Council of Europe adopts weak access to information convention

19 December 2008

Late last month, the Council of Europe adopted a weak Convention on Access to Official Documents that has been the subject of ongoing criticism from civil society and human rights groups as well as government officials, parliamentarians, and information commissioners from across Europe.

According to several human rights groups, the final version of the treaty is weak and provides fewer guarantees than most national FOI laws in Europe. In particular, it narrowly defines the public bodies and documents covered, imposes no time limits for responding to requests, and does not provide a right to appeal the governments decision to a court or independent body.

"The Councils decision to adopt the treaty flies in the face of concerns raised by parliamentarians representing over 800 million people in the 47 Member States," said Toby Mendel of ARTICLE 19. "The Council adopted a treaty that is significantly weaker than many existing European laws on the right to access information."

In addition, advocacy groups criticized the lack of transparency in the treaty process. Several groups recently filed an official request for information about a non-public meeting held November 12 at which COE members considered the draft Convention in light of criticisms put forth by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

The groups nonetheless urged ratification of the treaty to ensure that minimum standards for access to information would be enforced. "The Council of Europe has argued that the treaty is the best it could do while still ensuring wide ratification–we dispute this claim," according to Helen Darbishire of advocacy group Access Info Europe. "For the time being, however, it is incumbent on Member States to ratify the Convention quickly so that minimum standards on access to information can come into force."

"We must now establish a monitoring body to oversee the Convention and propose amendments which could strengthen the treaty in the future," added Sandra Coliver of the Open Society Justice Initiative. "The Council of Europe must ensure that a monitoring body for the treaty has the resources it needs to perform effectively."

Read more in previous postings about the Council of Europe Convention:

Council of Europe ducks open government advocates’ calls for reform; adopts weak convention on access to information that falls short of international standards (4 April 2008). More>>

Council of Europe committee puts off decision on draft access to information convention, permits more time for input and improvements (7 November 2007). More>>

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