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<nettime> (CRIS): WSIS and Human Rights in Tunisia (Modified by Geert Lo
Geert Lovink [c] on Wed, 14 Sep 2005 10:17:23 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> (CRIS): WSIS and Human Rights in Tunisia (Modified by Geert Lovink) [u]

(Interesting report from the communication rights campaign coordinator  
Se?n ? Siochr? who recently visited Tunisia, the host country for the  
second world summit on the information society (wsis) that will take  
place in Tunis, mid November. Next week a third and last preparatory  
meeting takes place in Geneva. This text was fwd. from the  
Incommunicado list. /geert)

From: Se?n ? Siochr?, CRIS Campaign

Human Rights in Tunisia: The Grip Tightens in the Lead up to The WSIS.

I am of the generation that on hearing that someone has been on a  
?mission?, immediately thinks either of ?Mission Impossible? or of the  
many Irish missionaries that plied the world with Christian ideology,  
mostly well-intentioned, in the name of helping poor people. I am just  
back from a human rights mission to Tunisia. This is my report. I  
cannot say which of the above it more closely approximates, if any, but  
my firm intention is to add another voice to those who argue that civil  
society must take strong action at the upcoming WSIS PrepCom 3 and  
Tunis Summit on the human rights situation in Tunisia.


I travelled to Tunis last week on behalf of the CRIS Campaign as part  
of an international group of human rights related NGOs. We were to  
participate in a planning meeting about the WSIS and the human rights  
situation in Tunisia hosted by the Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de  
l?Homme (LTDH) ? Tunisian League for Human Rights ? and I personally  
was eager to assess the situation for myself. The schedule included a  
session on the 8th of September with LTDH members to discuss the  
situation and options, meetings with government officials to listen to  
their positions, followed by attendance as observers at the Sixth  
Congress of the League.

Human rights advocates under siege?

The deterioration of the situation in Tunisia was evident even before  
we set off. On the Monday before travelling a court order was issued  
prohibiting the LTDH from holding its Congress, and indeed from even  
discussing and planning the event at a later date. On arrival on  
Wednesday evening, we went straight to the League?s office to find the  
street at both ends cluttered with plain clothes police, presumably  
intended to deter visitors and intimidate those inside. The atmosphere  
in the office was siege-like, non stop convening of meetings and  
huddled discussions. But messages of support from the German  
ambassador, the Canadian Attach? and EU diplomats were encouraging; and  
the news that the President of the European Parliament had issued a  
strong statement in their favour, drawing attention also to the WSIS,  
was greeted with some appreciation. [1]

There is strong evidence that the human rights situation in Tunisia is  
deteriorating in many respects, including in relation to the internet.  
The first assembly of the Tunisian Journalists Association, scheduled  
for the Wednesday the 7th of September, was also cancelled by the  
authorities. And the imprisonment in April of lawyer Mohamed Abbou to  
three and a half years for a website article comparing torture in  
Tunisian prisons to Abu Graib [2] is still fresh in everyone?s minds?  
as is the sad death of the young Zouhair Yahyaoui, editor of TuneZine,  
who had been imprisoned and tortured for publishing his critical Web  
journal [3]. All this in the country that will soon host the  
Information Society Summit. E-mails of suspect individuals are  
systematically monitored ? a joke here is that faxes usually arrive the  
next day! The LTDH is itself infiltrated by many government agents, who  
barely conceal their efforts to hamper its activities and undermine its  
credibility (the suspended Congress being a case in point).

Many in Tunis and outside had hoped the security-obsessed President Ben  
Ali might concede to pressures to improve the human rights situation in  
the run up to the WSIS in November. On the contrary: Systematic and  
orchestrated efforts appear to be ongoing to prevent the LTDH and  
independent non-governmental organisations from casting a spotlight on  
the ugly reality of human rights in Tunisia when the heads of state,  
ministers, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs converge on the  
Summit in November.

Apart from words of comfort from some governments, offered mostly by  
local diplomats who can appreciate the facts with their own eyes, there  
is scant evidence that the rest of the international community is at  
all concerned where it matters most ? in the context of the WSIS  
itself. International relations being what they are, it seems none  
amongst them is as yet willing to spoil the party, even those who  
privately believe that the party itself ? the WSIS - will achieve  

Thursday: Meetings commence

In a tense but defiant atmosphere, the meeting between the  
international NGO observers and the LTDH went ahead on the 8th in their  
offices ? they had been unable to find hotel willing to host it. I  
arrived just as it started, having awaited a phone call from the BBC  
world service ? who unfortunately felt the issue was not newsworthy at  
this time, though they are willing to look at it again. (My taxi driver  
finally found the building thanks to directions from one of the  
innumerable plain clothes police hanging around). In a packed room that  
included many members of the press, we had a morning of short speeches  
from the international NGOs, followed by impassioned appeals of LTDH  
members and other national organisations. In the circumstances, not a  
lot of practical work was done. It was a time to express mutual  
solidarity among LTDH members and supporters, the only time, given the  
cancellation of the much-anticipated Congress. There was a palpable  
sense that disrupting the LTDH Congress, and the journalists? meeting,  
was a new low in government tactics, and the speeches came from the  
heart. Human rights, journalist groups, prisoner support and justice  
groups described their experiences and made their demands ? all were  
determined to show they would not be intimidated.

Over lunchtime (lunch itself finally arrived in paper bags in mid  
afternoon), a smaller group from the LTDH and those from outside most  
involved in the WSIS discussed the processes of PrepCom 3 and the  
Summit, and how something positive could come from it all. After that a  
drafting group sat together to draw up a statement, expressing our  
genuine outrage at what appeared to be happening. [4] Many of the  
international organisations had already been here several days and had  
had extensive discussions with the government, who made themselves  
readily available - including the Minister of Justice - to gain their  
perspectives and hear their explanations first hand. On the  
overwhelming balance of evidence, however, the situation could not be  
clearer. [5] There is no denying significant evidence of orchestrated  
efforts to shut down criticism of the government, efforts perpetrated  
mostly through third parties but certainly under the direction of  
government, and facilitated by a judiciary much of which is clearly  
acting on behalf of the government. There is no denying also the  
ubiquitous presence of the police, mostly plain clothes, who reportedly  
number 140,000 in this country of under 11 million people and who were  
ever present throughout our stay.

Thursday ended with a two hour meeting at the offices of the Tunisian  
Association of Women for Democracy offices. It turned into another  
series of impassioned pleas, but from different perspectives. Women of  
all ages expressed their anger at the fact that the WSIS was being held  
in Tunis at all. ?What does it bring for women struggling for their  
rights here?? ?How will it ease the censorship and control we already  
put up with?? They desperately wanted to go to PrepCom in Geneva, to  
tell everyone about the reality of Tunisia today and present their  
image of the ?information society? ? but though they fought long and  
hard for NGO recognition and are accredited at the WSIS, they are not  
amongst those favoured with government (or any other) funding to travel  
to Geneva. I promised, feeling pretty inadequate by this stage, to try  
and raise funds for them.

The official view?

The next day, Friday, a few of us (myself for CRIS, the International  
Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Rights and Democracy) had a  
meeting with Mohamed Habib Cherif, the Human Rights Coordinator in the  
Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, lasting almost two hours. We  
raised issues concerning imprisonment of government critics, the  
apparent lack of independence of parts of the judiciary, and the  
harassment of the LTDH and the Union of Journalists. I also raised and  
we discussed at some length the presence at WSIS meetings everywhere of  
a large number of well organised Tunisian ?NGOs? whose clear goal was  
to disrupt any efforts to highlight Tunisia?s poor human rights record,  
to harass and intimidate those involved, and which in some cases had  
been responsible for the theft and destruction of publications  
(including those of IPS) that are critical of the Tunisian government.  
This is in clear violation of the right to free expression and  
association of those they target ? in this case, anyone criticising the  
human rights record of the Tunisian government. At the World Forum on  
Communication Rights, organised by CRIS and others alongside the Geneva  
Summit in December 2003, we could see this with our own eyes.

Only three genuinely independent Tunisian NGOs are accredited to the  
WSIS process; the only three that are legally recognised as NGOs by the  
Tunisian government (government recognition is a requirement of  
accreditation, a fact used by other governments, such as China, to  
stifle critical voices). I pointed to the widespread perception in  
Geneva, especially among civil society, that many of the other  
accredited Tunisian NGOs are funded by and acting under the direction  
of the Tunisian government.

The Tunisian Human Rights Coordinator?s response on most issues had a  
certain consistency: The suspension of the LTDH was a result of  
internecine struggles, and the government has nothing to do with them;  
the judiciary is entirely independent of the government, and the  
government does not and cannot interfere; and of course the NGOs in  
Geneva and elsewhere that consistently harass and disrupt those  
critical of the government do not act under the direction or with the  
support of the government - it is rather a case of civil society  
holding different positions. I am not sure if he expected us to believe  
this, to accept his word against the wealth of evidence. But there is  
no prospect of the government owning up to its huge network of agents,  
spies and stooges paid for and acting directly in their interests. All  
the evidence that points in this direction is, they claim, simply  
wrong. The WSIS, he insisted, was being manipulated by partial  
interest. Indeed, but in whose interests, I asked him.

We concluded the meeting with an assurance from him, at my request,  
that he will personally accept, look into and respond to any concerns  
that we might have regarding unfair treatment of any group from civil  
society during the Summit and to any threats to the rights of  
association and free speech of any of them. Whatever we think about  
other matters, I believe we should take him at his word on this.

An issue for all of civil society?

There have been some small improvements in Tunisia in recent months,  
for instance the removal of some of the obstacles facing publishers of  
periodicals. These are certainly welcome, and perhaps further minor  
concessions may be forthcoming as the WSIS approaches. But these must  
be set against the deteriorating overall situation and the severe  
obstacles faced by critics of the government. A few concessions are  
easily offered with such a mounting litany to choose from. They do  
little to counteract the overall environment of thoroughgoing  

The government cannot be allowed to get away with this. Their efforts  
to use the WSIS to project a picture globally of a modern liberated  
state that values and respects human rights is an insult to all those  
who know and try to disseminate the truth. The CRIS campaign, and civil  
society in general at the WSIS, has a compelling obligation to take a  
stand. The official activities of the WSIS may yet produce some minor  
but useful outcomes. And of course civil society has already gained  
hugely in terms of our capacity to organise globally and interact  
effectively around information society issues. But it is time we used  
this influence to achieve a concrete and useful goal.

The Tunisian government can be pressured to respond, to make meaningful  
concessions and reverse the worsening situation. They have been  
presented with concrete proposals to rebuild human rights, nothing  
hugely radical, from international human rights organisations as well  
as from those struggling nationally. Such concessions will not, as the  
government sometimes informally suggests, play into the hands of  
fundamentalists and terrorists. To the contrary: Supporting and  
deepening human rights in Tunisia, as it does everywhere, will  
significantly undermine the tiny basis of support for such extremism.  
Failure to do so could lead to the disaster that the government claims  
to be trying to avoid.

Is this Mission Impossible? Do I delude myself that we can really help  
the situation? I think the answer to both is no. Something can be  
achieved here. There is still the possibility of progress before and  
during the Summit. It will take a concerted effort to mobilise the  
international media, and especially to persuade other governments to  
put pressure on the government of Tunisia. PrepCom 3 offers us a great  
opportunity to do this.

[1] See http://www.europarl.eu.int/president/defaulten.htm?agenda The  
President expressed his 'deepest concern at the decision taken on 5  
September to 'suspend' the holding of the Tunisian Human Rights League  
congress' and that the decision 'is particularly damaging, given that  
Tunisia is to hold the World Summit on the Information Society, a  
symbol of freedom and tolerance.'


[3] http://www.tunezine.com/ and  
http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=12852 for a brief account of  
his case and death at 36 years of age.

[4] see http://www.crisinfo.org/content/view/full/941

[5] See reports of human rights missions earlier this year, and other  
links. http://www.fidh.org/article.php3?id_article=2418 and also  

Se?n ? Siochr?: sean {AT} nexus.ie

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