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Freedom of information in international organizations

One year ago, I sent an email to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye (@davidkaye), in reaction to a public consultation, not knowing whether it mattered. Now that his report on “Access to Information in International Organizations” is published, I realized that I was one of a few people who had sent in a submission.

As you can see on the website of the report, my name is listed as one of five submissions from civil society and academia. However, my submission is not published because it came via email.

To make this more transparent, I publish below the text that I sent on 18 October 2016 in reaction to the public consultation. It’s not a refined submission – indeed just an email – but maybe it’s useful for future work in the direction of making the United Nations system and other international organizations more transparent to have this published here:

Dear Mr. Kaye,

through the Centre for Law and Democracy and a person working for Access Info Europe I saw that you are currently consulting with UN organizations on their access to information policies.

I do not know whether a submission from a researcher in political science and international public administration is welcome, especially after the general deadline has passed three days ago. However, I thought my observations would still be useful as context and as a “user’s” perspective.

My ongoing research on UN budgeting is part of a publicly funded project (see http://ipa-research.com/time), which itself is part of a larger research unit in Germany studying the work of international bureaucracies (http://ipa-research.com). I have been in particular to the UN in New York, ILO, UNESCO and WHO, including each of their archives. We also do research on other UN organizations, but less detailed than in these four cases.

If you allow, I would like to share three observations that I have found through my research in the UN system in the past two years:

1. Besides the archives or libraries, there is often no contact person named on public websites through which (ad hoc) requests for access to documents can be made. This means that one is forwarded from archives to relevant units, while relevant units may refuse access right away or refer back to higher levels of the hierarchy, leaving it unclear how to even ask for access to documents. Some UN organizations also have dedicated public document registers, some including main categories of administrative documents (even those that are not public), which allows to reduce the “unknown unknowns”, while other UN organizations publish their documents in unstructured ways or, if they have structured document repositories, they are not easily accessible for the public or documents are dispersed across several systems with different levels of (full-text) searchability.

2. The 20-year archival policy in the UN combined with the lack of access to documents policies makes well-reasoned academic research on UN organizations very difficult at worst and sketchy at best. There are two reasons for this:

First, the decision whether to actually archive documents is often taken years before the 20-year period is over. Going through archive documents 20 years and older (e.g. in UNESCO), I found that important parts of the budgeting decision-making documentation I was interested in had not been archived, while I had also no right to request more recent documents that were still in the hands of the secretariats. This left me without any documents not just for periods of 20 years but even well beyond that.

Second, the 20 year period seems to apply to documents with quite different degrees of political importance. In some cases, I was just looking for basic administrative guidelines describing a process inside the organization, but these documents, past and present, are treated similarly to internal letters in which detailed views and opinions of member states and UN administrative leaders are documented. The latter seem to have quite a different potential for creating diplomatic misunderstandings if published too early, while the former do not threaten diplomatic relations but rather reveal just basic systems of governance that are useful for our academic understand of how the respective UN organization works.

3. There is a lack of coherence in the application of the rules and practices, both within UN organizations and across the UN system. I happened to get documents in UN archives that were much younger than 20 years while the same type of documents from previous years were not accessible. Similarly, some of the documents I would get in one UN organization are difficult to impossible to get in another organization.

I make these three points since our research project started with a similar analysis for the EU-level, where there is Regulation 1049/2001 on access to documents. I can say that getting access to administrative documents on EU budgeting of the past ten years relevant to our research was much more easy than any similar attempt to get access to UN documents.

Altogether, I think that all UN organizations should have a dedicated access to information policy, with clear guidelines for the outside world and a separation between archival documents and documents that are accessible outside the archives, either directly online or through requests.

Please do not hesitate to contact me in case you have any questions.

Ronny Patz

PS (Disclaimer): I have worked, in the past, for the EU Office of Transparency International (2010-12 as a volunteer, 2012-14 as a full time staff). I am in no work or other formal relationship with the office since June 2014, so the points made above reflect my personal views as a researcher.

 I really hope for future researchers, activists, and citizens that access to information from international organizations becomes easier in the future. The historic record of what IOs such as the United Nations have contributed to shaping our present world should be accessible, and today’s and future generations should be able to hold global institutions to account.



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