IRIS Actions / SMSI / Droits de l'homme - Human Rights

Press Conference

Comunica-ch - Swiss coalition for the information society - and Amnesty International
WSIS in Tunis: An Information Summit under Repression?
Wednesday February 16, 2005 at 11:30
at the Swiss Press Club in Geneva

Intervention by Meryem Marzouki on behalf of the Human Rights Caucus
"A Summit of Solutions or a Summit of Problems?"
(Voir la version originale en Franšais)

Presentation of the Human Rights Caucus

The caucus has been set up as early as the end of PrepCom1 of WSIS first phase, in July 2002. Its objective is to put human rights on the WSIS agenda, civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. The caucus is made up of more than 55 international and national organizations, covering all the regions of the world and acting for the defense of human rights, in the WSIS process as well as in all countries of the world, not least the host country of the Summit.

Concerns and Strategy of the Caucus with regards to Tunisia

The caucus felt very early concerned with the venue of WSIS second phase in Tunisia, a country known for its blatant violations of human rights and democracy, including in the information society context.
However, its strategy has never been the boycott of the Summit process, which is a tremendous opportunity for putting Tunisia under the world spotlights and for networking with the international civil society. In addition, we have found more efficient to act from inside the process, since this Summit if of high importance for the Tunisian government. The caucus has also wanted to act in agreement with independent Tunisian NGOs and in accordance with their demands.
The general idea is thus to obtain as much progress as possible, serious, concrete, sustainable, and measurable progresses, regarding the situation of human rights in Tunisia.

First moment (Geneva Summit and PrepCom1): phase of visibility

The caucus has undertaken actions since WSIS first phase. A petition has been initiated in September 2003, asking on the one hand for the freeing of journalists and other prisoners of opinion, and on the other hand for the commitment to allow all Tunisian and international civil society representatives to freely participate. At the same time, we have held a public event to launch a publication issued by one of our members, Rights and Democracy, on human rights in the information society, which highlighted inter alia the case of an imprisoned webmaster, Zouhayr Yahyaoui. He has benefited from conditional release in November 2003.
Then we have started a series of actions with the purpose of making visible the independent Tunisian civil society and its demands, not only to the international civil society, but also to all the governments participating to WSIS. Our double objective has thus been to build the solidarity of the international civil society and to put pressure on governments.
We have thus organized during Geneva Summit in December 2003 two major events: a public conference on "Communication and Human Rights: No Development Without Democracy, No Democracy Without Development", with the participation of the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH); a press conference, with the participation of LTDH, which has expressed its call for an international monitoring mission in Tunisia.
Furthermore, PrepCom1 of the second phase, in Hammamet, has allowed to reveal to all the antidemocratic practices that are common in Tunisia: as the caucus noted in its press release, civil society plenary meetings have been turned into chaos, with people brought on site with buses to prevent critical voices towards the Tunisian regime to express themselves. This has even led to a 45mn interruption of the official governmental session, almost causing a diplomatic incident. These practices from people close to the Tunisian authorities have had an unexpected result: the international civil society has been able to "feel" the daily situation of the independent Tunisian civil society. The human rights caucus also succeeded in having the LTDH representative speaking, in Tunisia and during an international conference, on behalf of the whole international civil society, to state that the host country of WSIS should respect human rights.

Second moment (PrepCom2): phase of fact finding and expressing demands

Following notably the request publicly expressed by LTDH during the Geneva Summit, two international monitoring missions have been conducted in Tunisia. I'll be back later on the one organized by FIDH, Rights and Democracy and OMCT, and supported by the caucus.
There has also been an important mobilization of independent Tunisian NGOs to come here in Geneva in order to participate to PrepCom2, and, inter alia, to announce that they have formed a coordination and to express their demands, which are summarized in the independent Tunisian civil society Declaration of January 2005:

  • Legal recognition of NGOs that has asked for it
  • True and sustainable end to the violations of freedom of expression and to access to information
  • Effective solutions to enhance the situation of journalists
  • Release of imprisoned Internet users and other prisoners of opinion
This PrepCom2 consequently allows to set deadlines in order to have these demands met and to call for international civil society solidarity.

Current situation, at this step of PrepCom2

Three caucus members, international NGOs for the defense of human rights (FIDH, Rights and Democracy, OMCT), supported by the caucus, has mandated international experts in the filed of ICTs, human rights and medias, to conduct a monitoring and dialogue mission in Tunisia.
The objective of this mission is to produce an assessment tool on the situation in Tunisia, in order to answer the following two questions:

  1. What are the operational conditions for civil society participation to the Tunis Summit?
  2. What is the state of human rights in the information society context in Tunisia?
The mission organizers has set the following conditions to be met by the monitoring work of the experts:
  • Ensure the independent and objective character of the production of this assessment tool
  • Comply with a global conception of human rights, respecting their indivisible and universal character, in adherence with the rule of law allowing to realize their effective application.
The mission has been conducted from January 25 to January 28, 2005. It allowed to have meetings with various civil society actors as well as with the Tunisian authorities. The experts are Deborah Hurley, Director of the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project, and previously in charge, with the OECD, of ICT legal, political and economic issues; Younes Mjahed, General Secretary of the Moroccan Press National Trade Union and member of the Executive Committee of the International Federation of Journalists; and Jean-Louis Roy, President of Rights and Democracy, formerly Director of the Montreal daily newspapers Le Devoir, and former General Secretary of the Agence de la Francophonie. They were accompanied by Antoine Madelin, in charge with the FIDH of IGOs relations, who is the mission Secretary.
While it is still to early to disseminate the mission final report, specially since it covers the whole set of human rights. However, we can report that the experts have expressed their grave concerns about the ability of the Tunisians to fulfill, at this step, their international commitments including under human rights law and as hosts of a UN conference.

One can indeed note that Tunisia tries to instrumentalize its results in terms of infrastructure and development of the information society, to the detriment of the respect for civil and political rights, which see blatant violations.
However, when taking a closer look and examining figures provided by international organizations (World Bank, International Telecommunications Union, United Nations Development Programme) and by the official Tunisian Internet Agency, one can find that surveillance, monitoring and censorship constantly exercised, together with the legal insecurity resulting from legislation and administrative regulation, have a strong impact on:

  1. Internet usage development and user confidence. For instance, 6 out of 7 Tunisian Internet users have e-mail accounts provided by foreign ISPs.
  2. The economy of information society services. For instance, Internet penetration rate in Tunisia is 6.4%, and there are only 0.05 publinet (cybercafe) per 100 Internet users, while Algeria, with an Internet users rate of only 1.9%, has 0.3 cybercafe per 100 Internet users. Moreover, there is a very low number of Tunisian Internet hosts (websites) taking into account the Internet penetration, and compared to countries like Algeria, Morocco and Egypt. One could provide many other concrete signs showing that Tunisian economic actors are not investing in the sector of information society services.
In summary, the Tunisian Internet visibility is the one of a country where there is a government and administrations, but neither citizens nor economic actors. Among the three WSIS "stakeholders" (governments, civil society, private sector), only one of them is actually taking part in the case of Tunisia.

Third moment (PrepCom3): phase of assessment and decision making

PrepCom3, which is to take place two months before the expected holding of WSIS in November 2005, will be for the international civil society the moment of assessment and decision making, taking into account assessment tools and benchmarks like the one resulting from monitoring missions.
If the Tunisian government is willing that the WSIS be held in good conditions in Tunis, it should answer in a serious, concrete, sustainable and measurable way the basic demands of the independent Tunisian civil society, which need has been established by international missions.
If governments participating to WSIS are willing to hold this Tunis Summit, they should put firm pressure on the Tunisian authorities to have these demands satisfied.
If the international civil social wants to show true solidarity, it should adopt these demands as its own.

If Tunis is to be a "Summit of solutions", following ITU's formula, and not a "Summit of problems", as it could be feared, there are a lot of efforts still to be undertaken, and a lot of pressure still to be exercised, but we know that tangible results may easily be exhibited between now and September 2005 by the Tunisian authorities, if they show the political willing to do so.
Let's then meet at PrepCom3 in September 2005 to assess these results, so that each one will be able to make its decision regarding its participation, or its non participation, to the Tunis Summit.

(dernière mise à jour le 20/02/2005) -