WSIS report – the long way ahead

By EDRi · December 18, 2003

The first phase of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) ended in
Geneva last week, after more than 18 months of preparatory process. Its 2
outcomes are a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action, both
enthusiastically adopted by government representatives, though hardly
discussed until the last hour.

A major outcome is also the civil society (CS) alternative Declaration.
Entitled ‘Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs’, this document was
proposed by CS as part of the official outcomes of the Summit, after having
collectively decided that “[their] voices and the general interest [they]
collectively expressed are not adequately reflected in the Summit
documents.” CS has previously provided ‘Essential Benchmarks’ against which
the outcomes of the WSIS process and the commitment of all stakeholders to
achieve its mandate will be assessed.

Many observers said that WSIS has been much ado about nothing. As a matter
of fact, the most contentious issues have been delayed by government
representatives to the second phase of WSIS, to be held in 2005. Among
these issues are internet governance and so-called digital solidarity. They
remain on top of the ‘wait and see agenda’, with non binding calls to the
United Nations Secretary-General to establish on the one hand a Working
Group ‘in an open and inclusive process […] to investigate and make
proposals for action, as appropriate, on the governance of Internet’ and on
the other hand a Task Force to complete “a thorough review of [existing
financial mechanisms] adequacy in meeting the challenges of ICT for

Even the declaration from the Civil Society is full of cautious – and
sometimes contradictory – statements, showing how diverse the CS groups are
that participated in WSIS, and how difficult it is to build a common vision
of the information society.

The official Declaration of principles and Plan of Action will be assessed
by many regional and thematic civil society groups. One group has already
done that, the WSIS CS Human Rights Caucus. Set up and coordinated by EDRI
members, this group has been very active since the early beginnings of the
WSIS process, in order to put human rights on the agenda. Now including
more than 45 organisations from all over the world, the caucus held a press
conference at the end of WSIS to express its relief that in the end, the
WSIS Declaration included many principles supported by the caucus, after
even the simplest references to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights
had been debated and contested right up until the last hour.

However, the WSIS CS human rights caucus deplores the absence of any
reference to the fundamental principle of non-discrimination as well as to
international labour standards. It further deplores the continuing emphasis
on the creation of a ‘global culture of cyber-security’ which aims at
enhancing trade instead of implementing human rights. The caucus remains
concerned that the rule of law and the regulatory framework are expected to
‘reflect national realities’ instead of being consistent with the
international human rights treaties. Moreover, the Plan of Action is devoid
of any mechanism to advance the human rights agenda, while the human rights
caucus had proposed the establishment of an Independent Commission on the
Information Society and Human Rights to monitor practices and policies on
human rights and the information society. This is particularly urgent given
the tendency in many countries – both North and South – to sacrifice human
rights in the name of ‘security’.

However, beyond all these major problems, WSIS has been a true success in
showing the whole world – be it through contradictions and lack of concrete
outcome – that information society is not just about pipes, and that the
so-called digital divide simply reflects the social, economical, and
cultural divide among and within the nations. This success is the major
outcome of civil society participation to the first ever held UN Summit on
Information and Communication issues, but there is still a long way ahead
to realise CS aspirations of building information and communication
societies that are people-centred, inclusive and equitable and “where
development is framed by fundamental human rights and oriented towards
achieving a more equitable distribution of resources”.

Finally, WSIS provided great opportunities for civil society networking.
Among the huge number of side events organised during WSIS, the World Forum
on Communication Rights attracted a large international audience of human
rights activists and grass-root organizations. The WSIS CS human rights
caucus, which co-organised this Forum, held a session on ‘Communication and
Human Rights: No Development without Democracy, no Democracy without
Development’. In addition to Aminata TraorĂ©’s strong keynote speech, the
caucus provided a forum for voices that have been silenced by authoritarian
governments. Sharon Hom from Human Rights in China and Souhayr Belhassen
from the Tunisian Human Rights League were given the opportunity to
demonstrate that, while China and Tunisia are not the only countries with
serious human rights problems, they prove that infrastructure alone is not

WSIS official documents (English, soon available in all 5 UN languages)

WSIS CS documents (English, French, Spanish) and reports on WSIS (English,

WSIS CS Human Rights Caucus actions, communications and documents (English,

World Forum on Communication Rights (English, French, Spanish)


(Contribution by Meryem Marzouki, IRIS and co-coordinator of the WSIS CS
Human Rights Caucus)