NGOs denounce Information Summit venue

NGOs have accused Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of human rights abuses Keystone

Representatives of United Nations member states are meeting in Geneva to prepare for the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

This content was published on February 17, 2005

The global gathering is to be held in Tunisia in November, but Swiss civil society groups say Tunis is no place for a summit dealing with freedom of expression.

"Tunisia is seen by the western world as relatively liberal and modern," said Wolf Ludwig, the co-president of Comunica-ch, an umbrella group of Swiss non-governmental organisations involved with the information society.

"But this image masks the reality that Tunisia is a country which violates human rights and freedom of expression," he added.

"Such a mandate comes with certain obligations in terms of the respect for human rights," he added. "The whole world will have its attention fixed on Tunisia in November."

Swiss responsibility

The initial phase of the WSIS was held in Geneva in December 2003 and as the summit’s original host country, Switzerland has a duty to ensure that human rights are respected at the gathering’s next venue, according to NGOs.

"The responsibility of the Swiss is to put pressure on the Tunisian government to ensure that all civil society groups can participate in the November summit," said Manon Schick, of the Swiss branch of Amnesty International.

"Right now, the Swiss aren’t doing enough to apply that kind of pressure," Schick told swissinfo.

In response to civil society’s demands, the head of the Swiss delegation to the WSIS, Mark Furrer, told swissinfo that the decision to hold the second phase in Tunisia "was taken by the UN" and not Switzerland.

Access denied

The unprecedented involvement of civil society and the private sector at the WSIS in 2003 was hailed as one of the greatest achievements of the gathering in Geneva.

For the first time, both groups were formally included as partners in a UN summit and their participation was seen by many as the start of a new era of international negotiations.

But Tunisian NGOs say they have been denied accreditation to the upcoming summit because they are not legally recognised by the government.

They also claim that the country’s journalists are systematically censured and even imprisoned because of their opinions.

"There are very serious concerns as to whether such a UN gathering should be held on Tunisian soil," said the head of the WSIS Human Rights Caucus, Meryem Marzouki.

"There is still a lot to be done in order to make this a summit of solutions rather than problems," she added.

Divisive issues

Swiss and international NGOs are hoping to make their voices heard during a second round of preparatory talks, which start in Geneva on Thursday.

The aim of the conference, which runs until February 25, is to get governments, civil society and representatives of the business community to agree on what the outcome of the Tunis summit should be.

They are also expected to focus on how to implement the WSIS action plan, which was endorsed by 175 nations in Geneva.

This contains the world’s first charter for the cyber age and was welcomed by summit participants in 2003 as a blueprint to bridge the digital divide.

The document also sets down a challenge to global leaders to use information and communication technologies to help achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals on preventing world poverty, hunger and disease.

But more than a year after the Swiss part of the summit, lingering questions remain over divisive issues such as financing, media freedom and internet governance.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

Key facts

The United Nations decided to hold the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in two phases.
The first part took place in December 2003 in Geneva, where an action plan was endorsed by 175 nations to bridge the digital divide.
The second part is due to be held in the Tunisian capital of Tunis from November 16-18.

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In brief

Switzerland must play an active role in ensuring the respect of human rights in Tunisia, say NGOs.

Their calls come UN representatives met in Geneva to prepare for the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November.

NGOs want the Swiss government to put pressure on the Tunisian government to improve human rights before the summit.

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