Strikes, counter strikes in human-rights

Today was a day of cancellation. The GEM (Gender Evaluation Methodology) Book launch was scheduled to happen at 2:00 pm, but in a demonstration of solidarity, APC decided to withdraw and cancel all of its side events scheduled for today…

Today was a day of cancellation. The GEM (Gender Evaluation Methodology) Book launch was scheduled to happen at 2:00 pm, but in a demonstration of solidarity, APC decided to withdraw and cancel all of its side events scheduled for today.

This strategy was in response to the bizarre and impudent prevention of a meeting yesterday between international and local tunisian civil society and human rights organisations to organise for the Civil Society Summit.

This Summit was supposed to be launched tomorrow in tandem with the WSIS opening, but after being cancelled on pre-booked venues (even after deposits were paid) and harassed out of being able to even have planning meetings, it seems that yet another cancellation had to happen.

The harassment isn’t just random bullying as well.

They were organised actions, with plain-clothed and uniformed officers turning up mysteriously at meeting points, using every inch of privilege afforded to government delegates at these UN spaces to disrupt, interrogate and demand for all sorts of irrelavant information, tailing key actors who are involved with the Tunisian human rights issues, being skilled in group dispersement and basically destabilising any notion of safe and secure spaces.

The extent of coordinated control and policing is astoundingly impressive.

When I was at the WSIS Gender Caucus “ICTs and Women’s Human Rights Debate” side event, there was the obligatory participant from Tunisia who extolled the virtues of the Tunisian government in ensuring the empowerment and protection of Tunisian women’s rights.

It seemed that a lot of effort and resources were put to ensure that the image of Tunisia as a ‘tolerant country that respects and protects of human rights’ was presented to the international WSIS II audience without an inch of doubt.

How is civil society able to match such a level of minute and detailed organising?

Checking our response, we decided to match like with like. Since the Civil Society was forced to be cancelled, then other side-events logically should be cancelled too.

After all, why should there be a difference between one side-event and another? Particularly since the Civil Society Summit was actually attempting to ensure greater participation and inclusivity by being a public and open event. All values that have been heralded as underpinning the shaping of a collective Information Society.

This would have been a very powerful statement to delegitimise the WSIS II process and expose its hypocritical irony if most of the civil society groups and organisations decided to do the same.

However, only those networks and organisations who have chosen to be actively involved in the Tunisian human rights issues — APC being one of them — have exacted the cancellations. How effective is it then, for such a strategy to make a statement?

To some extent, there is visibility and awareness about the issue.

Almost everyone I encountered and spoke to were at least vaguely aware that there is some dubious stuff happening in relation to the human rights situation in the present space.

Blue tape was stuck in crosses across events that were cancelled at the Exhibition Hall, and at the time and place of the scheduled event, the organisers spoke about the reason for cancellation, and brought some (hopefully deeper) awareness to the issue to the participants who may have otherwise have glossed over the matter.

To not compromise the sharing of knowledge and information, GEM books were still handed out for free, and in another event I went to, the Tunisian Monitoring Report was also disseminated after a statement was read in relation to the issue.

So at the very least, the Tunisian authorities (whom I suspect cleverly ensures that there is at least one representative at every side event) know that they can’t push people about, knock them on the head, steal their films, block access to buildings or let violent assailants get away without some form of opposing re/action.

However, I can’t help but wonder how effective is this strategy.

How many people care what happens to what appears to be a ‘localised’ human rights issue? As the Tunisian ‘participants’ emphasise time and again, there are human rights violations happening all over the world, why give Tunisia such a hard time now? The number of civil society organisations and groups that participated in the ‘boycott’ was also limited. There were no marches or demonstrations within or outside of the Summit space, by the international or Tunisian community.

Considering this is a Summit that commits itself to principles of democracy, human rights and freedoms (including explicitly mentioned in the WSIS Declaration the freedom of expression and opinions), not to forget the catchphrases of ‘inclusivity’, ‘participation’ and ‘multi-stakeholderism’ that have been thrown around like juggling balls in the entire Phase II process, the relatively muted response is highly disturbing.

How effective is it to raise objections to being silenced by a strategy of ‘silence’?

To read the cancellation of events as being silent is not entirely accurate.

As mentioned earlier, statements were made and read (including one by women’s organisations, activists and networks), and a civil society press conference that specifically highlighted this issue was held today. But it has to be admitted, the articulation of objection is not resoundingly vociferous. I can’t help but wonder why.

The WSIS GC continued to hold its events, and chose to endorse the women’s statement as individuals and organisations rather than as the WSIS GC. One reason I can guess at is probably because this is seen as a ‘larger’ human rights issue.

The connection to the gender dimension is a little unclear. Yes, it is without a doubt that such violations of human rights is untenable in the midst of a forum that claims to shape a space that is respectful of human rights, but to what extent should other priority issues be compromised or sacrificed to make this point?

Not to forget that civil society have played a large role in shaping the WSIS process, and a lot of resources have been invested into ensuring that our participation remains relevant and impactful. This is the tail end of a (at least) four year effort, and to jeopardise being thrown out of the Summit (which seems likely with the sheer amount of enforcement officers present at every possible gap in space) might be too high a cost that we are willing to bear.

Important negotiations were still underway until late this evening, and the civil society caucus are putting in a lot of effort to make sure that rights perspectives are embedded in the process and outcomes. WSIS II is about making building blocks to shape an Information Society that has the potential benefit all stakeholders, not really just about the issue of human rights in Tunisia, right?

Hmm… But this is real, and this is present, and this is happening right under our international, multi-stakeholder noses. If we can spout the language and draw the analytic diagram of the importance to the right to communication, the respect of democratic processes, the need to include everyone in this shaping process, then how can we reasonably ghettoise this issue without tasting the ironic connections to the ‘larger’ principles we are upholding, claiming and demanding?

Perhaps it is this perspective of ‘ghettoisation’ that hinders our ability to better organise in countering oppressive actions. Where as civil society with multiple focus, area/issue-expertise, methods and analysis of transformation, we have chopped ourselves up into fragmented, argumentative pieces.

So it enables shelving of issues as particularised, localised and capable of being shuffled down a hierarchy of priorities. Spaces are narrowing and funds are depleting; it seems almost inevitable that fragmentation should happen. The question is, can we afford to let this happen?

What would the cost be when we pick and choose between our differently placed and urgent agendas? How long before we become burnt out and jaded advocates and activists if we allow such Political Ironies to perpetuate through complicit inaction?

Or how long before we start becoming experts in suits that are adept with Bigger Pictures but blind in the lived realities we are purportedly ‘championing’? Who can afford to constantly build connections when connectivity costs are so high? More questions than answers, but this has been a troubling day…

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