Access Issues Being Debated in Context of Rio Conference

10 February 2012

By Carole Excell

Excell is Senior Associate, The Access Initiative, World Resources Institute

The Rio+20 Conference, the largest conference on sustainable development in 10 years, is only five months away. 

A first round of informal negotiations on the “Outcome Document” text just concluded in New York. This document will form the basis of the official outcome of the conference and whatever programs, partnerships and decisions come from the conference. In addition, it serves as a guide to global society about the future priorities for sustainable development.

While many governments welcomed the draft document, others (both governments and civil society) made comments that the text lacked vision and action. A number of states have proposed a mix of changes relevant for the human rights, democracy and open government movement. Of most interest to openness advocates are those paragraphs dealing with transparency, public participation and accountability found in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. 

The delegates have so far only discussed Part I (“Preamble”) and Part II (“Renewing Political Commitments”) certain trends are already emerging.

  • ·         Early support for Principle 10: Draft Parts I and II recognize the importance of Principle 10, and reaffirm the commitment of countries to achieving implementation (P6  and P17). The US, in one of its first interventions, called for the text to put Principle 10 at the heart of actionable implementation efforts. Brazil spoke of the critical need for the outcome to be relevant to multilateral and national levels, as well as civil society. Delegates from Brazil suggested that improving civil society participation was essential to engage and empower citizens, ensure effective debate, and follow government commitments.
  • ·         Rehashing or Reviving Rio? Some countries feel that this document should not be focused on rehashing the Rio Principles. Delegates from Japan, Australia, and New Zealand advocated that the document confine specific Rio Declaration references to the first two parts, seeking a shorter text and feeling no need to emphasize previously agreed principles. This contrasted sharply with G-77 and EU delegates, all in support of numerous paragraphs referencing the principles specifically in Parts I and II of the draft, making clear that such references should continue throughout the document as they are of particular importance to the second theme of Rio “improving the institutional framework for sustainable development”.
  • ·         Rights based vs. Capacity Building Another debate around Paragraph 18 arose. It currently reads: “We recognize that improved participation of civil society depends upon strengthening the right of access to information and building civil societies’ capacity to exercise this right… In this regard it is essential to work toward universal access to information and communication technologies” Switzerland, Norway, and the EU sought changes to the text to also mention participation and justice. On the other hand, the G-77 and the US have proposed new language to specifically refocus the context of the paragraph. In fact, the US requested deletion of any mention of a right to access information and suggested the following text “building civil society capacity to access and utilize such information.  In this regard, it is essential to work towards improved access to information and communications technologies. This is surprising given the Obama Administration’s avowed policy of open government and open data (i.e., the Open Government Initiative and Open Government Partnership) and the longstanding tradition of providing a legal right to its own citizens to seek information through a freedom of information law.  The G-77 has asked for changes to the text to indicate that, “Improved participation is facilitated by education and elimination of illiteracy and strengthening frameworks and polices to facilitate access to information.”There seems to be continued discomfort within the international community  towards emphasis of a  “rights-based” approach rather seeking a capacity based approach. 

The next two month will be a critical time for civil society to discuss with their governments proposals on revising the text of the Zero Draft. It is hoped that Government will at the next informals have determined how to balance the rights-based and capacity-based approaches to ensure implementation of Principle 10. There is room for compromise and recognition that both these approaches can facilitate greater adoption of principle 10 in regions around the world.  

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