9 December 2003

Africa: Civil Society Angry At Being Sidelined At WSIS

Geneva — Disappointed that initial promises of equal partnerships between governments and civil societies in the WSIS processes have been empty ones, over 300 Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) gathered in Geneva have decided to come up with their own separate Civil Society Declaration to WSIS.

Dubbed "Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs", the declaration aims at creating a "visionary society" that has free access to information and ICTs. The document will be officially launched on Thursday and submitted to the Heads of States meeting on Friday for their endorsement.

Robert Guerra, a team heading the Civil Society Caucus in Geneva and director of Computer Professionals for Social Restructuring, told the Highway Africa News Agency that the CSOs are vehement that their voice would be heard at the Summit, despite their disappointment at the increasing exclusiveness of the WSIS process over the last few months.

"In the beginning of the WSIS process, we had the impression that we were equal partners, contributing equally to the WSIS drafting of the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action of WSIS. Our expectations were high, but access and participation in the process has not been the case since the PrepCom3 in September."

Even worse, he complained, CSOs were totally banned from participating in the second phase of the Third Preparatory Committee meeting (PrepCom3/b) held in mid-November in Geneva. "What has been disappointing about the whole process was that even though we made a specific contributions to the two WSIS draft documents' text, very few of them have been incorporated during PrepCom3."

He said the UN member states' initial promise was that a single document would incorporate contributions from governments, businesses and civil societies. "Instead, what we have now are two separate documents, one of the governments and businesses and [the other] ours."

The 19-page draft Civil Society Declaration emphasizes four core principles and challenges. It stresses the centrality of human rights, and the protection of diversity of cultures, languages and knowledge in the public domain, with particular emphasis on the role of the media.

Guerra said the WSIS highlighted the division between the developing and developed countries on the issue of whether global ICT knowledge belongs in the private or public domain. "The developed countries look at global knowledge from the perspective of intellectual property rights and this stand appears to hold sway in the draft WSIS documents. But what we call for in our declaration is for intellectual property protection, so that developing countries do not get ripped off of their indigenous knowledge by big companies in the West."

Speaking of the underlying differences between the official draft documents and the CSO declaration, Guerra said, "Our document is much richer and shows a greater commitment towards finding solutions to accessing information and bridging the digital divide. I believe the official draft documents of WSIS are weak and not inspiring."

Guerra stressed that even though the Civil Society Caucus is infuriated at being sidelined, it has decided against protest action. "Civil societies are not out on the streets protesting, even though there is a good reason for it. What we are doing here is to make sure that our contributions and voices are heard, and telling the governments that we are serious about creating an inclusive Information Society."

The official draft Plan of Action, whose stakeholders are still haggling over a number of issues, recognizes civil society as one of the five stakeholders that have an "equally important role to play in the Information Society".

The other four stakeholders are governments, the private sector, the media, and the international and regional institutions.

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