15 January 2004

The U.N has a great deal to be proud about in the new and ever changing areas in information technology. The Department of Public Information, in particular, pioneered a website in 1994 which despite fierce internal opposition by almost every session official, was getting over four million visits a month. It introduced the internet to its radio, television, and press operation, drawing on voluntary staff in the absent, available posts. UNDP, under the leadership of Marc Melloch-Brown, made a pioneering arrangement with one of the most advanced electronic informational technology companies to support its development outreach -- communications because in the mainstream of its field programs, UNICEF, prodded by Carol Bellamy, also introduced a similar approach. So did the World Food Program under Catherine Bertini, assisted by Trevor Rowe. Why then was the U.N almost unnoticed in the so-called "World Summit on the Information Society?" although it was supposedly a U.N sponsored meeting.

To begin with, there were no serious preparations. Apparently like most other things of this period, the span of attention was so fickle that no one knew throughout where it actually stood. Its officials, directly concerned, that the Secretary General and Shashi Tharoor seemed otherwise preoccupied. Officially, there was a special representative. Nittin Desai was and will always be a pillar of sustained development for years, but his designation for that particular task came too late and was not really his area. The reason for his designation was more to do with placating Indian sensitivities than ensuring a successful conference.

When Kofi Annan decided to put his former Special Assistant Tharour head of Public Information, even he had some qualms of moving a D-1 in 1998 to an Under Secretary General in three years time. More relevant, Tharoor did not carry weight in India -- nor at least the weight of a Desai or Sharma. So he had to curry favor by finding for both distinguished Indians.

Internet is not just a technical interest; it is a political issue. Freedom of expression is not just a media question; it is at the care of human rights in every society. Normally in such international gatherings, the U.N plays a leadership role. Its team would bridge gaps, facilitate consensus, and is generally seen and perceived as doing so. It also makes every effort to ensure the attendance of as many heads of state as possible. Instead, only about fifty of the heads of the one hundred and ninety-two member states attended, one-third of a usual summit. Some of those who attended did not allow free use of the internet in their own countries, while some others were known for expelling journalists at any sign of unfavorable reporting. "You report, we deport" seems to be their motto. Their presence means it is an opportunity not for the U.N to obtain their agreement to a free press, but for them to claim international responsibility -- and maybe to check their balances in private Swiss banks. There were, of course, some highly researched heads of state with serious concerns about the issues discussed and fought from the outset to include a reference to "press freedom" which was overlooked until the day when the conference was about to start. In a welcome edition, the Summit declaration included press freedom and reaffirmed Article 19 of the Human Rights Declaration that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impact information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers".

Another shortcoming for some U.N officials was appearing to side with those who were trying to control the management of the internet. An alliance of repressive governments, bureaucrats, and ITU technicians were attempting to take public charge of private initiatives. That failed. A compromise was reached to look into the matter further through a committee.

Again the U.N hid behind I.T.U instead of asserting its leadership role. After all, it was not an I.T.U conference; it was a U.N "Summit". Some may have thought of it mainly as a photo opportunity. In fact, there were some photo opportunities mainly on the political side. The Presidents of Egypt and Iran met after years of boycott -- and a welcome move. But neither the photos of Annan or Tharoor made it across the Atlantic -- nor across the Geneva Lake. Better luck next time? A better summit next time.