If anyone wanted to stage a better example of why “governance” of the Internet by a coalition of governments would be a bad idea, one would need to look no further than the opening session of PrepCom-3, held Sept. 19 in Geneva, which was the final ramp-up meeting to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), to be held Nov. 16–18 in Tunis, Tunisia. When the U.S. questioned why the group Human Rights in China (http://www.hrichina.org/public/index) had been denied credentials to attend the Summit, the otherwise routine opening session turned into a diplomatic field game. Both the U.K. (speaking also for the European Union at this meeting) and Canada sided with the U.S. in requesting officials to review the matter.
Charles Geiger, Assistant Executive Director of the WSIS Secretariat, provided a report on the spot, noting that Human Rights in China, like all other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seeking accreditation, had been rigorously reviewed. The sticking point had been a line in its financial statements that noted some funding had come from “other generous supporters” who wished to remain anonymous.
“The executive secretariat,” said Geiger, “applies rules that governments have set out. The list of funding sources for Human Rights in China was not exhaustive.”
“Human Rights in China will not disclose dubious means of support,” observed Ambassador Sha Zukang, head of the delegation from China. “The rules of the Summit should be followed.”
Latvian Ambassador Janis Karklins, presiding as chair of the meeting, observed that WSIS had no rule to account for the situation in which a recommendation from the Secretariat was questioned, and therefore UN rules should apply. “I don’t see why the U.S. and other countries should not be listened to,” he said.
Karklins proposed that the question of admitting Human Rights in China should be deferred until a further investigation could take place. But the Chinese delegation insisted on an immediate vote. When the vote was taken, it fell out neatly along diplomatic lines.
Voting not to consider discussing any organizations, including Human Rights in China, that were not already approved by the Secretariat (in other words, a “yes” vote) were the Russian Federation, Egypt, Angola, Brazil, Cuba, Somalia, Thailand, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Uganda, China itself (which voted by saying “sure”), and 40 other nations, the majority of which are not known for a history clear of oppressive policies.
Voting to consider a review of the certification of Human Rights in China and any other NGOs not already approved (a “no” vote) were the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Australia, France, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and 15 other nations, most of which are democracies.
There were 35 abstentions, most notably from Japan. And 72 countries were noted as not being in the room when no one answered as they were called to vote. Those absent from the room included the delegate from Tunisia, which is the controversial host of the WSIS final summit meeting in November.
Tunisia is clearly working hard at this PrepCom meeting to defend itself as an appropriate venue to hold a summit about a free and open information society, based on its own record of intolerance.
In his opening remarks, Montasser Ouaili, Tunisian Minister of Communications, seemed to respond to the criticisms when he said: “Tunisia is aware of its responsibility as a member of the U.N. and [is] eager to assure the Summit [WSIS] meets its objective. Tunisia will redouble its efforts to assure the open debate is successful.”
As the vote proceeded, its partisan nature was so obvious that when the delegate from Tunisia was found to be absent from the room, a ripple of laughter ran through the assembly hall. How could Tunisia have voted on this issue? It looked like the country had taken the diplomatic way out.
At the end of the 2-hour delay in the proceedings (2 out of 60 hours of PrepCom time), China had won the vote, thus effectively preventing the group Human Rights in China from being represented at the Summit in Tunisia.
At the end of the vote, the U.K. delegation, which was headed by Ambassador Nick Thorne (who also represented the EU), said: “We are here to prepare a summit on the information society. Freedom of information and participation by all those with legitimate interest—and for this reason the EU did not support the motion.”
Said China: “It was just procedural. China will work with all accredited NGOs.”
Said the U.S., headed by David Gross (U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, Department of State) : “Let us express our disappointment that the process will not be as open and inclusive as we had hoped.”
By the next day, the Human Rights in China Web site was already carrying this notice:
“The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organization, Human Rights in China (HRIC), denounce the decision of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS), a process that claims to include the broadest possible participation, to block open discussion on supporting independent NGO voices.”
Some delegates, who wish to remain anonymous, told me that the word on the street was that the U.S. had deliberately attempted to filibuster the proceedings by raising the issue at all.
Meanwhile, the Chinese ambassador was still complaining when he delivered his remarks at a session on the meeting’s second day. “Delegates,” he said, “please accept my deepest regrets for what happened yesterday morning. One country with total disregard for protocol provoked a dispute. Why should this particular country insist on doing so? We hope that that country can play a constructive role and will stop from doing anything further to compromise the process.”
As country after country took the floor on the second day of the WSIS preparatory meetings, each representative in turn recited the litany of WSIS mandates for the Internet governance initiative. According to the first WSIS in Geneva 2 years ago, the result is to be multilateral, transparent, and democratic with full involvement of stakeholders.
But, based on the first day’s vote, there’s clearly a difference in how nations view these high-sounding terms.
Regardless of what they really intended, by raising the issue of the status of the NGO Human Rights in China group, the U.S., U.K., and EU ended up making a profound point about the political divide that separates the world into two distinct camps.
Those gathered now in Geneva have until Sept. 30 to resolve their differences and come up with a plan for Internet governance that, in the words of Secretary-General of the Summit Yoshio Utsumi, “delivers a concrete, clear road map for the future and is worthy of world leaders’ attention.”
To follow the WSIS PrepCom proceedings yourself, including Webcasts of the proceedings, visit http://www.itu.int/wsis/preparatory2/pc3/index.html.