UN Chief Communications Official Voices Support for UN Information Access Policy

By Toby  McIntosh

The United Nations Secretariat would like to create a “rigorous” access to information policy, according to Alison Smale, Under Secretary General for the Department of Public Information.

First, however,  the UN needs to resolve an internal debate about which department should be the “custodian” of UN records, Smale said in an interview. That decision will determine which department will be responsible for an access to information policy, she said.

“I would stress that the overall thrust of UN’s thinking is that we should beginning the process of adopting access to information policies, and that what’s we are trying to do,” Smale said, “And it’s proving sadly more complicated than one might like.”

The lack of a UN access to information policy was criticized strongly last year by UN Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye. In an August report, Kaye called it “intolerable” that the UN lacks procedures and standards to facilitate public requests for information.

In the first official reaction to the Kaye report, Smale affirmed a desire to propose an access policy.

“I think the first thing I would have to say is, as with very many other things at the UN, it’s complicated,” she began.

Smale explained that her Department of Public Information is engaged in discussions “about next steps” with other UN departments, primarily with the Department of Management and the Department of Legal Affairs.

Custodianship Under Discussion

The key issue is who should be the custodian of UN records, she said, indicating that details of the discussions, part of larger management reforms being developed within the Secretariat, are confidential. Smale said the talks “are as not as far ahead as we might have wanted.”

“That means that we can’t draft up any rules about access to information because we don’t know who is going to be the custodian of that information,” Smale said.

She elaborated: “At the moment we are still in discussions. We certainly want to push those forward vigorously. We would then urge the relevant power, which is the Secretary General, to make a recommendation and get the UN launched on the path of producing a rigorous access to information policy.”

A UN access to information policy would eventually have to be approved by the General Assembly.

“We are very much aware that these policies exist in nation states, but it is much harder when you have to square the interests of 193 of those,” Smale said. She predicted that consultations with the 193 members on a prospective access policy would be conducted.

Although the UN’s Secretariat is not covered by an access policy, as Kaye pointed, other UN agencies have such policies, include the UN Development Programme and the UN Environmental Programme.

Kaye said in his report:

The United Nations does not have an access-to-information policy that applies to every department and specialized agency; it does not even have ad hoc standards to provide a response to access-to-information requests. For the central global political institution, one that serves the public interest across a range of subject matters, this is intolerable.