15 November 2005: Day 3, Strikes and Counter Strikes in Human Rights

Today was a day of cancellation. The GEM (Gender Evaluation Methodology) Book
launch was scheduled to happen at ,
but in a demonstration of solidarity, APC decided to withdraw and cancel all of
its side events scheduled for today. This strategy was in response to the
bizarre and impudent prevention of a meeting yesterday between international
and local tunisian civil society and human rights organisations to organise for
the Civil Society Summit. This Summit was supposed to be launched tomorrow in
tandem with the WSIS opening, but after being cancelled on pre-booked venues
(even after deposits were paid) and harassed
out of being able to even have planning meetings, it seems that yet another
cancellation had to happen.

The harassment isn’t just random bullying as well. They were
organised actions, with plain-clothed and uniformed officers turning up
mysteriously at meeting points, using every inch of privilege afforded to
government delegates at these UN spaces to disrupt, interrogate and
emand for all sorts of irrelavant information, tailing key
actors who are involved with the Tunisian human rights issues, being skilled in
group dispersement and basically destabilising any notion of safe and secure
spaces. The extent of coordinated control and policing is astoundingly
impressive. When I was at the WSIS Gender Caucus “ICTs & Women’s Human
Rights Debate” side event, there was the
obligatory participant from Tunisia
who extolled the virtues of the Tunisian government in ensuring the empowerment
and protection of Tunisian women’s rights. It seemed that a lot of effort and
resources were put to ensure that the image of Tunisia as a ‘tolerant country
that respects and protects of human rights’ was presented to the international
WSIS II audience without an inch of doubt.

How is civil society able to match such a level of minute and
etailed organising?

Checking our response, we decided to match like with like.
Since the Civil Society was forced to be cancelled, then other side-events
logically should be cancelled too. After all, why should there be a difference
between one side-event and another? Particularly since the Civil Society Summit
was actually attempting to ensure greater participation and inclusivity by
being a public and open event. All values that have been heralded as
underpinning the shaping of a collective Information Society.

This would have been a very powerful statement to delegitimise
the WSIS II process and expose its hypocritical irony if most of the civil
society groups and organisations decided to do the same. However, only those
networks and organisations who have chosen to be actively involved in the
Tunisian human rights issues, APC being one of them, have exacted the
cancellations. How effective is it then, for such a strategy to make a

To some extent, there is visibility and awareness about the
issue. Almost everyone I encountered and spoke to were at least vaguely aware
that there is some dubious stuff happening in relation to the human rights
situation in the present space. Blue tape was stuck in crosses across events
that were cancelled at the Exhibition Hall, and at the time and place of the
scheduled event, the organisers spoke about the reason for cancellation, and
brought some (hopefully deeper) awareness to the issue to the participants who
may have otherwise have glossed over the matter. To not compromise the sharing
of knowledge and information, GEM books were still handed out for free, and in
another event I went to, the Tunisian Monitoring Report was also disseminated
after a statement was read in relation to the issue.

So at the very least, the Tunisian authorities (whom I
suspect cleverly ensures that there is at least one representative at every
side event) know that they can’t push people about, knock them on the head,
steal their films, block access to buildings or let violent assailants get away
without some form of opposing re/action.

However, I can’t help but wonder how effective is this
strategy. How many people care what happens to what appears to be a ‘localised’
human rights issue? As the Tunisian ‘participants’ emphasise time and again,
there are human rights violations happening all over the world, why give Tunisia
such a hard time now? The number of civil society organisations and groups that
participated in the ‘boycott’ was also limited. There were no marches or
demonstrations within or outside of the Summit
space, by the international or Tunisian community.

Considering this is a Summit that commits itself to
principles of democracy, human rights and freedoms (including explicitly
mentioned in the WSIS Declaration the freedom of expression and opinions), not
to forget the catchphrases of ‘inclusivity’, ‘participation’ and
‘multi-stakeholderism’ that have been thrown around like juggling balls in the
entire Phase II process, the relatively muted response is highly disturbing.

How effective is it to raise objections to being silenced by
a strategy of ‘silence’?

To read the cancellation of events as being silent is not
entirely accurate. As mentioned earlier, statements were made and read
(including one by women’s organisations, activists and networks), and a civil
society press conference that specifically highlighted this issue was held
today. But it has to be admitted, the articulation of objection is not
resoundingly vociferous. I can’t help but wonder why.

The WSIS GC continued to hold its events, and chose to
endorse the women’s statement as individuals and organisations rather than as
the WSIS GC. One reason I can guess at is probably because this is seen as a
‘larger’ human rights issue. The connection to the gender dimension is a little
unclear. Yes, it is without a doubt that such violations of human rights is
untenable in the midst of a forum that claims to shape a space that is
respectful of human rights, but to what extent should other priority issues be
compromised or sacrificed to make this point?

Not to forget that civil society have played a large role in
shaping the WSIS process, and a lot of resources have been invested into
ensuring that our participation remains relevant and impactful. This is the
tail end of a (at least) 4 year effort, and to jeopardise being thrown out of
the Summit (which seems likely with the sheer amount of enforcement officers
present at every possible gap in space) might be too high a cost that we are
willing to bear.

Important negotiations were still underway until late this
evening, and the civil society caucus are putting in a lot of effort to make
sure that rights perspectives are embedded in the process and outcomes. WSIS II
is about making building blocks to shape an Information Society that has the
potential benefit all stakeholders, not really just about the issue of human
rights in Tunisia, right?

Hmm… But this is real, and this is present, and this is
happening right under our international, multi-stakeholder noses. If we can
spout the language and draw the analytic
diagram of the importance to the right to communication, the respect of
democratic processes, the need to include everyone in this shaping process,
then how can we reasonably ghettoise this issue without tasting the ironic
connections to the ‘larger’ principles we are upholding, claiming and

Perhaps it is this perspective of ‘ghettoisation’ that
hinders our ability to better organise in countering oppressive actions.  Where as civil society with multiple focus,
area/issue-expertise, methods and analysis of
transformation, we have chopped ourselves up into fragmented, argumentative
pieces. So it enables shelving of issues as particularised,
localised and capable of being shuffled down a
hierarchy of priorities. Spaces are narrowing and funds are depleting; it seems
almost inevitable that fragmentation should happen. The question is, can we
afford to let this happen?

What would the cost be when we pick and choose between our
differently placed and urgent agendas? How long before we become burnt out and
jaded advocates and activists if we allow such Political Ironies to perpetuate
through complicit inaction? Or how long before we start becoming experts in suits
that are adept with Bigger Pictures but blind in the lived realities we are
purportedly ‘championing’? Who can afford to constantly build connections when
connectivity costs are so high?

More questions than answers, but this has been
a troubling day…

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