12 European Countries Sign First International Convention on Access to Official Documents

19 June 2009

Advocates Urge 37 Remaining Council of Europe Members to Sign

Tromsø, Norway — On June 18, 2009, 12 of 47 member-states of the Council of Europe signed the Convention on Access to Official Documents, making history as the first international binding legal instrument that recognizes a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities.

The 12 member-states that signed the Convention are Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Norway, Serbia, Slovenia, and Sweden. All members of the Council of Europe are free to sign on to the Convention in the future, but several key states face difficulties aligning their own access laws to conform with even the minimum standards set by the convention itself.


Map of Signatories to the Convention.
Courtesy of Access Info.

Now the 12 signatory states must ratify the Convention, and 10 ratifications are required for the Convention to come into effect. Slovenia has already introduced the Convention into its legislative agenda and plans to ratify the optional expansion of the Convention’s scope to include its legislative and judicial bodies.

The Convention has been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism by the access-to-information community. Some of the major flaws in the treaty include:

  • Failure to include legislative and judicial bodies under the mandatory scope of the convention.
  • Absence of a mandated appeals or oversight body with the ability to compel government agencies to disclose information
  • Failure to include certain key categories of information (financial information, procurements) for proactive dissemination by the government
  • Lack of time limits for processing requests

Still, civil society organizations, such as Article 19, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and Access-Info, have urged ratification because the Convention sets legally binding, minimum standards for access to information. Access-Info has publicized the Convention through its “Recognise My Right” Internet campaign. The website provided contact information for the foreign ministries of all 47 member-states of the Council of Europe, urging people to petition directly to their governments to sign the treaty.

“Countries like the UK, France, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands were all present during the negotiation of the treaty,” according to Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access-Info. “Responding to civil society concerns that the treaty set a low standard, they argued that a minimum-standard Convention would attract more signatures. Why then have they not signed? Where is their commitment to the public’s right to know?”

Transparency of public authorities is a key feature of good governance and an indicator of whether or not a society is genuinely democratic and pluralist, opposed to all forms of corruption, capable of criticizing those who govern it, and open to enlightened participation of citizens in matters of public interest. The right of access to official documents is also essential to the self-development of people and to the exercise of fundamental human rights. It also strengthens public authorities’ legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and its confidence in them. Considering this, national legal systems should recognize and properly enforce a right of access to everyone to official documents produced or held by public authorities. (Explanatory Report)

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

Council of Europe adopts weak access to information convention (19 December 2008). More>>

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>>

LINKS

Council of Europe’s Convention on Access to Official Documents

Explanatory Report on the Convention

Access-Info Europe

Access-Info’s Recognise My Right Internet Campaign

Article 19

Open Society Justice Initiative

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