Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General, International Telecommunication Union and Secretary-General of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), met the press at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, to give an update of the WSIS process as it moves forward to the second phase, which will take place in Tunis in November 2005. On the eve of the second WSIS Preparatory Committee (PrepCom-2) meeting in Geneva from 17 to 25 February 2005, Mr Utsumi briefed journalists on the issues that are being considered by all the actors of the Information Society — governments, business entities and civil society — including the media that are stakeholders in the process.
PrepCom-2 must address the central question of establishing financial mechanisms to meet the challenges of harnessing the potential of information and communication technology for development and get to grips with the matter of Internet governance, he stressed. It should also consider the Tunis phase as a major political event, one that will give impetus for economic development and make important headway towards the realization of the Millennium Development Goals.
Referring to the WSIS Plan of Action endorsed by 175 countries in Geneva in December 2003, Mr Utsumi stressed the need to translate the vision into reality. He identified this as the most important issue before PrepCom-2 along with the establishment of financial mechanisms to implement the projects allowing developing nations to build their information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure. Firm political commitment from Member States, coupled with the necessary resources, would yield tangible success, he added.
Mr Utsumi highlighted the creation of three innovative mechanisms to achieve those ends. To address the issues of Internet Governance and Financial Mechanisms, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan set up, at the request of WSIS Geneva, two working groups to propose solutions to move forward on those issues. The Task Force on Financial Mechanisms has already completed its report, whereas the Working Group on Internet Governance was forging ahead at this moment with a preliminary report to be submitted to the PrepCom next week.
The third mechanism emphasized was the Group of the Friends of the Chair, which had prepared a draft of the possible outcome document of the Tunis phase, which will form the basis for negotiations during the PrepCom. The Group worked on the assumption of a document in two parts: a political commitment and an operational agenda based on a series of informal consultations with representatives of governments and other partners.
Additionally, the discussions had benefited from regional and thematic meetings focused on the WSIS process. Regional meetings had taken place in Damascus, Syria, for Western Asia and in Accra, Ghana, for Africa. They had called for building partnerships and securing appropriate mechanisms, including financial means, to implement regional action plans. Thematic meetings, on the other hand, had dealt with a gamut of issues central to the establishment of the Information Society, namely combating spam, Internet governance, freedom of expression in cyberspace and the application of ICTs in natural disaster reduction, especially in the light of December’s Tsunami tragedy in Asia, and the economic and social implications of ICTs.
Another important aspect was the stocktaking exercise initiated to evaluate progress along WSIS action lines. Governments and stakeholders were cooperating in an effort to account for what they had been doing and what their future actions would be, in order to implement the WSIS Action Plan. Furthermore, the exercise would afford an opportunity to coordinate post-Summit follow-up and information sharing. Mr Utsumi pointed to 2000 projects already reported in this connection. The interim report would come up before PrepCom-2.
Ambassador Karklins added that the Friends of the Chair were guided by decisions of the first PrepCom and had under its purview four primary issues: Political commitment, implementation of the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action, financial mechanisms and follow-up after Tunis. The discussion on Internet Governance did not take place in the Group of Friends and the negotiations will start only after the final report by the Working Group on Internet Governance at PrepCom-3. However, guidance to WGIG for the rest of its work will be a task of PrepCom-2.
Most of PrepCom-2 will therefore be devoted to the issue of financial mechanisms and to the discussions on how to ensure that the decisions taken in Geneva will be implemented and facilitated. Amb. Karklins also reiterated the importance of the inclusive nature of this WSIS process and reported on his efforts to ensure the full participation of all stakeholders and, in particular, civil society and the business community in the intersessional activities. He finally expressed the view that the report of the Task Force on Financial Mechanisms provided a very good basis for negotiations on the efficiency of existing mechanisms to support ICT development. Not only was the analysis comprehensive but it also proposed recommendations on the gaps of existing mechanisms that should be addressed and put forward suggestions for remedy. He felt that if PrepCom-2 worked diligently in the next 7 days, it was possible to find a final agreement on the question of financing the digital divide.
Countering a question by a reporter from the Spanish press agency, EFE, on the charges levelled by some NGOs that Tunis would be a “disinformation summit”, Mr Utsumi said that to date civil society had outnumbered government representatives with 1’191 of the 2’400 registered participants. He also stressed that overall participation is fast growing compared to the first phase, which is indicative of the interest in the WSIS process. He added that this Summit was considered a landmark in that it was the first one based on such a level of inclusiveness and oriented towards solutions and concrete action.
To a question by the Financial Times on the fate of the Solidarity Fund and the odds of reaching agreement on its creation, Ambassador Karlinks said that the Accra Conference held at the beginning of February had clarified a number of issues related to the idea of the Fund. In essence, the African region welcomed the establishment of the Digital Solidarity Fund based on the following principles: Voluntary participation, complementarity to existing financial mechanisms, and participation of different stakeholders with a focus on the most pressing needs of municipalities.
Because of the lack of time, the Group of the Friends of the Chair was not in a position to work on the basis of these decisions. Instead, informal consultations were held in which about 50 delegations took place and prepared a proposal for the consideration of PrepCom-2. The proposal contains elements of the Accra conference including the creation of the Digital Solidarity Fund of a voluntary nature. This proposal was discussed and there were no objections to it. While modalities remain to be discussed, greater acceptance of such a voluntary fund was gaining ground. He was therefore confident that with a certain degree of goodwill, PrepCom-2 could find positive conclusion on the issue of financial mechanisms. But he also said that this would not be enough for the Summit and that partnerships should complement the financial mechanisms to form a solid package that would produce concrete and tangible results in developing countries, particularly in Africa. He cited as example the NEPAD-backed East African project that will complete the submarine optical cable around all of Africa. He said that in his view this package of sound financial mechanisms and concrete projects to be launched in Tunis would provide viable solutions for financing ICT development.
Coming back on the question raised by EFE, Agence France Presse asked whether holding the second phase of the Summit in a country not known for its defence of press freedom would discredit the Summit itself.
Mr Utsumi reminded participants that the Summit was a proposal of Tunisia to the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in 1998 and that the United Nations General Assembly endorsed the holding of the Summit in two phases, one in Geneva and one in Tunis, without opposition from member states. In addition, Mr Utsumi reiterated that the Summit was a UN Summit and that the meeting would be held in accordance with UN rules and practices, and the same conditions that applied in Geneva would be guaranteed in Tunis. He also added that holding a summit that will focus on development issues on the African continent was very pertinent, adding that the Tunisian Government and the country’s President were fully committed to a successful Summit. Finally, he said that several parallel events would be organized during the Summit and the format of these events, based on a very transparent process, would be announced during PrepCom-2.
A journalist of Swiss Info expressed the wish that industrialized countries should state their position on the issue of financing ICT and asked whether the shift towards a voluntary mechanism was really a solution to the problem given that this was only an endorsement of something already existing.
Amb. Karklins responded that the first phase of WSIS agreed to examine the efficiency of existing financial mechanisms and, based on this examination, will discuss the possibility of the creation of a digital solidarity fund. In the meantime, the Digital Solidarity Fund was proposed in Geneva based on a decision made prior to WSIS Geneva by the Congress of municipalities with the support of Senegal and the municipalities of Geneva, Lyon and Turin. . This was subsequently supported by an African ministerial meeting, the Congress of Francophonie and finally by the African WSIS Regional Conference in Accra. The discussions focused only on the Geneva fund, not any other fund. The industrialized countries were now considering acceptance of a digital solidarity fund based on voluntary contributions. Amb. Karklins said that if there was agreement to welcome the creation of this fund, we could consider that this unresolved issue will have been resolved.
Mr Utsumi said that the issue had to be looked in its historical context. In Geneva, developing countries requested the creation of a new fund whereas developed countries argued that there were sufficient existing resources to fund ICT development. As no consensus could be developed, WSIS decided to create a Task Force to examine the resources and mechanisms that were available along with their efficiency. While the conclusions show that the level of resources available was very high, the report also shows that there is a mismatch between the offer and the demand. In his view, Mr Utsumi said that improvements were called for and that additional resources towards ICT development were also needed given the essential role of the ICT sector in supporting all aspects of human activity. He added that this did not however necessarily mean the creation of a new fund but could take other forms with tangible projects that would ensure implementation of the WSIS action lines. He cited the example of the Africa One project, initiated almost 20 years ago by ITU, to circle the African continent with submarine cable in order to link Africa directly to the global telecommunication network. He also noted that this ‘backbone network’ was essential in order to bring down costs and make access to ICT affordable. In addition to financial resources, he said that political commitment and human resources were equally important. He was therefore pleased to see Africans themselves, through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), taking ownership of this essential project.
In response to a question by the Tunisian Television on what would happen if the two issues of Internet Governance and Financial Mechanisms were not solved in the next few months before the Tunis Summit, Mr Utsumi remarked that the President’s efforts to forge a consensus were laudable and that he had every confidence in achieving a successful outcome. However, should this not be successful, “we could only blame ourselves because we would have failed to reach a common understanding that would lead to a more equitable and just Information Society”.
In this context, Amb. Karklins reminded participants that the Summit process could only go as far as Member States want it to go. He also stressed that the Internet was a new phenomenon of a global nature that was not so far defined in the existing international legal system. He stressed the fact that we were breaking into completely new ground because the current legal system was based on inter-state relations whereas the Internet did not recognize state borders. This was the first attempt to codify relations between sovereign states and a form of supra-national entity, which did not even have a legal definition. This was very complex and difficult. The general consensus was that whatever agreement on Internet Governance would be reached, it would not be definitive.
In his view, the outcome of the discussions on Internet governance should be first to define what is understood by Internet governance, discuss issues within the scope of this definition indicate the public policies issues where agreement can be found. In this way, it would identify the areas that need to be further discussed and establish a mechanism to continue making progress on the issue. Amb.Karlkins said that at this stage, it was premature to take any view. The third PrepCom would however be the PrepCom of the Internet. He stressed that the process was transparent and inclusive and said that this was the first time all stakeholders could participate in the debate on an equal footing, contrary to standard UN protocol. Never before has the UN worked in this spirit and mood. Initial positions of stakeholders were very distinct, but they are progressing towards a common understanding. He felt that the mere fact of establishing a mechanism on how to proceed would in itself be a successful outcome.
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