Delegates at the second Plenary session of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12, 3-14 December) supported the importance of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 affirms the right of all people to freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The WCIT-12 conference is being held to renegotiate the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), a binding global treaty that facilitates global interconnection and interoperability of information and communication services, setting out general principles for ensuring the free flow of information around the world and promoting affordable and equitable access for all.
A proposal introduced by the delegation of Tunisia asked the conference to include in Article 1 new wording specifically protecting freedom of expression, noting that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. It asked that Member States protect the right to “all dissemination means through telecommunications and ICTs in the exercise of this right, as well as the freedom of online peaceful assembly.”
Delegates at WCIT-12 back affirmed freedom of opinion and expression
The proposal sparked some vigorous debates, with delegates unanimously speaking out in favour of online freedom. Tunisia also pointed out that the events which have taken place recently in some regions of the world show that despite the existence and recognition of these rights in existing texts, this has not prevented some countries from cutting off international telecommunications, emphasising that Tunisia believes the WCIT-12 conference should send a very strong signal about the need to protect the right to freedom of expression.
The conference asserted that additional text was not needed to be added to the highly technical treaty in view of the fact that the right to freedom of expression is already expressly protected by the text of treaties which take legal precedence over the ITRs, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 33 of the ITU’s own Constitution.
ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré had himself already spoken out strongly on the issue in his opening speech to the conference Plenary on Monday: “One of the most persistent myths [about WCIT-12] concerns freedom of expression, and it has been suggested that this conference might in some way act to restrict the open and free flow of information. In Article 33 of the ITU’s Constitution, however, Member States recognise the right of the public to correspond by means of the international service of public correspondence. And the ITRs cannot contradict that provision, or indeed any other article in the ITU Constitution.” Dr Touré went on to quote Article 19 in full, reminding all delegates that “here in Dubai we are not going to be challenging Article 19, or indeed any other article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was also forthright on the need to assert freedom of expression in his video message to delegates at the opening of the conference on Monday. “The Arab Spring showed the power of ICT to help people voice their legitimate demands for human rights and greater accountability…The management of information and communication technology should be transparent, democratic and inclusive of all stakeholders …The United Nation system stands behind the goal of an open internet. The right to communicate is central to the ITU’s mission. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of expression across all media and all frontiers…These freedoms are not up for negotiation,” he said.
He also reminded delegates that the World Summit on the Information Society (2003/2005) affirmed the essential right to the free flow of information and ideas for peace, development and common progress.
Just prior to WCIT-12, the ITU World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-12) revised and adopted Resolution 69 on Non-discriminatory access and use of Internet resources recommending that ITU’s 193 Member States refrain from taking any unilateral and/or discriminatory actions that could impede another Member State from accessing public Internet sites and using resources, within the spirit of Article 1 of the ITU Constitution and the principles set out during the 2003/2005 World Summit on the Information Society.