Some 176 countries have signed up to the world’s first charter for the cyber age at a United Nations summit in Geneva.
Conference organisers hailed the adoption of a blueprint to bridge the digital divide as a historic step.
“Geneva 2003 will stay in my mind as being the launch of a new international dialogue and a new political concept, namely digital solidarity,” said Swiss President, Pascal Couchepin, at the close of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) on Friday.
“An innovative political process has been set in motion,” he added. “For the first time in United Nations history, states have invited civil society to participate in the debate.”
The declaration and plan of action adopted by governments on Friday reflected their “common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society”.
The texts also challenged governments to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) “to promote the development goals of the Millennium Declaration”.
These include eradicating extreme hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education, and creating “global partnerships” to attain a more peaceful, just and prosperous world by 2015.
The plan of action also states that UN working groups will be formed to examine how information technology networks can be financed in poor countries, and how the internet can be governed before the next phase of the summit in Tunisia in 2005.
But with half of the world’s population lacking access to even a telephone, development experts insist that ICTs must go hand-in-hand with traditional investment schemes in poor countries.
“There is a risk that IT becomes the next big white elephant of development,” said the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, Mark Malloch Brown.
“It must be funded as a tool for bringing education, health and other services to people… but it’s no substitute for investment in education and health themselves,” he added.
In his speech to delegates, Couchepin praised summit participants for their commitment to build a better world.
“Here in Geneva, we have begun to lay the foundations of a new information society characterised by solidarity and openness,” said Couchepin. “Our common desire is for a future that is more just and more equitable.”
For the Swiss, who hosted the three-day summit, Friday’s events marked the end of two years of preparations and hard-fought negotiations to persuade governments to agree on several divisive issues.
These included the questions of financing, internet governance and references in the final declaration to respect for human rights and media freedom.
“Generally seen, [the summit] was quite successful, so our work has been accomplished… But the process goes on, of course, and Switzerland will follow that as well,” Marc Furrer, Switzerland’s state secretary to the summit and chief negotiator, told swissinfo.
Furrer’s comments were echoed by Sarbuland Khan, the head of the UN’s ICT Task Force, which has been charged with monitoring part of the summit agenda’s progress.
“Most definitely, this summit has been a big success,” Khan told swissinfo.
“All the major stakeholders came together from all over the world on a single platform and, in the end, after a difficult process of negotiations, they have reached agreement on key issues.”
The unprecedented involvement of civil society and the private sector – whose members turned out in unexpectedly high numbers – has been hailed as one of the greatest achievements of the summit.
For the first time, both groups were formally included as partners in a UN summit and their participation has been seen by many as the start of a new era of international negotiations.
“What this event has shown is that the UN, as an institution, is capable of adapting and that it can be innovative and do things differently,” Khan told swissinfo.
Besides NGOs and business leaders, more than 50 heads of state or government, mostly from developing nations, also attended the event.
But in response to criticism that a virtual no-show by Western leaders signalled a lack of political support for the summit’s objectives, Furrer said he hoped this kind of scepticism could be overcome.
“I think that those officials who didn’t attend have probably seen that it was a mistake not to come and I hope they attend the next phase,” said Furrer.
Next stop: Tunisia
But while the Swiss may now be able to breathe a sigh of relief, work has already begun for the UN and Tunisian officials, who will host the second phase of the summit in 2005.
“Geneva was just the beginning,” said Khan. “A 1,000-mile journey starts with a first step… now we are on that journey and the next stop is Tunisia.”
Considerable criticism has been levelled against the UN for backing the Tunisian capital of Tunis as the next venue for the global gathering.
Many non-governmental organisations have accused the country’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, of systematically abusing human rights.
“Tunisia is one of the worst countries when it comes to freedom of expression,” said Robert Ménard, head of Reporters without Borders.
But Khan insists that the 2005 summit will “open up the political process in Tunisia” and serve as an important benchmark for assessing the “dynamic process started in Geneva”.
That’s a view shared by the Tunisian foreign minister, Habib Ben Yahia.
“We do consider phase two as the crowning of this process. This is a new revolution and people around the world have to realise that we have a lot at stake to arrive in 2005 with a consensus and a vision,” he said.
swissinfo, Anna Nelson at the WSIS in Geneva
A declaration of principles and plan of action to bridge the digital divide were adopted by 176 countries at the close of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva on Friday.
The documents affirm the signatories’ “common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society”.
They also set down a challenge to global leaders to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
A strategy to implement the goals in both documents will now be put in place ahead of the next phase of the summit in Tunisia in 2005.
The principal objectives of the UN Millennium Declaration are: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, and reduce child mortality by 2015.
It also aims to improve maternal health, combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a partnership for development.
The information society declaration and plan of action aim to use ICTs to further these objectives.
Switzerland has invested SFr15 million in organising and hosting the Geneva summit.