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 Western Asia Preparatory Conference for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Kicks Off

This Press Release in Arabic >> (word document, 85 kB)

The More Leaders and Nations of the World Unite, the Stronger the United Nations Becomes, Says Lebanese President

ESCWA Draft should Help Delegations Come up with Declaration of Principles, Says Executive Secretary of the Regional Commission

Beirut, 4 February 2003 (United Nations Information Service)--The Western Asia Preparatory Conference for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) opened today at the United Nations House in Beirut under the auspices of the President of the Republic of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, and in presence of a riveting crowd of Lebanese and Arab ministers and experts. The Conference is organized by ESCWA (Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia) in cooperation with the Cairo Office of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the ITU (International Telecommunication Union).  

Speakers at the opening session were ESCWA Executive Secretary Mervat Tallawy, Charles Geiger, Senior Policy Advisor of the WSIS Executive Secretariat and Lebanese Minister of Telecommunications Jean-Louis Kordahi, representing President Lahoud.

In her statement, Tallawy thanked the Lebanese government’s initiative for its call to the preparatory conference whose outcome will be forwarded to the WSIS, the first phase of which will be held in Geneva in December 2003. She also said that ESCWA has prepared a draft, which highlighted the points of strength and weaknesses in information and communication technology in the Arab world. Tallawy hoped that the draft would help delegations come up with a Declaration of Principles and the Beirut Initiative toward the establishment of an information society in the countries of the region.

The Executive Secretary of the UN Regional Commission noted that the challenges facing the developing countries in seeking the knowledge economy do not mean a lack of knowledge as much as it means a lack of competency in using that knowledge. “Contrary to the capitalist resources, mainly allocated by political decisions, knowledge resources could be disseminated through individuals and societies”, she said.

The WSIS representative, Charles Geiger, said that the WSIS is the second UN type world summit after the Johannesburg Summit. He identified three objectives for the WSIS. The first, is to raise awareness among political leaders; the second, is to explore the digital divide; and the third, is to start a public debate on some of the key aspects of the information society.

The WSIS representative said that the modern world is undergoing a fundamental transformation, as the industrial society that marked the 19th and the 20th centuries rapidly gives way to the information society of the 21st century. “This dynamic process promises a fundamental change in the private, social, cultural, economic and political aspects of our lives”, he noted.

Speaking on behalf of the President of the Republic of Lebanon, Minister Kordahi  called on his audience to notice the shift in the need of telecommunications and information from political and security matters to them being tools for modernizing production  and developing human resources. He asked whether the longtime Arab investment in infrastructure is needed for technological advancement, whether the young Arab society can trespass the 1 percent threshold of internet usage, and whether the state should interfere in this sector.

He noted that the state should play a monitoring role, and give the private sector a bigger role for the increase in investments and eventually the development of the sector.

Kordahi concluded his statement by a riveting comment. “As we assemble today around a UN initiative in the field of information and communication technology (ICT), we call on the parties to the conflict in this region to reach peaceful settlements for their disputes under the umbrella of the United Nations, and through the implementation of its resolutions”, he said. “The more leaders and nations of the world unite, the stronger the United Nations becomes”, Kordahi underlined.

Following the opening, and before starting the plenary session, Minister Kordahi was elected as chairperson of the Conference, the Saudi head of delegation, Minister of Higher Education Khaled bin Mohammad Al-Ankari, as deputy chairperson and the head of the Egyptian delegation, Nadia Hegazi as raporteur. 

In the first plenary session, Abdel-Wahid Khan spoke on behalf of the UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, saying that UNESCO has been involved in the preparations for the WSIS, which he described as a major event on the global agenda. Khan also said that between mid-December 2002 and mid-January 2003, the UNESCO hosted an online conference for civil society organizations as part of the WSIS preparatory process. He added that several ESCWA Member States were affected by political context and that their future is closely linked to the current conflicts and the outcome of peace negotiations in the region as a whole.

Speaking on behalf of Jose Maria Figueres Olsen, Chairman of UN-ICT Task Force, Mustafa Nasseriddine, praised ESCWA work in the area of ICT for development, saying that further collaborative links between ESCWA and UN-ICT, particularly at the regional level, need to be established. He added that ESCWA Member States have made significant strides in using ICT for their socio-economic development but still need much to be done.

A second plenary session was held today during which World Bank Director of Global Information and Communication Technologies Division Mohsen Khalil highlighted the Western Asian situation. Khalil said that behind the center of serious international conflict, the Western Asia region faces a uniquely demanding situation. He also highlighted the World Bank position in relation to the objectives of the Summit; the challenges and opportunities for Arab countries in building a prosperous information society in Western Asia; and the World Bank assistance to the region in this regard.

Abdel-Rahman Solh, the Arab League Assistant Secretary-General, delivered a statement in which he underlined the interest of ESCWA Member States in preparing for the Summit. He said that the importance of the WSIS reflected on the Arab countries as they held three preparatory meetings in Damascus, Tunis and Cairo in which delegations produced recommendations and forwarded them to the Council of Arab telecommunications ministers. Solh stressed the importance of broadcasting and transmitting information at the highest quality and the cheapest price. He referred to the UN Human Development Report 2002, which reported a digital gap among Arab countries.

Mohammed Mrayati, ESCWA Regional Advisor on Science and Technology, presented a paper on Western Asia Information Society in which he recommended that ESCWA member countries debate their different perspectives on the issue of information society in order to reach a common understanding.

The Head of the ITU Arab Regional Office, Ibrahim Qadi, said that the information revolution of this century is equivalent in importance to the agricultural revolution, which transformed the world 100 centuries ago and the industrial revolution three centuries ago. He stressed the importance of producing websites that are in Arabic and which safeguard ethical concerns. Qadi said that the Arab society still depend on oral news rather than written reports.

The final document adopted by the Beirut Conference, which will conclude Thursday, is expected to include its main recommendations regarding policies, preliminary plans and initiatives that address the key issues and tackle the identified problems in building the information society. The document will be presented at the Second Intergovernmental Preparatory Committee meeting to be held in Geneva from 17 to 28 February 2003. The second preparatory meeting will discuss the agenda of the Summit and the elements to be incorporated into the final document for the World Summit on the Information Society.




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