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Information Summit kicks off in Geneva

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan speaks during the opening of the summit Keystone

More than 50 heads of state or government and around 13,000 representatives of civil society and the private sector are attending the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

This content was published on December 10, 2003 - 15:23

The three-day United Nations gathering officially got underway on Wednesday in Geneva.

Pascal Couchepin, president of the event's host country, opened the summit at a ceremony involving thousands of delegates.

"I'm overjoyed to welcome you to Switzerland for this summit," Couchepin told the crowd. "We are proud to host this summit, which, for the first time on an international level, will deal with the challenges of the information society."

"Information and communication technologies offer us the opportunity to promote human rights," he added. "And the development of these technologies has revolutionised access to information."

His comments were echoed by the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who started his speech by thanking the Swiss for their "remarkable support" in helping to organise the summit.

"I'm not speaking just about their warmth and customary efficiency, but the political resolve they showed in making this summit a success," said Annan.

Annan cited technological, commercial, gender and social disparities as obstacles that must be overcome in order to bridge the digital divide.

"We have tools that can propel us towards the Millennium Development Goals," he added. "We have all of this potential - the challenge before this summit is what to do with it."

Resolution

For the Swiss hosts of the summit, the start of the gathering on Wednesday marked the end of two years of preparations and tough negotiations.

Discussions on two of the meeting's key documents - the draft declaration of principles and plan of action - came down to the wire on Tuesday as delegates held eleventh-hour talks to clear the last hurdle on the meeting’s agenda.

The thorny issue of who should pay for the development of information and communication technologies in poor countries had created deep divisions between industrialised and developing nations.

But Switzerland's state secretary to the summit, Marc Furrer, said negotiators had managed to strike a last-minute deal by including provisions in the draft documents stating that the question should be studied further.

He added that he had been forced to take a "hard stance" to push delegates to reach an agreement.

"I said 'Look, it's this or nothing', and then we reached a compromise," said Furrer. "So, I'm very pleased."

The draft plan of action states that a UN-led feasibility study will be carried out in the period before the second phase of the summit takes place in Tunisia in 2005 to determine whether a fund should be established.

The UN is due to report back on its findings by the end of 2004.

Down to business

Following Wednesday's opening ceremony, the heads of state and government began discussing the draft documents.

The two texts outline a common vision and “commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society”.

Based on objectives set at past UN conferences, such as the Millennium Development Goals, they cover a broad range of issues from governance of the internet to press freedom.

Furrer said he was hopeful that they would be adopted at the end of the summit on Friday and that they will pave the way for universal access to information.

“I’ll be pleased on Saturday when everything has gone smoothly and we have good political content to move forward,” he said.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson at the WSIS in Geneva

In brief

The first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society got underway in Geneva on Wednesday.

The second stage of the summit, which aims to bridge the digital divide, will take place in Tunisia in 2005.

Over 50 heads of state or government and thousands of representatives from civil society and the private sector are taking part in the UN-organised global gathering.

As the country hosting the summit, the Swiss have been busy behind the scenes, pushing delegates to reach agreement on major sticking points.

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