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to the attention of CIVIL SOCIETY

The World Summit On the Information Society ( WSIS ) is a summit of the United Nations. The two main reference resolutions are the ITU Resolution 73, 1998 and the UN General Assembly Resolution 56/183 - 90th plenary meeting, 21 December 2001 ( official document and highlighted document ). The summit is being organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The ITU, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland is an international organization within the United Nations System where governments and the private sector coordinate global telecom networks and services. The International Telecommunication Union is unique among international organizations in that it was founded on the principle of cooperation between governments and the private sector. The WSIS is the first UN summit, where the Civil Society does officially participate. In this regard, it is a historic event.

According to WSIS-focus, the "Civil Society" comprises : "All civic organisations, associations and networks which occupy the 'social space' between the family and the state except firms and political parties; and who come together to advance their common interests through collective action. Includes volunteer and charity groups, parents and teachers associations, senior citizens groups, sports clubs, arts and culture groups, faith-based groups, workers' clubs and trades unions, non-profit think-tanks, and 'issue-based' activist groups. By definition, all such civic groups are non-government organisations (NGOs)." (From a DfID glossary.) . Institutions of Higher Education are also considered as NGOs.

The World Summit on the Information Society is one of the grand UN summits, and its peculiarity is that its occurs in two phases : the Geneva phase closed by the Geneva Summit ( 10-12 December 2003 ) and the Tunis phase that is going to be closed by the Tunis Summit (16 to 18 November 2005). It is the first UN summit where the Civil Society has been recognized and has played a significant role.

One key point that must be fully understood from the onset, is that the WSIS is a diplomatic conference. It is not a political convention or an advocacy meeting, it is not a scientific conference about information and communication technologies (ICTs). No individual per se may be registered to the WSIS. Only may participate to the WSIS:

  • Governments
  • International Organizations ( UN, IGOs, ITU members )
  • Civil Society Entities NGOs
  • Business Entities

Most governments are represented by ambassadors to the WSIS.

As part of the diplomatic process, each NGO wishing to participate must be accredited and the deadline is 8 August 2005. The accreditation process takes some time, and features two phases, one international phase at the UN level, one national phase where agreement by each NGO's national governement is required. Once accredited, you must again register for each event.

Each delegation is structured in a similar way as a diplomatic delegation and may include up to 6 persons in PrepComs :
  • Head of Delegation [C] ( Chef de délégation )
  • Deputy Head of Delegation [CA] ( Chef adjoint de délégation )
  • Alternate [S] ( Suppléant )
  • Delegate [D] ( Délégué )
  • Adviser [A] ( Assesseur )
  • Observer [O] ( Observateur )

People may still participate to the various WSIS meetings in their personnal capacity as observers included in the delegation of an accredited entity that is willing to accept them.

The goal of the first phase of WSIS was to prepare two documents : a Declaration of Principles and an Action Plan. In a way, the WSIS amounts to a special plenary session of the UN general assembly. The only WSIS participants that may vote are governments. Since Civil Society NGOs are non-voting participants, they have the diplomatic statute of observers. However, the Civil Society was officially involved in the preparation of of these two key documents. Therefore, some contributions coming from, or inspired by NGOs were included in documents voted by the WSIS UN assembly.

Concerning the first phase, in addition to five regional preparatory conferences ( eg Pan-European regional conference ) , the preparation of the Draft Declaration of Principles and Draft Action Plan was achieved during several preparatory conferences called "PrepCom".

Concerning the seoond phase :

  • PrepCom-1: 24-26 June 2004, Hammamet (Tunisia)
  • PrepCom-2 : 17-25 February 2005, Geneva (Switzerland)
  • PrepCom-3 : 19-30 September 2005, Geneva (Switzerland)
  • Tunis (Tunisia), 16-18 November 2005 It will assess progress that has been made and adopt any further plan of action to be taken.


A question that is often asked : What is the use of the UN and WSIS recommendations since they are non-binding ? :

    Besides their obvious political and mediatic values, recommendations possess the following legal values :
  1. Concerning the UN specialized agencies (ITU, UNESCO, WTO, WIPO, World Bank,... ), there are several consequences :
    1. a recommendation should be binding since an agency is part of the UN ( an assessment that remains to be confirmed by the UN Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) that we are currently contacting, and which might depend on the history and relationship of each agency with the UN ).
    2. a decision, an initiative of a specialized agency cannot contradict with a WSIS recommendations. It might depend if this decision and initiative was made before or after the WSIS recommendation. ( again to be confirmed by the UN Office of Legal Affairs ).
    3. A WSIS recommendation authorizes the direction of a specialized agency to start directly and implement quickly a program according to the recommendation without the need of a yet another formal approval by the assembly (if any) of the said specialized agency. It is strongly incitative. For example: the UNESCO direction does not have to wait for a decision from the UNESCO General Conference to start a policy supporting Open Access.
  2. Coming from a special representation of the UN General Assembly, a WSIS recommendation supersedes all recommendations, past and future, on the same topic coming from a UN Specialized Agency that would contradict it.
  3. A recommendation allows to waive the international responsibility of a state that is implementing it. For example, if state A is accusing state B before the WTO or WIPO because state A considers that the support by state B to an Open Access initiative amounts to an unfair competition to commercial publishers of state A or is causing damages to copyright holders of state A, then state B may invoke the recommendation.
  4. Concerning international litigation between states, managed by an arbitraging procedure, the arbiter may based his/her decision on a WSIS recommendation.
  5. A recommendation helps to waive the responsibility of whatever entity in a State is implementing the recommendation in regards to the Authorities of this State. For example, if a research and funding institution takes the initiative of a policy whereby its researchers are obliged to follow an Open Access policy ( journals and/or archives ), then the Ministry of Industry & Commerce, sensitive to the lobbies of the publishing industry would have hard time to convince the Government to take actions against such institution. It provides an impeccable legal and political cover to cautious administrators.
  6. A recommendation helps to waive the responsibility of an administrator in regards to the internal control body of his/her own entity concerning his/her decision to support the implementation of a UN recommendation. For example, it provides a cover for a University dean in regards to the University board of Trustees, as he/she is supporting the Open Access activities ( advocacy and/or management of journal/archives ) of a faculty member. Of course, it provides also a cover for a faculty also in regards to his/her own hierarchy. Simarly, it provides a cover for the director of a philanthropic institution, in regard to his/her trustees, as he/she decides to open, or gives a special emphasis to, a grant program to the effect of supporting the implementation of a recommendation.
  7. During preliminary drafting works of treaties between WSIS signatories states ( almost all the countries in the world are now part of the UN ), recommendations must be taken into accounts.
  8. During preliminary drafting works of national laws ( "de lege ferenda" process ), parliamentary inquiries, the existing international law shall be taken into account.
  9. During litigations between private, state or international entities, in the absence of clear legal indications in national laws, a UN recommendation gives the judge or the arbiter a strong incentive to follow the the recommendation that could quoted within the text of the judgment. In the unlikely case, whereby the party that is invoking the recommendation happens to loose the litigation, this party shall benefits from "good faith", which waives this party from paying any damage. We can consider, as an example, the WSIS recommendation concerning the use of peer to peer networks concerning contents that has been produced by scientists who have waived their rights to payment. Therefore, writing a peer-to-peer software for the exchange of such scientific content may benefit from the support of an official scientific institution implementing direct scientific communication between scientists.

So for a NGO that is commited to defend and promote ICT related ideals and proposals, a possible road map is :

Become accredited, register at the WSIS PrepCom3. Participate to the meetings of the various Civil Society working groups and set forwards your recommendations. In order to build your constituency among those who the power to vote, i.e the governements, you should try to discuss with diplomats and bring then to your meetings. This is not an easy task. Besides lobbying the governments, the PrepComs are also an opportunity for NGOs to meet together, to discuss,and to coordinate actions at the World level.

  • The Multi-stakeholder Participation in WSIS and its written and unwritten rules