Is Tunisia going to be such a central focus of political and media attention that it overshadows all the other issues on the WSIS agenda? If this happens, than I would argue that this would be a terrible disservice to the hundreds of civil society, government and UN folks who have worked so hard to achieve something worthwhile from the WSIS. So how do we talk about Tunisia?
The racism conference is a cautionary example. While the UN World Conference against Racism was ostensibly about a range of issues pertaining to racial discrimination and xenophobia, it became about Israel and Palestine – at least in the media’s and many governments’ eyes. While Israel’s occupation and relations with the Palestinian people are important issues, it is a horrible shame that they overshadowed at the WCAR the equally vital issues of the Roma, the Dalits, and other marginalized groups.
Officially, Tunisia will not be the subject of the WSIS. There will be no mention of Tunisia in the official declaration and plan of action. But of course, we’ll be in Tunis and delegates and NGOs will remember the disaster of the Hammamet Prepcom. No one wants a repeat of that, this time with the world’s cameras rolling. (OK, maybe some groups would.)
The lines of conflict are becoming clearer and clearer.
The Tunisian government, as host of the WSIS, understandably seeks to highlight the accomplishments and merits of their society, economy and private sector. They will presumably seek to have their own business interests well represented at the exhibition area, and to have their achievements highlighted in the parallel events. They will seek to prevent any criticism of the regime from being voiced in the official (and unofficial) process. Some have accused the Tunisian government of “stacking the deck” of the civil society groups in the WSIS with their own state-sponsored NGOs (or GONGOs).
Tunisian NGOs are severely divided on the issue of how to address Tunisia. The views range from complete denial of any grounds to criticize the Tunisian regime to blanket accusations against the regime for numerous human rights violations. Any meeting that might bring up Tunisia is guaranteed to be crowded with opinionated, insistent defenders and critics from civil society. It is an emotional and difficult debate without any clear common ground.
International NGOs have chosen their sides as well, with many international human rights groups seeking to shame the Tunisian regime for their imprisonment and harassment of independent journalists, activists and bloggers. Meanwhile some African groups have emphasized that the Summit should not focus on one country nor should it seek to demonize a country that has also done much good for its own people. There is an ugly North/South dimension to the debate. No one is talking to each other.
Is there a middle ground in the debate? Can we agree to disagree?
The Tunisian regime will have to allow a certain amount of criticism without flying off the handle. The more that they try and squelch any critical voices the more they will be condemned by NGOs and lose face in front of other governments. If they want civil society to come to Tunis in November, it is going to have to allow us a certain latitude and freedom of expression, certainly more than the typical Tunisian citizen enjoys.
On the human rights side, groups will have to balance their criticism of Tunisia’s human rights record with balanced criticism of other governments around the world. It will be necessary to make clear that this is not a North / South issue, but one that all governments and societies must address.
I wonder if an honest dialogue among civil society groups on Tunisia could occur? Amid the accusations of some being “agents provacateurs,” GONGOs, Western imperialists, and anti-Tunisian reactionaries, I wonder if a frank discussion can occur?
While everyone will have their own issues and concerns, perhaps a more balanced view of Tunisia can emerge from this exchange – Tunisia not just as oppressor of journalists and bloggers, but also as a country that sits in a strifetorn region that has managed to achieve a certain level of education, economic well-being and stability for its people. Tunisia as a secular state with a largely Islamic population where women can go to school, vote, and work as professionals. A country that bring together ancient empires and cutting edge technology, black Africa and arabic africa, and yet has a strong sense of its own unique identity.
I will be the last person to defend a despotic regime. Tunisian president Ben Ali is a big dork. But Tunisia is more than Ben Ali.