Excerpt by Charles Geiger, former Executive Director, WSIS, in an exchange with Jean Louis Fullsack; the full discussion thread is documented here:

"Having worked with ITU on the WSIS process for several years, please allow me the following comments: When [ITU Secretary-General] Mr. Touré says that  'ITU is the most inclusive organization of the UN family', he is not completely wrong. ITU is much older than the UN (ITU was founded in 1865) and has a long tradition of working with business entities, which goes back to the first part of the last century. The way business entities (and also a few not-for-profit entities) cooperate with ITU is through 'sector membership'. Sector membership is very different from the way NGOs participate in other UN agencies and programmes (and that is mostly where the misunderstanding comes from). Sector membership is costly (the sector members pay a fee, which can be waived under certain circumstances, e.g. for not-for-profit entities) and can participate in Working Groups. Sector members have therefore the possibility to influence decision-making at the beginning of the process. Sector members are ready to pay the fee because it is in their own business interest (e.g. in the standardisation field). No other UN agency or programme has such a close cooperation with business (except perhaps in ILO, where you have tripartite representation, from Government, from employers associations and from employees associations/trade unions. ILO is like the ITU not a typical UN Agency; it is also older than the UN)."  

"In the UN, which is at its basis a strictly intergovernmental organization, NGOs and civil society have been accepted since its creation as 'observers'. The consultative status of NGOs with ECOSOC goes back to the forties of the last century.* Other UN agencies, programmes and funds have introduced similar 'observer status' for NGOs,  e.g. UNESCO and UNCTAD. The 'observer' status is different from the 'Sector member' status in ITU, as it is from the tripartite partner status in ILO. The classical observer status in the UN is usually limited to Plenary and subcommittee meetings (WSIS made some exceptions to this). NGOs can make written inputs and on some occasions take the floor during the Plenary, but they are not 'negotiating' and cannot participate in closed meetings and in working groups etc.   (The Council Working Group mentioned below had commissioned a study on how other UN Agencies work with civil society, the study is available in MS Word format.)"  
   
"Mr. Fullsack knows very well that at the last Plenipotentiary Meeting in Antalya, ITU created a 'Council Working Group on the Study on the Participation of all relevant stakeholders in ITU activities related to WSIS'. The main question is whether ITU should, in addition to the possibilities of sector membership, introduce something similar to an 'observer' status for civil society, especially in the field of WSIS implementation. There are many questions related to such a status, especially compared to the ITU 'membership' status of today, which in some respect gives a stronger position to the 'sector member' than possibly to a mere 'observer'. But I agree that the 'sector member' status does not exactly fit for civil society entities that do defend general societal interest like  Human Rights, Access to Knowledge, ICTs for Development etc.   Such NGOs are used to the 'observer' status in other UN entities, which is free of cost, and do not see any interest in paying a fee for becoming ITU sector members. They do not want to participate in working groups; they want to speak out in Plenary meetings. They consider their participation as political, not technical.  The Council Working group is under the chairmanship of Argentina and Switzerland. We shall see what proposals are brought forward by the Working group to the 2009 Council Meeting. (For more information, see this Webpage and this Powerpoint presentation.)"

"Mr. Fullsack complains further that he was sent out of the room at the beginning of a WSIS facilitators meeting last September in ITU. This statement is misleading. I am not sure if Mr. Fullsack realized that he wanted to participate as an observer at the yearly UNGIS meeting. He was in fact asked nicely by Mr. Touré to leave the room. The UN Group on the Information Society is a meeting where UN Agencies discuss and coordinate the UN-systemwide implementation of WSIS. UNGIS does not (or at least is not supposed to) deal with Action Line Facilitation. UNGIS was created by the Chief Executive Board of the UN (where civil society is never present; not even government observers would be allowed) and is an internal administrative steering meeting. It is the kind of meeting where one agency can tell another agency that it is unhappy with the other's performance etc.  This kind of internal steeering committee meetings (where you can also wash dirty laundry)  have never been open to observers, and it is wrong to take the example of a traditionally closed meeting as proof of ITU's reluctance to deal with civil society. In my view, ITU is not reluctant to deal with civil society, the problem is different:  As a techical organization, ITU never felt the need to create an observer status for political participation of civil society. But where Mr. Fullsack is correct: Internet Governance is a highly political theme, and if ITU wants to play a role in this field, it will have to open up to civil society and to create a format for meaningful participation of civil society representatives."

"Finally, where I cannot agree with Mr. Fullsack is on the "non-inclusiveness" of WSIS. I think that Mr. Touré's statement about the inclusiveness of WSIS is correct. WSIS was the second UN Summit to accredit civil society and business (the first Summit that accredited business entities was the Monterrey Summit on Financing for Development). Besides the more than 3000 NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC, which had automatic accreditation to WSIS,  Governments accredited more than 1'300 civil society entities, including University Institutes (a novelty, no other UN Summit had ever accredited academic instititions) and local authorities (e.g. the city of Geneva, or the city of Lyon, also a novelty for UN Summits). At both Summits, in Geneva and in Tunis, there were about as many participants from civil society as from Governments. For the first time in the history of UN Summits, Summit working documents carried the inputs from Governments and from observers in the same document, often on the same page. My guess is that 30 to 50% of the final text of the Summit outcome documents originated somewhere in civil society inputs, and were taken over by Government representatives in one or the other way (it is impossible to trace every idea to its roots in a negotiation process as complicated as WSIS). I don't think that this kind of large inputs from civil society took place at the Johannesburg or the Stockholm Summits. Also, in no other UN Summit, did observers (including civil society representatives) speak directly in the Summit segement, after heads of State and Government (usually, observers speak in UN Summits in the high-level or in the ministerial segment of a Summit). You find some more explanations about participation of observers in WSIS on the WSIS Website and in an interview I gave to Reza Salim from Bangladesh in Summer 2008 (short form, or long form in PDF). And yes, ITU was indeed the lead agency for the preparations of WSIS, but the way civil society was handled in WSIS was mostly decided by the WSIS Intergovernmental Bureau, where the decisive influence did not come from ITU, but from the two PrepCom Presidents, Adama Samassékou and Janis Karklins."


 
* If you look at the list of entities in consultative status with ECOSOC, here in PDF, you will see that some entities in general consultative status have had this status since 1946 or 1947!
 

This interview is published here under the Creative Commons licence by-nc-nd/3.0.
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