WASHINGTON DC, Jul 17 (IPS) – Fewer than half of UN agencies have access to information policies, according to a survey by A Look at Global Transparency.
Of the 27 UN organizations surveyed, 13 have access policies. Thus, 14 UN agencies lack access policies. Setting a poor example, the UN Secretariat still does not have an access to information policy.
Other major United Nations agencies without an access policy include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the World Trade and the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Two UN agencies created access policies in 2021. One was the International Maritime Organization. The other was the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Ironically, UNIDO policy was not disclosed until very recently. UN Women is developing a policy, according to a spokesperson.
Otherwise, UN bodies without access policies show no sign of planning to create one, including at the Secretariat level. Access policies establish procedures for requesting information and set standards for what will and will not be provided.
Despite a clue, no action by the UN Secretariat
In 2018, there was a hint of a possible decision in favor of transparency by the UN Secretariat, but nothing materialized.
The senior UN communications official at the time said the Secretariat wanted 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 respond to a recent request for comment.
Access to information is considered an integral part of the right to freedom of expression, as recognized in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The failure of the UN Secretariat and other UN bodies to apply this standard to themselves has prompted a rebuke from a UN special rapporteur on human rights. male. “For the central global political institution, one that serves the public interest across a range of topics, this is intolerable,” began a 2017 report.
UNESCO called upon to defend its rights
The pressure for more transparency within UN agencies is minimal. A potential advocate, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), supports the creation of access laws at the national level. But UNESCO only encourages UN agencies to adopt access policies, despite calls to do so.
Although national adoption and implementation of access laws is one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, with UNESCO as the oversight body, there is no United Nations goal for United Nations access policies.
At a UNESCO-sponsored meeting for the International Day for Universal Access to Information held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 2022, participants endorsed a declaration calling on intergovernmental bodies to adopt access policies.
Setting a less than shining example itself, UNESCO recently changed its own access policy without announcing its intentions or inviting public comment. (See article EYE.) UNESCO has also not followed the substantive advice it gives to countries to have independent oversight bodies to handle appeals.
Independent appeal boards are rare in UN agencies. Most, like UNESCO, handle appeals with internal review boards. On the other hand, the existence of independent appeal boards is more common in international financial institutions (IFIs), which almost all have access policies. (See EYE story 2023)
Obtaining information from agencies without policies can be problematic. A non-governmental organization in Nigeria learned of this while asking the International Organization for Migration (IMO) about a program to assist returning migrants. (See article EYE.)
There were no details on the IOM website and an IOM official denied having ‘information’ about the $324,000 project or a pineapple processing plant spawned by the effort . IOM does not have an access policy for making a formal request.
Where policies exist, processing requests may take time. This author has a pending appeal with the United Nations Environment Program, submitted on March 8, four months ago. UNEP did not meet its target of rendering decisions within 60 working days.
Thalif Deen, veteran UN journalist, writes for Inter Press Servicecalled the UN “one of the most opaque institutions, where transparency is never the norm”.
UNIDO discloses previously non-public access policy
UNIDO’s website does not indicate the presence of an access policy, but after the EYE contacted the agency, the one-and-a-half-year-old policy was passed on.
UNIDO’s policy, like most access policies, begins with firm commitments of openness (“maximum access”), then moves to “limited” exemptions.
However, UNIDO’s exemptions, like those of many national and international access policies, are quite protective. For example, confidential treatment is guaranteed for documents submitted by governments and third parties.
Exceptionally, UNIDO policy states that “imitations may apply with respect to the types of requesters to whom this information will be disclosed”. Access policies generally do not discriminate against applicants, although some national policies prohibit applications from non-nationals. Rare is also a UNIDO requirement that applicants pay in advance to cover the estimated cost of processing their application.
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 in international institutions and freedom of information issues around the world. During a journalism career in Washington, he covered the White House, Congress, and numerous regulatory agencies. View all posts by Toby McIntosh
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