16 November 2005, Day 4: Opening of WSIS II – An Audible Victory for Human Rights

It has been a crazy tiring, hectic and running-around
d
ay, so I am hoping to give a small glimpse at least before I
pass out into oblivion. So, after working on this process for close to 7 years,
we are finally tying up the ribbons and signing on the dotted line with icing.
Yes, it is WSIS II opening!







Of course, many impressive words have to officiate the
event, and there were speeches from Mr. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (President of
Tunisia), Mr. Kofi Annan (Secretary General of UN), Mr. Samuel
Schmid (President of Switzerland), Mr. Yoshio Utsumi (Secretary General of
International Telecommunication Union, ITU), Ms. Shirin Ebadi (President of the
Defenders of Human Rights Center speaking on behalf of the Civil Society), Mr.
Craig Barrett (Chairman of the Board of Intel Corporation speaking on behalf of
the Business Community) and Mr. Janis Karklins (President of the Preparatory
Committee of the Tunis Phase of WSIS). Quite apart from the gender disparity
which I will choose to ignore here (in my mind, Shirin Ebadi makes up for a
million men! But I could be biased.. =|), what could potentially be a very
boring session turned out to be explosive!








There was strong critical language on the suppression of
human rights, particularly on protection of freedom of expression. I was
expecting Shirin Ebadi in top form, being a strong advocate of democracy and
human rights especially on the struggle for the rights of women and children,
and being recognised through the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
But I have to admit, Mr Schmid took me by surprise.








He stated, “It is unacceptable that the UN has still has
members that harass or imprison their citizens because they criticise them on
the Internet. The freedom of speech has to be respected. Everyone has to be
able to express their views freely. It is one of the crucial conditions for
this conference to succeed.”








With that, he is basically questioning both the legitimacy
of UN members who violate fundamental human rights as well as UN as a global
institution that is supposed to ensure the protection of these rights. Situated
in the context of very real silencing of the rights to expression and opinion
and the freedom to assembly by Tunisian activists and advocates, this can be
read as directly alluding to a criticism of the Tunisian government – without
actually naming them as such. But I like the non-naming. The principle raised
applies to all other governments who have, especially recently, shut down
websites and imprisoned bloggers. This draws the connection between the
particular site of the issue in Tunisia
to the larger State tactics employed by different (and growing numbers of
countries) countries in using a variety of laws in attempt to curb the
Internet’s potential for production and dissemination
of information, knowledge and opinions.  








Well said Mr. Schmid!








Shirin Ebadi also saved the day. Not once, but twice! A
splice from her speech, “The other subject which is of concern to us, is the
control of access to the Internet which is primarily situated in Western
countries. What guarantee is there that the governments of those countries
would not deprive Internet acces as part of an econonmic regulation or embargo.
Another problem is censorship. Certain governments under the pretext of
maintaining national security or to prevent illicit trades filter the Internet,
therefore preventing people from getting information they need and their voices
to be heard from the other side. Even worse, they tend to supress any kind oif
authors that critise their goverments in any ways. Unfortunately in some
countries human rights defenders and writers are imprisoned, there only crime
being the exercise of freedom of expression.” She rocks my world! =D








The Tunisian League for Human Rights arranged for a press
conference at in a persistent
attempt to bring greater visibility to the human rights situation in Tunisia.
After the fracas
of trying to even have a preparatory meeting
, we were unsure if anyone was
even allowed to enter their office (where the event was to be held). We went
prepared for confrontation with the police, and indeed encountered many
plains-clothed men, strangely loitering aroud the area with walkie-talkies, but
was surprised at the ease that we were able to
have the press conference. So many people turned up. Heads of State,
international press, Tunisian rights activists, the international community
participating at WSIS… it got so crowded that we were spilling out of the small
office, standing on tip-toe, straining our ears to hear the speeches.








The reasons for this could be many, but I will stick to the
one I think is just great tactic. The event was announced as a reception by
Shirin Ebadi, to be held at the office of the Tunisian League for Human Rights.
News of the press conference was transferred mainly by word of mouth. How then,
would it be possible, for heavy-handed obstruction of entry to a reception held
by a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate? It would be a huge global PR disaster for the
Tunisian government if this should happen. This is when she becomes a symbol
for the values and principles that she has so long struggled for as an activist
on a daily basis, just like those of us sitting on the bus and getting lost
trying to find our way to the office, or the individual rights advocates who
continue to fight for fundamental freedoms in the midst of open and sometimes
violent hostility. How mind-blowing is it that tactics such as the Nobel Peace
Prize is able to transform an amazing but pretty much globally invisible
individual to become a symbolic bridge that can effect real difference?






I am still wondering. Either way, it has been a good
d
ay for human rights. A much needed drink
of fresh waters after feeling suffocated and parched since I first stepped
through the threshold of a big white tent.

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