28 September 2005. The summit host country Tunisia has not tried to improve its human rights record, and the Tunisian authorities are actively obstructing the work of civil society groups - even in Geneva. Western governments are currently preparing a strong reaction, and independent activists are thinking about not going to the summit at all.
The Tunisian authoritarian regime under President Ben Ali has long been criticised for its infringements on freedom of speech, the harrassment of independent groups, and Internet censorship. Some observers, as well as civil society groups active in the WSIS, had hoped that growing international pressure and the spotlight around the summit would improve the situation. This is not the case - quite to the contrary.
Tunisia Monitoring Group: "Not suitable for a UN summit"
A new report by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), presented at the WSIS prepcom two days ago, states that "Tunisia is not a suitable place to hold a United Nations World Summit". The IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) report "Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Intensifies" is an update of the TMG's first report "Tunisia: Freedom of Expression Under Siege" published in February, following the latest of a series of fact-finding missions by freedom of expression experts. The report highlights serious deterioration in conditions related to freedom of expression in Tunisia, particularly with respect to attacks on independent organisations, harassment of journalists and dissidents, and the independence of the judiciary. It also calls attention to the imprisonment of the human rights lawyer, Mohamed Abbou. Steve Buckley, Chair of the TMG and active in the WSIS, said, "The imprisonment of Mohamed Abbou for voicing his opinion in articles on the Internet has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary and appears to be directly linked to Tunisian government efforts to suppress dissent in the run up to the WSIS."
The report concludes that this and many other new developments show that the Tunisian government is seeking to stifle dissent on the eve of the WSIS. The growing pressure was reported by some independent Tunisian activists who came to the PrepCom following an invitation by Swiss groups. Three weeks ago, policemen blocked access to the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) headquarters. Two days before the district Court had decided to suspend the convening of the LTDH congress scheduled to take place on 9-11 September. Souhayr Belhassen, vice president of LTDH said: "The regime has lost in advance if they think they can silence us. Our fight for freedom of speech has turned into resistance".
Disturbing events at the PrepCom
On last Friday, the Swiss WSIS NGO coalition Comunica-ch held a private meeting with their colleagues from the independent Tunisian civil society. They used a vacant side room of the Palais des Nations - a normal practice for all activists needing ad-hoc meetings here, as the café is too noisy and without Internet connectivity. A few minutes after the meeting had started, several people close to the Tunisian authorities demanded the right to participate, which they were denied with reference to the private character of the meeting.
Shortly afterwards, Tunisian citizen Moncef Achour - officially in charge of "Civil Society Liaison" at the summit executive secretariat - , entered the meeting. According to participant, he claimed "I am the police of the UN and you have no right to conduct an illegal meeting here". Soon afterwards he came back with UN-security guards, shouting and demanding that the meeting is ended. The group afterwards moved to another room, but before, one of the activists shot a video of this scene. The Swiss coalition has issued a formal letter of protest to Charles Geiger, the executive director of the summit secretariat.
Several other events during the PrepCom that raised the issue of Tunisian human rights problems were disturbed and basically interrupted by an influx of Tunisians officially registered under "civil society", but with close links to the authorities. The WSIS Human Rights Caucus even briefly came under some pressure from the civil society bureau, which suggested a mediation process and offered discussions with these Tunisians. The Human Rights Caucus stayed firm and denied these requests, getting considerable support from many civil society acitivsts. As a European diplomat told us today: "Why would you want to discuss with the Secret Service?"
Summit without Host Country Agreement?
The summit secretariat announced earlier this week that the host country agreement between the ITU and Tunisia had been signed last Friday. Charles Geiger informed the civil society meeting briefly about some of the provisions concerning freedom of movement and of speech and the immunity of summit participants. He could not give us the respective parts in writing, saying this only could be done once the agreement is ratified by the Tunisian parliament. Rumours say that we will never see it, because Tunisia will probably only ratify the document after the summit. Activists still do not know if and how they can bring publications to the summit that refer to the situation in the country. The authorities are well known for their tricks, and if they start "forgetting" packets full of booklets sent to the summit in the customs office until the summit is over is nothing that would surprise anyone.
The Tunisian organizers also recently started moving hotel bookings for the summit made a while ago to other hotels, referring to "administrative reasons". The reasons for this are unknown so far. It may be another attempt of "crowd control", but we also heard that this had happened to the Swiss' government "e-envoy" Markus Kummer.
These events question the whole summit set-up. A number of independent groups from inside and outside Tunisia are currently debating to boycott the summit completely, in order to avoid lending any legitimacy to the regime. They still plan to go to the country and show their solidarity with the independent local groups.
A number of groups with delegates here at the PrepCom have written an open letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which they will release on Saturday. In the letter, after listing an impressive number of human rights infringements in Tunisia recently, they state that
"We hence consider that the minimal conditions for the holding of this Summit are not met and that the credibility of the United Nations is at stake, as well as that of the international community, not to legitimize practices and policies contrary to its international commitments. We regret to inform you that if there are no significant improvements in the human rights situation in Tunisia before November 16, we would then need to reconsider the modalities and level of our participation at this Summit. We, therefore, respectfully request you to dispatch a high representative to Tunisia to review the state of affairs in the host country and for you subsequently to seek Tunisian official conformity with its international human rights commitments."
Additional signatures to the letter are possible until 30 September and should be sent to either Wolf Ludwig or Sean O Siochru. The letter is available in English, French and Spanish.
The government delegations of the Western Group will meet tomorrow morning and also discuss these developments. They are thinking about only sending very low-level representatives to Tunis. It is pretty certain that no head of state from this group will attend the summit, and even ministers are less likely now. The Western Group is also discussing a strong statement to be released at the closing plenary of the PrepCom on Friday.