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Africans blocked from attending Geneva forum

Delegates attending the World Civil Society Forum in Geneva. WCSF

It has emerged that Switzerland denied visas to many African delegates, who were trying to attend a major international forum in Geneva.

This content was published on July 19, 2002 - 14:20

The Swiss authorities were apparently concerned that some of the participants would try to remain in Switzerland illegally after the World Civil Society Forum.

"Last week, we were receiving calls for help every two minutes. Delegates were stranded on the tarmac, clutching their air tickets," says Sébastien Ziegler, the organiser of the forum. He believes the number of delegates prevented from travelling could number around 100.

Most are from Africa. Ziegler said that representatives of well-known organisations in Nigeria and Kenya had been prevented from attending.

Blow to image

The forum has received moral and financial support from the Swiss foreign ministry, which believes civil society should play a greater role in international institutions. Yet this embarrassing episode is a blow to Switzerland's image as a place that welcomes international conferences.

In March, the Swiss mission in Geneva informed embassies and consulates throughout the world that the forum was being held, but unlike for UN conferences, it had no input regarding the granting of visas.

Ultimately it was the embassies - following the guidelines laid down by the Federal Aliens Office, which is part of the justice and police ministry - that decided the fate of those requesting visas.

Christoph Müller, spokesman of the Federal Aliens Office, told swissinfo that those wanting to come to the forum had to fulfil certain conditions: that they were legally entitled to enter Switzerland, that they had the means to stay in Switzerland for the duration of the forum and that they could guarantee that they would leave at the end of it.

Delegates vetted

"Visas are not handed out blindly," says Amadeo Perez, of the Swiss diplomatic mission in Geneva. "Certain criteria have to be fulfilled."

"Registration was done over the Internet. There was no official invitation. Anyone could have turned up at a Swiss embassy claiming to be a delegate of an NGO," he added.

The forum's organiser Sébastien Ziegler, says the aim of the meeting was to attract as broad a cross-section of civil society as possible, but he refutes suggestions that candidates were not thoroughly vetted.

An editorial in the "Tribune de Genève" daily accused the organisers of naïveté. But equally, the Swiss government was criticised for not adopting a coherent stance. Having long called for a stronger NGO presence in Geneva, it has failed to devise a way of helping them to come here, the newspaper said.

"If this kind of gaffe is repeated, non-governmental organisations will look for more fertile ground to take root," it added.

New mechanisms

Ziegler agrees: "If you want to have international conferences in Geneva, you need to be open. There have to be better mechanisms to take into account representatives from civil society."

The aim of the forum is to get civil society actors from various fields of activity and from all over the world to pool their experiences, find common ground, and discuss ways of increasing their influence within the United Nations system.

Speaking at the opening of the forum, the head of Switzerland's Development and Cooperation Agency, Walter Fust, said that "the paralysis which increasingly characterises international negotiations could, in future, give greater importance to the voices that make up civil society".

Unfortunately many of those representatives of civil society were unable to make it to Geneva to hear his comments.

by Roy Probert

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