It looks like I will be in Geneva for the next couple of weeks for the second Preparatory Committee of the World Summit on the Information Society. It will be a key meeting where we will see if much has advanced since the disastrous first Prepcom in Tunisia last year. Much will depend on what kind of participation we see from Tunisian “civil society.”
Many of us in civil society active in the WSIS process remember well the contentious and chaotic atmosphere at the first PrepCom in Hammamet, Tunisia in June 2004. There were strong allegations that the Tunisian government had masterminded a civil society coup by accrediting at the eleventh hour fifty or so representatives of Tunisian NGOs, allegedly to block any possible criticism of the Tunisian regime at the Prepcom.
This resulted in a couple of horrible civil society meetings where people were shouted down, chairs were rushed by angry Tunisians, and no discussion was possible. What was clear was that we did not have the internal processes and structures established to deal with this kind of eventuality, including procedures for voting and clear guidance on the relationship of the plenary to the various caucuses and the Content and Themes group. I wrote a summary report on Prepcom I for the CONGO website.
There are rumors that a similar takeover attempt may occur next week in Geneva.
The difference is that our caucuses and CS structures have had some opportunity to prepare themselves for this eventuality. The Working Methods Working Group (I know, terrible name) that I helped found and co-coordinate, was begun to try and come up with a set of recommendations and proposals for the various CS structures to operate more effectively and democratically in the WSIS process. Even fairly benign procedures, like choosing the chairs of the CS plenaries, contain the possibilities for strong divisions and conflict among ourselves. So having clear guidelines in place will hopefully help.
There are of course differences of opinion and orientation within the Working Methods Group. But I feel reasonably confident that we can come up with some recommendations together that reflect our best thinking and experiences.
I frankly am surprised that these kinds of conflicts did not come earlier in the process. I have always thought that this orientation toward drafting a common consensus documents and positions taking everyone’s views into account was a recipe for mediocrity. In my view, its the diversity of civil society’s positions and arguments that are our strength, as well as our common interests. We need a loose enough structure that allows us to coordinate where necessary and to diversify our efforts as a priority.
In my conception, the CS plenary is where we come together for a brief period to report on our various initiatives, invite others to join us, share insider information, and that’s it. Beyond that, like-minded coalitions of NGOs should be able to go on their merry path, lobbying, issuing press releases, and making noise in whatever ways they see fit. Some kind of CS secretariat should exist to share basic information, arrange rooms and equipment, and to negotiate with the governments our participation rights.
The problems come when we have to decide on who speaks on our behalf in the official government plenary. There are only so many slots, and we have so many views and positions. In the past, Content and Themes has coordinated this responsibility, and reported to the plenary on who was going to speak when. Content and Themes has in WSIS Phase I represented the collective wisdom of all the caucuses and working groups, who send representatives to C&T meetings. This kind of fell apart at Prepcom I in Hammamet, with Tunisian civil society folks wanting the CS plenary to decide on who speaks at the government plenary. They presumed that they had the votes and shouting power to get their candidate “elected.”
In Hammamet, we solved this problem by having two representatives of civil society speak on human rights at the official government plenary, one picked by the Human Rights Caucus and one picked by the Africa Caucus, which is dominated by Tunisian groups. (Ironically, they both ended up reading almost the identical statement.) This seems an acceptable compromise to me, and I think one that should be done in Geneva in the coming weeks if it comes to that.
I say that if a bunch of groups wish to represent a more benign view of the Tunisian regime, we should not try and stop them. Put their names on a common document, submit it to the governments, and see how much play it gets. If others wish to circulate a more damning portrayal of the regime, let them do it. It’s not our job to censor each other or try and squash mutually incompatible positions into the same documents.
We let a thousand flowers bloom… and see which ones grow and which ones wilt.