By Toby McIntosh
WASHINGTON DC, Jul 17 2023 (IPS)
Less than half of United Nations agencies have access to information policies, according to a survey by Eye on Global Transparency.
Of 27 UN bodies surveyed, 13 have access policies. So, 14 UN agencies lack access policies. Setting a poor example, the UN Secretariat still lacks an access to information policy.
Other prominent UN agencies without access policies include the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Two UN institutions created access policies in 2021. One was the International Maritime Organization. The other was the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Ironically, UNIDO’s policy went undisclosed until very recently. UN Women is developing a policy, according to a spokesperson.
Otherwise, the UN bodies without access policies show no signs of planning to create them, including at the Secretariat level. Access policies establish the procedures for requesting information and set the standards for what will and won’t be provided.
Despite Hint, No Action by the UN Secretariat
In 2018, there was a hint of a possible pro-transparency move by the UN Secretariat, but nothing materialized.
The top UN communications official at the time said the Secretariat would like to create a “rigorous” access to information policy. However, a year later, the Secretariat said in a statement that it had no such plans. The UN press office did not reply to a recent request for comment.
Access to information is considered an integral part of the right of freedom of expression, as recognized in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The fact that the UN Secretariat and other UN bodies don’t apply this standard to themselves prompted a rebuke from a UN Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights. “For the central global political institution, one that serves the public interest across a range of subject matters, this is intolerable,” began a 2017 report.
UNESCO Urged to Be Advocate
Pressure for more transparency at UN agencies is minimal. One potential advocate, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), supports creation of access laws at the national level. But UNESCO but does encourage UN agencies to adopt access policies, despite calls for it to do so.
While national adoption and implementation of access laws is one of the UN‘s Sustainable Development Goals, with UNESCO as the monitor, there is no UN goal for UN access policies.
At a UNESCO-sponsored International Day for Universal Access to Information meeting held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 2022, the participants approved a declaration calling on intergovernmental bodies to adopt access polices.
Setting a less-than-stellar example itself, UNESCO recently amended its own access policy without announcing its intentions or inviting public comment. (See EYE article.) Nor did UNESCO follow substantive advice it gives to countries, to have an independent oversight bodies to handle appeals.
Independent appeals panels are uncommon at UN agencies. Most, like UNESCO, handle appeals with internal review panels. By contrast, the existence of independent appeals panel is more frequent at international financial institutions (IFIs), almost all of which have access polices. (See EYE 2023 story)
Difficulties with Opacity
Getting information from agencies without policies can be problematical. A nongovernmental organization in Nigeria learned this when it asked the International Organization for Migration (IMO) about a program to help returning migrants. (See EYE article.)
There was no detail on IOM’s website and an IOM official denied having “any information” about the $324,000 project or a pineapple processing factory spawned by the effort. The IOM has no access policy through which to make a formal request.
When policies do exist, the processing of requests can be time-consuming. This author has a pending appeal with the UN Environment Programme, submitted March 8, four months ago. UNEP has not met its goal of issuing decisions within 60 working days.
Veteran UN journalist Thalif Deen, writing for Inter Press Service, called the UN “one of most opaque institutions, where transparency is never the norm.”
UNIDO Discloses Previously Nonpublic Access Policy
The UNIDO website doesn’t indicate the presence of an access policy, but after EYE contacted the agency the one-and-a-half year old policy was forwarded.
The UNIDO policy, like most access polices, begins with strong commitments to openness (“maximum access”) and then moves on to “limited” exemptions.
However, the UNIDO exemptions, like those in many national and international access policies are quite protective. For example, confidential treatment is guaranteed for documents submitted by governments and third parties.
Unusually, UNIDO’s policy says that “[L]imitations may apply with regard to the types of requestors to whom such information will be disclosed.” Access policies typically do not discriminate on who may apply, although some national policies forbid applications from non-citizens. Also rare is a UNIDO requirement that requesters must pay in advance to cover the estimated cost of handling their request.
So, there are two hurdles: getting access policies in the first place and getting good access policies.
Toby McIntosh has reported for several decades on transparency at international institutions and on freedom for information issues world-wide. During a journalistic career in Washington, he covered the White House, Congress and many regulatory agencies. View all posts by Toby McIntosh
IPS UN Bureau