Geneva — One of the biggest clouds looming over the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is the human rights record of Tunisia, which will host the second phase of the Summit, scheduled for Nov. 16-18.
Numerous Tunisian and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have denounced grave abuses, while pro-government local groups seek to downplay these allegations.
Renate Bloem, president of the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CONGO), acknowledged that this situation has made it impossible to reach a consensus in the civil society sector, which is actively participating in the preparatory committee sessions currently underway in Geneva.
Many NGOs have sent missions to Tunisia to verify the human rights situation, and unfortunately, said Bloem, their reports indicate that the country's human rights record is getting worse.
These visits have served to confirm that the situation is highly troubling, and marked by "systematic abuses," commented Antoine Madelin, a spokesman for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
The very survival of respected organisations is at risk in Tunisia, said Madelin. "It's not possible to participate in this situation," he maintained, because doing so would be tantamount to saying "that freedom of expression and information is not necessary for the information society."
Nevertheless, NGOs are not proposing a boycott of the Summit. That includes even the Tunisian groups opposed to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1987, because they believe the summit will provide them with an opportunity to expose to international public opinion the hardships faced by the local population.
In addition, the pressure could lead many governments to include only lower-level officials in the delegations they send to Tunisia, which would frustrate Ben Ali's hopes of using the summit to legitimise his regime, said Madelin.
The preparatory commission (PrepCom) sessions that began in Geneva Sept. 19 and wrap up this Friday have also contributed to focusing attention on the human rights abuses in Tunisia.
"Something can be achieved here," said Seán O Siochrú of the Communications Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign, referring to both the PrepCom meeting and the second phase of the Summit in Tunisia.
"There is still the possibility of progress before and during the Summit. It will take a concerted effort to mobilise the international media, and especially to persuade other governments to put pressure on the government of Tunisia," he stressed.
O Siochrú visited the North African country earlier this month, and reported, "There is strong evidence that the human rights situation in Tunisia is deteriorating in many respects, including in relation to the Internet."
"The imprisonment in April of lawyer Mohammed Abbou to three and a half years for a website article comparing torture in Tunisian prisons to Abu Ghraib is still fresh in everyone's minds," he commented.
The country was also shaken by the Mar. 13 death of Zouhair Yahyaoui, 36, the editor and founder of the web journal TuneZine, who was imprisoned and tortured for his criticism of the regime, the Irish activist reported.
The latest episode of rights abuses was a court order preventing the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) from holding its 6th Congress, scheduled for Sept. 9-11.
The suspension remains in place, pending examination by the court of a complaint filed by twenty people close to the government and the ruling party and claiming to be members or heads of some of the LTDH chapters, reported Steve Buckley of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 14 organisations that belong to the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) network.
The TMG further denounced that the Tunisian National Journalists Union was prevented from holding its founding congress this month.
In addition, a report distributed by the TMG this week exposed attempts to destabilise the Tunisian Association of Magistrates (ATM) and to encourage a minority group of judges close to the government to take control of the ATM.
These manoeuvres began "after the association's democratically elected board spoke against attacks on lawyers following the arrest of their colleague Mohammed Abbou," states the report.
The TMG mission headed by Buckley concluded that Tunisia is "not a suitable place for having a U.N. Summit," given the use of undemocratic practices that are "more characteristic of a police state."
The monitoring group includes representatives of the International Federation of Journalists, the International Publishers' Association, the International Federation of Library Association and Institutions, the World Press Freedom Committee and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), among others.
Denunciations of human rights violations in Tunisia began to be heard during the first phase of the WSIS, held in Geneva in December 2003.
In response, Tunisian authorities adopted the tactic of packing the summit headquarters with their own supporters, recalled the leader of a Latin American human rights association who asked to remain anonymous.
In addition to being verbally abusive, the pro-government Tunisian representatives were also involved in physical altercations, said the source, adding that what happened in Geneva could quite possibly be repeated at the second phase of the Summit in Tunis.