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WSIS: Criticism Was Conviction, Say Swiss

Marty Logan

TUNIS, Nov 18 2005 (IPS) - The Swiss government has been at the centre of controversy here over host government Tunisia’s treatment of journalists and human rights activists prior to the UN World Summit on the Information Society.
     IPS spoke with Swiss communications minister Moritz Leuenberger about his country’s stance on human rights.

The Swiss government has been at the centre of controversy here over host government Tunisia’s treatment of journalists and human rights activists prior to the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Swiss President Samuel Schmid was blunt at Wednesday’s opening ceremony. “It is not acceptable…for the United Nations Organisation to continue to include among its members those states which imprison citizens for the sole reason that they have criticised their government or their authorities on the Internet or in the press,” he said.

“As far as I’m concerned, it goes without saying that here in Tunis – inside these walls as well as outside – everyone can express themselves freely. It is one of the conditions ‘sine qua non’ for the success of this international conference,” added Schmid, who did not receive an official welcome when he landed in Tunisia’s capital.

That diplomatic slight might have resulted from remarks by Swiss communications minister Moritz Leuenberger to a newspaper last week that human rights should be on the WSIS agenda.

The Tunisian ambassador in Bern reacted by sending a letter “regretting that the propagation of unfounded accusations and tendentious information had found an echo with a Swiss government minister.”


IPS spoke with Leuenberger at the WSIS late on Thursday.

Q: Why has your government been so outspoken about Tunisia’s human rights record?

A: It’s important to note that we haven’t just made declarations against the situation in Tunisia but against all countries that have violated human rights…this attitude of speaking up is not new for us: we have always done it…if you take part in a summit like this one, you must seize the occasion to change the situation.

Q: Would it not be possible to try to engage Tunisia, to not exclude them but to help shape their behaviour vis-à-vis human rights?

A: We haven’t condemned them, not at all. We noted the importance of freedom of expression. The hardening of our position came after Tunisia’s reaction (to Leuenberger’s interview)…Human rights are not black and white. There is certainly no country that has a perfectly clean record, not at all. We are also perfectly ready to be criticised and we are also ready to discuss.

Q: When you critique Tunisia, do you feel like you’re speaking on behalf of anyone else, civil society for example?

A: I don’t know if other bodies see us as a champion of human rights. It certainly wasn’t our goal to please any organisations. Our goal was to express our own convictions.

Q: Do you feel at all abandoned by other nations or international bodies?

A: Not at all, the contrary in fact. The applause yesterday when our president spoke (at the opening ceremony) was enormous.

Q: Is there any hope of a rapprochement with the Tunisian government?

A: There hasn’t been a rupture, not at all. I was welcomed here. And they are always welcome in Switzerland. Relations are good but it is necessary to discuss certain things.

 
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WSIS: Criticism Was Conviction, Say Swiss

Marty Logan

TUNIS, Nov 18 2005 (IPS) - The Swiss government has been at the centre of controversy here over host government Tunisia’s treatment of journalists and human rights activists prior to the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
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