By RITS GENEVA, Switzerland, 11 December 2003
Today, December 10th at 14:00, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) officially began – after a preparatory process that was longer that foreseen, due to difficulty in reaching a consensus on the Declaration of Principles and the Action Plan, the final documents to be discussed and sanctioned by the heads of government present in Geneva. The preparation for this event was a reflection of the complexity of the themes discussed in the WSIS: there were 3 PrepComs and an intersessional meeting, and the third PrepCom was comprised of three meetings –in September, November and the last in December, on the eve of the Summit- when the delegations finally reached consensus on the official documents.
Despite the history of controversies, progress and setbacks that have marked the WSIS preparatory process since November 2002, the opening ceremony speeches practically converged,
with the exception of the private sector representative, Mohammad Omran (from Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Company), who defended the protection of intellectual property rights and free competition and emphasised values such as solidarity, protection of democracy, justice and equality, and the right to information and free expression.
The ceremony was opened by the President of the Swiss Confederation, Pascal Couchepin, who reasserted his belief in the importance of this Summit, and especially the importance of the continuation of the process. He was followed by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who recalled that the “digital divide” is in fact made up of various divides – technological, commercial, social and economic – and he specifically cited gender inequality in the digital inclusion process (even in developed countries), and the difficulty of accessing relevant content by persons who do not read English (Annan noted that 70% of internet content is published in this language). “We cannot assume that these divides will disappear on their own; to overcome them, political will and participation by all sectors is essential,” Annan asserted.
The President of Tunisia (the country that will host the next phase of the Summit in 2005) found civil society’s role in the WSIS to be remarkable. Zine el Abidine Ben Ali affirmed the importance of investing in the preparatory process of the second phase of the WSIS: “We must intensify the consultation process, open the road for civil society to participate and invest in strengthening ties of solidarity amongst people.” Ben Ali spoke of his preoccupation with maintaining open channels of communication with all stakeholders involved in the process of the Summit, and defended freedom of expression and peoples’ right to self-determination. Some hours before the President of Tunisia made this speech, demonstrators of a Swiss human rights organisation, Action-Verité, demonstrated in front of Geneva’s main tram station against the presence of Ben Ali at the opening of the Summit – because of human rights violations in Tunisia, where journalists and activists are in prison because of their opinions and denunciations of the practice of torture.
The necessity for a concerted effort by all countries to build a more just, prosperous and peaceful world was also emphasised by the Secretary General of the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), Yoshio Utsumi, who recalled the transition from a rural to an industrial economy and asserted that “in this transition towards an information society, we cannot make the mistakes of the past. A world effort should be made so that everyone has access to information – and today, words are not enough: it is time to replace words with actions.”
He was followed by the civil society representative, Kiki Nordström, President of the World Blind Union. Kiki read her speech from Braille text, and she defended the search for equality and all forms of social inclusion as goals of the information society. “I am not only going to talk of the exclusion of disabled persons, but of all socially excluded groups: indigenous people, women, the poor and the illiterate.”
Adama Samassekou closed the opening ceremony of this phase of the WSIS stating that “we are half-way down the road towards a Shared Information Society”. For the President of the WSIS Preparatory Committee, it is time to build a new form of solidarity amongst social groups, people and nations – based on sharing. Adama emphasised the need to strengthen multilateralism: “this Summit must be a road towards a new era – a new generation of World Summits is essential in this globalised world.” Samassekou recalled that the world is more divided than ever before: “It is time to discuss the themes of a future society, a new global society project, based on values of sharing and solidarity. May God Help Us.”
Graciela Selaimen, RITS
Translation from the Portuguese original: The Association for Progressive Communications (APC)