Africa: WSIS - Paving the Way to Democratic Communication?

analysis

Geneva — Will history recognise the WSIS process as the first step in creating an entirely new model of international negotiation? One of many who believe so is Professor Wolfgang Kleinwächter of Aarhus University in Denmark.

Kleinwächter, professor for International Communication Policy and Regulation at Aarhus University in Denmark, says WSIS has become a laboratory for future forms of multi-stakeholder governance.

The world summit is held in two phases. The first phase took place in Geneva in December 2003. It produced a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action. The second phase will take place in Tunis this November.

WSIS is the first major world conference where decisions are not being made by governments only. Civil society organisations from around the world and the business sector are also key participants in the multi-stakeholder WSIS process.

The idea of multi-stakeholder negotiation and decision making was articulated in the Millennium Development Goals which the United Nations system is supposed to be implementing. WSIS however, is the first forum where it is actually being put into practice - and at the WSIS Prepcom taking place in Geneva this week, it can be seen to be working.

"This is a new beginning. WSIS is a forerunner -- an early bird in the new diplomacy of the 21st century" Kleinwächter told HANA.

However, when all parties gathered at the first WSIS Prepcom in mid 2002 no one was prepared for the new ways of doing things. Apart from a few sophisticated NGOs with international experience such as the Association for Progressive Communication APC, the CRIS Campaign (Communications Rights in the Information Society) and One World, the wide range of civil society organisations came largely unprepared.

They had no experience of speaking with one voice, little understanding of inter-governmental negotiation procedures, and many made sweeping rhetorical statements at WSIS meetings that were often not pertinent to the subject under discussion.

Governments were shocked by the noisy intrusion and 'colourful' interjections of the civil society brigade, and after the first 2002 plenary session in the Geneva Convention centre the civil society representatives were ordered out of the room, and the doors were closed on them.

Civil society responded angrily, banging on the doors and demanding to be re-admitted.

"What we were seeing was a clash of two different cultures -- the top down heirarchical culture of the last two hundred years, and the new bottom up multi-stakeholder approach" says Kleinwächter.

Tracey Naughton, currently co-convenor of the WSIS civil society bureau says it was a new process for all involved, but as the first 2002 Prepcom unfolded it became clear to government representatives that a lot of expertise was located within civil society.

"As we went along there developed more and more regard for our interventions - with exceptions like the governments of China and Egypt who staunchly wanted to block civil society - but several governments began to defer decisions until they had some input from civil society."

"Learning to speak with one voice was not easy. It is not a natural thing for civil society because it consists of hundreds of diverse organisations and individuals

However through our very clear headed drafting group we were able to agree on a civil society declaration at the 2003 Geneva summit"

Despite the increasing rapprochement, governments at Geneva were not prepared to integrate the civil society text into the final conference declaration, and the final solution negotiated was that the Civil Society declaration was attached to the Geneva summit declaration.

Prof Kleinwächter, who is also a member of the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance, says much has changed in the two years of preparation for the Tunis summit.

"We have moved step by step from turmoil to trust. There has grown an understanding that building a people-centred Information Society is a joint effort which requires cooperation and partnership. The multi-stakeholder principle has been accepted by everybody.

"Now civil society representatives have access to the large majority of all WSIS meetings. There are very few closed meetings. Otherwise civil society can observe and make input to all meetings in which the governments are talking together. They have secure speaking rights.

"In the early Prepcom meetings it was totally unclear whether civil society could speak in working group sessions... They could make statements in writing to the plenary sessions, but then they had to leave the room. If they sat in a working group session they had to remain silent.

"Now it is totally different. Civil society has the direct possibility to influence the negotiation by providing real input and language. The stakeholders are learning how to work together -- and this has great importance for the future. We are moving to a new model of co-regulation, co-policy development, and WSIS is a fascinating test case for how this can be further developed.

"Civil society has developed a gigantic mechanism over the last two to three years and there is a sophisticated rhythm of work going on now. During these current two weeks we have 164 different meetings of different groups of civil society. If you compare the atmosphere in the main plenary where the governments are sitting, delivering bureaucratic or technocratic official speeches, to the civil society meetings, then you see where the real life of the conference is taking place.

Civil society at WSIS is now organised into 15 caucuses - thematic ones on e.g. youth, media, academia & education, local authorities, gender and others, regional caucuses for Asia, Africa, Latin America and so on, and there is also a working group on internet governance, a task force on financing mechanisms, and Tunisia, host country for the final summit, has its own caucus. Each caucus has a member on the civil society bureau, which is responsible for liaison with the government bureau.

The experience of working together in the WSIS process has led to much increased networking between civil society organisations around the world. Africa has seen the birth of African Civil Society for Information Society (ACSIS), a continent wide civil society organisation with representatives in nearly every African country. It is having a clear impact on national governmental delegations at WSIS, in terms of successful lobbying and having success in getting civil society representatives appointed to national delegations. ACSIS has a strong online network.

Kleinwächter says the multi-stakeholderism is fast becoming the modus operandi of WSIS:

"More and more governmental representatives leave the plenaries and attend the meetings of civil society. We saw this yesterday in the Global Alliance debate where the Russian and Finnish government representatives suddenly showed up and the representative of the US government came and explained the position of the US.

"So not only have the governments have opened the doors to civil society speakers, but they have come to understand the value of working together with civil society. The challenge is not to decide who is in charge or who should take over but the challenge is to bring the different stakeholders into a mechanism for meeting the demands of the information age - to find a just arrangement for working in a constructive dialogue and avoiding a destructive battle." he said

Prof Kleinwächter said if one compared WSIS with other intergovernmental organisations such as WIPO or WTO it came clear that radically new practices were emerging.

"In WTO for instance there is no civil society participation whatsoever. WIPO has recently invited civil society organisations as observers, but they exclude them from programme meetings. In the ITU a private entity can become a member by paying an extravagant membership fee which is not affordable for civil society organisations. And this only permits observer status.

"The principle of multi-stakeholderism just does not exist among the traditional intergovernmental organisations. WSIS is unique in this regard.

"Of course WSIS does not operate on the basis of a treaty. So it can only make recommendations and rely on political good will.

"Now it remains to be seen how much the WSIS example will influence the other organisations. Already one can see changes emerging. The UNCTAD meeting in Sao Paulo last September opened its doors to civil society. They organised hearings where they asked civil society to make representations. Civil society was also asked to make substantial contributions to a number of UNCTAD projects.

"WIPO has moved a little bit. Yesterday in the Canadian embassy a spokesman from WTO said the WTO and the World Bank were the only organisations which had no channels whatsoever for engaging with civil society. My reading of that statement was that it was done in a sense of self criticism.

"So what I see is the start of a process, but it will take a lot of time because some governments fear that they will lose some power. It is a real fear, because what we are seeing are the beginnings of a power shift.

"Mostly it is not the strong governments in the north that block civil society involvement, but rather those of the south who fear that civil society organisations are used by the north as Trojan horses. There is a lot of mistrust. So the challenge for civil society, particularly in the south, is to demonstrate that they can be constructive partners.

"This will open the way for development of new democratic communication, diplomacy and negotiation processes for the 21st century. And WSIS is leading the way"

Tracey Naughton comments that the idea of a multi-stakeholder process, discussed for many years, has finally become a reality here in Geneva.

"This is now the way forward. The multi-stakeholder process will almost certainly become upheld in the UN set of rules for holding international conferences

"If this is challenged, civil society will in future be able to refer to the WSIS process as an established modality. International diplomacy and negotiation is entering a new era."

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