanism for system-wide coordination." Therefore, the General Assembly set up a working group which finished its mandate in May 2005. Its report was officially published less than two weeks ago, on 19 August 2005.
So now, the WSIS may become the first guinea-pig where the recommendations of the working group following resolution 57-270 could be applied. While there are some good points in the report, it would constrain the WSIS follow-up to the UN System, and especially to ECOSOC. It would directly limit the ability of the WSIS to establish the "modalities" of the "continuous involvement of all stakeholders in the policy discussion after Tunis".
The WSIS of course is sovereign in itself and is not bound to the recommendations of the report, and this is what civil society is pushing for now. The central argument for a different approach than in the ECOSOC framework is that the "information society" (remember - that's what this whole summit is about) has aspects that are far bigger than economic and social matters. They also include technical aspects, but much more important political and legal matters including human rights.
Also, all earlier summits dealt with an existing problem and a more or less defined issue and were attempts by the global community to give a coordinated response. WSIS however is about an emerging context and opportunity - about a vision of "society". New spaces outside current intergovernmental structures - like the Working Group on Internet Governance and the Internet governance forum it recommended - are necessary, because in the emerging Information society, new power relationships between people and institutions have to be found. Existing forums will always use their limited mandates to fight back new interpretations and new paradigms.
Reactions - and more Annoyances
Civil Society activists are concerned about these developments. A group of NGOs active in the WSIS process has therefore submitted a statement to the latest draft of the operational part. They ask for going back to the original, much better version. Some of their members will also raise these points at the open consultations on 6 September in Geneva. The big debate about these issues will start at PrepCom-3 on 19 September. Chances are slim, though, that civil society can manage to convince the governments to go back to the old drafts and especially not put the WSIS follow-up under into ECOSOC summit framework. The suggestion came from one of its best allies for multi-stakeholder inclusion, the European Union. So "plan B" could be trying to push for as much inclusiveness and transparency of the follow-up process, no matter if with or without ECOSOC. If this does not work, one probably has to go back to the decision of the first phase, when civil society left the official process and started to work on its own summit declaration. back then, at PrepCom-3A in November 2003, the civil society plenary stated:
"Governments know they cannot address these issues alone. Any mechanism for the period following Geneva that does not closely associate civil society and other stakeholders is not only unacceptable in principle, it is also doomed to fail."
On other fronts, there also seems to be a setback for civil society inclusion in the WSIS process. The Grassroots Caucus has complained that a detailed comment it had sent to the latest drafts was not published on the official WSIS website, unlike other inputs. Just a coincidence?
7 September 2005. In the original version of this article, we had written: "The official WSIS website does not even list the Geneva civil society summit declaration anymore." Our friends from the Conference of NGOs (CONGO) notified us that it actually is still there. There is even a "quick link" to it at the Geneva Summit index page. After some rumours about it having been disppeared, we had only searched at the "all documents and contributions" page, where it is not listed.