Most United Nations Bodies Lack Access to Information Policies, EYE Survey Shows

By Toby McIntosh

Three out of five United Nations agencies, including the UN Secretariat, have no policies on access to information, according to an survey.

Of 34 UN agencies examined, 14 have access policies, but 20 do not (59 percent).

See a chart on the UN agencies, including links to their access policies. 

For the public, the absence of such policies means there are no guaranteed procedures for requesting information and no standards for what documents will or will not be disclosed.

Although the right to information under international law has its roots in Article 19 of the UN’s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN bodies have been slow to operationalize the right for themselves. Most of the 14 access policies were adopted in a slow trickle over the past two decades.

All UN bodies should have access policies, argued David Kaye, a UN Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights, in an August 2017 report. “There is no principled reason why intergovernmental organizations should adopt access-to-information policies that vary from those adopted by States,” Kaye wrote.

More than 125 countries have freedom of the information laws or analogous requirements (See Right2Info tally), as do the major international financial institutions, such as the World Bank.

Two UN agencies told EYE they are moving toward creation of access policies.

  • A spokesperson for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said, “There are plans to develop one.”
  • The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) spokesperson responded, “Something we are working on.”

Slow Adoption Criticized

UN Special Rapporteur Kaye is not alone in lamenting the limited take-up within the UN family.

“It’s time for the UN to ensure that public transparency is part of their reform processes or they will seem increasingly less credible,” said David Banisar of Article 19, the London-based freedom of expression group. As Senior Legal Counsel and Head of Transparency, Banisar has been tracking access developments at UN agencies for many years.  He told EYE:

The UN’s own processes on ensuring access to information about its activities have been slow to come about and insufficient when they do act. The few adopted policies are weaker than the international standards promoted by the UN, and much less than implemented by the vast majority of Member States.

The implications of low  transparency were addressed  in a report issued in 2016 following a conference of senior representatives from UN research and policy units and 50 leading research organizations from around the world. The report, Strengthening the UN’s Research Uptake, stated:

Third, while these UN entities produce a wealth of data and information, it is difficult for researchers to mine such information because relevant documents – whether code cables, internal reports, notes to the file, after-action or lessons learned reports – often remain confidential or hidden, sometimes, but not always, for legitimate reasons. Researchers will therefore need to rely on interviews with relevant staff (which are notoriously short on time) to fully understand UN responses to any given issue.

Another UN  human rights Special Rapporteur, Maina Kiai, addressed the transparency at all multilateral organizations, calling in a 2014 report for them to be more transparent and inclusive. The flow of information is crucial, and if civil society has limited access to information, they are at a disadvantage,” he wrote.

Back in 2011, the UN’s own Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), with only an advisory function, recommended adoption of access policies in UN agencies “as a matter of urgency.”

The report, Accountability Frameworks In The United Nations System, states, “Executive heads should develop and implement an information disclosure policy to heighten transparency and accountability in their respective organizations as a matter of urgency in the event that they not have already done so and report to the legislative bodies accordingly.”

UN Secretariat Lacks Policy

Notably not leading by example is the UN Secretariat, which has resisted proposing an access policy.

The lack of such a policy was criticized as “intolerable” by Special Rapporteur Kaye.

Hints of possible action provided earlier this year have not resulted in any forward motion.

In an interview with EYE in February of 2018, Alison Smale, Under Secretary General for the Department of Public Information, said the Secretariat would like to create a rigorous” access policy but first needed to resolve an internal debate about which department should be the “custodian” of UN records. (See EYE article.) The custodianship of records is usually one of the least difficult issues handled by institutions adopting access policies.

Since then, the Secretariat has conducted a major reorganization, but appears no closer to settling the custodianship issue or beginning an effort to prepare an access policy.  A UN spokesman on Oct. 19 cited ongoing management reforms as the reason, saying, “Any changes on access to information policies would have to follow afterwards.”

The UN Committee on Information has not discussed an access to information policy, according to committee reports over the past two years. Andrea Bacher, First Secretary to the committee chairman, Jan Kickert of Austria, declined to address why, referring question to the UN press office.

Pledges of transparency by top UN officials are recurrent. In June, the President-elect of the UN General Assembly, Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, told reporters, “I am committed to full transparency during my tenure.”

Failed Reforms 2005-2008

The closest the UN came to adopting  an access policy began in late 2005, when the Secretariat developed a rather complete proposal. That effort petered out several years later because of budget concerns and member resistance, according to officials and outsiders who followed the effort.

At the end of 2005 the Management Committee requested a draft policy, and the Department of Management created one. It was submitted to the General Assembly in the 2006 in a report by Secretary General Kofi Annan entitled “Investing in the United Nations” (a/60/846/Add.4 Proposal 19). (Other languages here.)

“By establishing capability and capacity for the Secretariat to implement a public access to documentation policy, the Organization will demonstrate good governance through enhanced transparency,” the report said.

The report came very close to defining a full policy, listing the six exceptions it should include, a critical piece of any access policy.  Among other things, it would have barred disclosure of “internal investigations.” The report didn’t include specific deadlines for answering requests or describe an appeals process.

It also laid out a roadmap for getting there and estimates the costs. Envisioned was a two-phase two-year process with a price tag of $6.7 million. Implementation  was to be assigned to the Department of Management.

The General Assembly, however, in a July 7, 2006, resolution (A/Res/283), requested further information. During 2007-2008, the Department of Management and later the Legal Office prepared and informally sought comment on an “Information Disclosure Policy: Comprehensive Report.”

The second report was never submitted to the Assembly. 

The EYE Survey: What Qualifies as Having an Access Policy?

EYE used a minimal standard for determining whether an access policy exists:

–  Are there procedures for making and processing requests?

–  Are there standards for determining what should be released?

Access policies at the national and international levels vary significantly in their details and quality, but all have at least those elements, and usually an appeal process, too.

A longer explanation of ideal qualities is embodied in nine principles developed by the Global Transparency Initiative and containing in its Transparency Charter.  A summary states:

Key elements of a rights-based approach are a true presumption of disclosure, generous automatic disclosure rules, a clear framework for processing requests for information, limited exceptions and a right to appeal refusals to disclose to an independent body.

On the critical issue of what information should be disclosed, there are recognized exemptions, such as the protection of personal privacy. And access policies should establish balancing tests, according to the GTI Charter:

The regime of exceptions should be based on the principle that access to information may be refused only where the international financial institution can demonstrate (i) that disclosure would cause serious harm to one of a set of clearly and narrowly defined, and broadly accepted, interests, which are specifically listed; and (ii) that the harm to this interest outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

Reasons for Not Having Policies

Not having access policies doesn’t mean that the agencies do not maintain informative websites, disclose some documents and send out press releases.

Several UN agency spokespersons stressed how much information they provide.

When asked about access policies, however, officials often referred to related, but quite different policies, such as rules on what documents should be designated as secret and what historical documents should be released. There are not recognized by experts as substitutes for an access policy.

Confidentiality policies typically establish levels of secrecy to guide the internal handling of documents and to prevent  certain disclosures. While such designations of confidentiality may be justifiable, they are normally still subject to review under the disclosure exemptions contained in access policies.

Similarly, some agencies have practices governing release of older, historic material.  These archives policies typically deal with what records to retain and what to release after the passage of specified time periods.

Several agencies stressed their voluntary disclosure of information online. Some such “communication”  policies encourage publicizing certain basic “proactive” material, but the disclosure of much other information remains discretionary.  Access polices are defenses against arbitrary agency  non-disclosures, requiring agency responses and justifications for confidentiality.

At UN agencies that do have with access policies, the standards are quite restrictive, according to  Banisar and several other experts who have studied them. No thorough evaluative study exists, however,  and their qualities were not examined for this report.

The list of UN agencies used by EYE is one maintained by the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), a coordination forum for the United Nations system.

See a chart on the UN agencies, including links to their access policies. 

Follow EYE on Twitter @tobyjmcintosh

UN Bodies With No Access Policies

United Nations Secretariat (UN)

International Trade Centre (ITC)

UN Women (UN Women)

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat)

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

International Maritime Organization (IMO)

United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

Universal Postal Union (UPU)

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

International Organization for Migration (IOM)

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)

World Trade Organization (WTO)

UN Bodies With Access Policies

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

World Food Programme (WFP)

International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

International Labour Organization (ILO)

International Monetary Fund (IMF)

International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

World Bank Group (World Bank Group)

World Health Organization (WHO)