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Geneva hosts revolutionary summit

NGOs and civil society will have their say in Geneva, unlike these demonstrators at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001 Keystone

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is being hailed as the first step towards a new era of international negotiations.

This content was published on December 5, 2003 - 15:25

In an unprecedented move, the Geneva conference will open up its doors to representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society and the private sector.

“Until now, the United Nations dealt only with governments,” said the UN’s secretary-general, Kofi Annan.

“But today, we recognise that peace and prosperity cannot be realised without the contributions of governments, international organisations, the business world and civil society… Because in today’s world, we all depend on each other.”

Frustration

Throughout the preparatory process for the summit, members of civil society repeatedly welcomed the multi-stakeholder approach, while at the same time expressing some reservations over their involvement in the discussions.

“This is an interesting development, one that is almost historical,” said Chantal Peyer, who represents the Swiss NGO, Bread for All.

“But the participation of civil society, the private sector and international organisations is still on a consultative basis,” she added.

Her comments were echoed by civil society representatives at the end of the latest round of prep talks in mid-November.

At a press conference in Geneva, they expressed their frustration with the process, saying that they planned to “stop giving input” to the summit’s intergovernmental documents.

“The governments risk overlooking key issues… if they do not take our input more seriously,” said Wolfgang Kleinwächter, a civil society spokesman.

“We don’t need governments’ permission. We take our own responsibility,” he added. “Someone has to take the lead and if governments won’t do it, civil society will.”

The group added that it planned to adopt a two-pronged approach during the summit by preparing its own “vision document”, to be presented alongside the official declaration and action plan.

Speaking up

Throughout the prep talks, representatives from international organisations, think tanks, lobby groups and the private sector were given the opportunity to address the different plenary sessions and meetings.

They were also invited to contribute to the various working groups, which were created to deal with specific summit themes.

In addition, a civil society bureau was established in order to facilitate communication between WSIS organisers and various NGOs and international organisations involved in the discussions.

Many government delegations, including Switzerland’s, have also invited representatives of civil society to be a part of their negotiating teams.

But Pap Diouf, a professor at Geneva’s Graduate Institute for Development Studies (IUED), insists that these initiatives are insufficient.

“We can’t really talk about true multi-stakeholder negotiations, when it’s the governments that will continue to have the last word,” Diouf told swissinfo.

The private sector has also been critical of the process, saying that it has not been adequately involved in the preparation of the summit.

“The public-private partnerships lauded by Kofi Annan are really just a pious wish,” said Basheerhamad Shadrach, the South Asia director of Oneworld.net.

Quiet summit

But despite all of the criticism levelled against the summit, organisers and participants alike seem to agree that it’s a positive first step towards the full inclusion of civil society in future summits.

And it’s expected that their participation in this round of talks will allow Geneva to escape the type of violent demonstrations seen during previous similar meetings, since traditional summit opponents have been invited off the streets and into the negotiating room.

“This is a summit for all stakeholders, all governments and all states… be they poor, rich, small or big,” said Daniel Stauffacher, of the Swiss WSIS Secretariat. “And the objectives are positive ones that everyone can contribute to.”

“For the first time, they can all come together to write down a common vision for the information society and this will be a major element of success in Geneva,” he added.

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand and Anna Nelson in Geneva

In brief

The WSIS’s Civil Society Bureau is made up of a family of around 20 groups, including unions and interest groups representing the handicapped, young people, indigenous persons and a variety of other causes.

For the first time, they have been invited to directly participate in a United Nations summit.

Civil society representatives have cautiously welcomed this new multi-stakeholder approach, which is being hailed as a new era of international negotiations.

But frustration has been mounting throughout the preparatory process amongst many members, who say they have not been adequately involved in the talks.

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