Second WSIS summit officially opened
  Kofi Annan: Challenges are political, not financial - Ben Ali receives deep criticism for Tunisian human rights record
 
 
  16 November 2005. The second World Summit on the Information Society has started. On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Tunisian President Ben Ali opened what has been named the "summit of solutions". Swiss President Samuel Schmid and civil society representative Shirin Ebadi openly criticized the Tunsian authorities for their repressive acts against local and international civil society. The summit documents - the Tunis Agenda for Action and the Tunis Commitment - were finalized last night after long negotiations.

Kofi Annan reminded the listeners from governments, international organizations, business, and civil society of the "Geneva vision of an open and inclusive information society". The implementation of this vision should increase the capacity of all human and "bring benefits to all social classes". The challenges we face, said Annan, are political rather than financial. The resources to ease the digital divide exist, but governments still need to develop the political will to act. He called human rights and freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression, the "lifeblood of information society". Referring directly to the summit negotiations and especially to the issue of internet oversight, he thanked the US for its prominent role in developing the net but maintained that a greater role for other governments in internet-related policy issues is now necessary. He also highlighted the important role of all stakeholders, including civil society.

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali welcomed the participants and expressed his happiness about the "prestige and credibility enjoyed by Tunisia" because of the summit. He emphasized values of "tolerance and solidarity" and called Tunisia "a land of meetings and dialogue". Those international and Tunisian civil society activists who have been harassed by Tunisian police and secret service during the past few days and who have been prevented, often violently, to hold 'meetings and dialogue' may have a slightly different view about this (see the earlier reports on this website). Ben Ali also pointed to the problems of cybercrime, in which he included extremism and "behavioural deviations". He called for universal ethical standards and for a "collective moral responsibility" to protect nations against negative uses of ICTs.

Responding to Ben Ali in a blunt and open way, Swiss President Samuel Schmid, in his speech, criticized the human rights record of authoritarian governments, hinting particularly at Tunisia. He said that it is "unacceptable" that the UN includes nations that imprison their citizens if they exert their right to freedom of expression, for example by reading and writing on websites. And he referred even more directly to the repression that took place in Tunis during the past few days: "Inside and outside these halls everyone should have the right to express their views freely". What may be even more significant, Schmid's speech was interrupted by long and intense applause from the plenary hall directly after these words.

Shirin Ebadi (International Federation for Human Rights), speaking as the representative for civil society, received similar applause, as she noted that civil society is becoming increasingly important, especially as "certain governments" are not necessarily elected, don't respect the desires and interests of their people, and don't respect basic rights of freedom of expression and of association. She demanded the release of all political prisoners. She also pointed out that government-aligned "NGOs" had obstructed civil society meeting during the summit process. Further, she highlighted the need to bridge the digital and communication divide, especially in the Global South. She noted that expenses spent globally on the military are far higher than what would be needed to significantly improve the situation.

Yoshio Utsumi, head of the International Telecommunications Union, talked about the specific nature of information and knowledge. In the information society, he said, we will become richer by sharing what we have, not by holding onto it for ourselves. The value of information increases the more it is shared. Willingly or unwillingly, he thereby repeated the argument of free software advocates as well as of those who criticize restrictive uses of intellectual property rights and argue for open, unrestricted knowledge. Thus one of the results of the summit process may indeed have been a learning process on the side of governments and inter-governmental institutions.

In a further surprise note, the representative of the business community, Craig Barrett from the Intel Corporation, criticized the policies of the business community's best ally, the US government. He pointed to the fact that, while US classrooms have more computers than classrooms anywhere else, the knowledge of US pupils of, for example, mathematics is exceptionally bad. "Commputers are not magic, teachers are magic", according to Barrett, and it is the responsibility of governments to provide teachers and other public services, in addition to the necessary ICT infrastructure.

The summit documents, now called the Tunis Agenda for Action and Tunis Commitment, were adopted at 11 o'clock on Tuesday night. They had been negotiated since the first meeting of the preparatory committee (PrepCom) in summer last year. However, progress had stalled recently, with governments unable to agree on fundamental issues regarding internet governance. An extended PrepCom meeting during the final days before the summit had become necessary, but even that meeting could not be finished as planned at Tuesday midday. Further negotiations during the summit days seemed likely. Then, in a surprise turn, compromise deals were brokered in the very final session on Tuesday night. A discussion forum on internet governance was created, and the conflict on internet oversight was solved by a commitment for on-going, yet not immediate, reform. So, negotiations have ended, but much of the work is just beginning.
 
 
 
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