Council of Europe Committee Puts off Decision on Draft Access to Information Convention, Permits More Time for Input

7 November 2007

The Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on Human Rights (CDDH) met today in Strasbourg to consider the draft text of a European Convention on Access to Official Documents.  Under pressure from non-governmental organizations and state representatives who have criticized the draft, the CDDH decided to put off a decision on the draft Convention to provide more time for the Group of Specialists to finish its Explanatory Memorandum and to gather further input from member states regarding improvements to the convention.

NGOs and information advocates have expressed nearly universal criticism for the proposed text, urging the Steering Committee to reject the draft and attempt to resolve concerns before moving forward with the world’s first binding instrument on access to information. The critics cite several major flaws with the draft text. In particular, the treaty as currently drafted does not cover all legislative and judicial bodies within the access to information mandate and also does not extend to some documents held by private entities performing public functions. In addition, the treaty does not provide certain basic guarantees regarding proactive disclosure, appeals, narrow exemptions, and time limits for processing requests.

In a letter to CDDH member state representatives on October 31, NGOs Access Info Europe, Article 19, and the Open Society Justice Initiative urged the CDDH to permit all member governments to comment on the proposed convention based on their own law and practice on access to information. In addition, the groups recommended that more discussion is needed, including to limit which provisions of the convention will be open to reservations by ratifying states. Helen Darbishire, Director of Access Info Europe, presented the NGOs’ position to the CDDH at its meeting today, along with several state representatives who also supported improvements to the text.

Darbishire recently commented on the significance of improving the draft treaty: “It is highly disappointing that a Group dominated by the established democracies of Northern/Western Europe should refuse even to consider some very concrete language that would have ensured that the world’s first treaty on access to information sets acceptable standards.”

A number of other groups have raised concerns about the current draft, including the Government of Slovenia, Information Commissions from across Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A large number of civil society groups from the around the world also objected to allowing the draft to go forward in its current form in a letter signed by 250 organizations and 270 individuals that was transmitted to the drafters in September. The letter urged the Council of Europe to improve the current draft of the Convention to ensure that it reflects prevailing European and international standards and best practices on the right to information.

Following today’s meeting, states are invited to send suggestions for the Explanatory Memorandum by December 15. The Group of Specialists is expected to finish its work in February, and further discussion on the substance of the treaty will take place at the next plenary meeting of the CDDH, in April 2008. At that meeting, a number of states not part of the Group of Specialists will be invited to give their input on the text of the convention and introduce proposed amendments.

Documents

Letter from Access Info, Article 19 and the Justice Initiative to Members of the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on Human Rights (31 October 2007)

Letter from non-governmental signatories to Chair, Group of Specialists on Access to Official Documents (28 September 2007)

OSCE, Letter to Chair of the Steering Committee for Human Rights (2 November 2007)

OSCE, Comments on the Draft European Convention on Access to Official Documents of the Council of Europe (11 September 2007)

Draft European Convention on Access to Official Documents (as of 6 July 2007)

Steering Committee for Human Rights, Interim Report of the Group of Specialists on Access to Official Documents (27 March 2007)

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