OGP Steering Committee OKs Civic Space Plan “in Principle”

16 May 2014

The Open Government Partnership Steering Committee May 5 agreed “in principle” to procedures that could lead to the expulsion of member governments whose actions undermine the values and principles of OGP.

The OGP leaders deferred adoption, however, pending refinement of the language, according to persons who attended the meeting and spoke not for attribution with FreedomInfo.org. The official minutes are expected out shortly.

The policy is aimed to preserving “civic space” consistent with the overall values of the OGP, which among other things champion citizen engagement in the development of the national action plans. Quite a few countries were criticized for inadequate consultation, but the policy was prompted by more serious allegations of repression.

The usual example is Russia, which dropped out of the OGP in 2013. OGP officials are reluctant to identify member countries about which concerns have been expressed, but Azerbaijan has been mentioned.

A civic space policy was the first priority listed in a statement issued May 4 by civil society organization who gathered in Bali for the OGP regional meeting. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

The representatives of civil society organizations on the OGP Steering Committee, who have equal representation with governments, began urging a pressed for a policy on civic space at the Steering Committee in London in October 2013. The topic was assigned to the Criteria and Standards subcommittee.

The resulting proposal is called the “rapid response” plan, although the proposed path to possible sanction would take many months. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) While expulsion from the OGP is the ultimate possible sanction, the proposed system emphasizes engagement with the criticized government to encourage improvements.

Concern About Examples

The Steering Committee discussion indicated fundamental support for the committee plan, but some concerns about its specific language, which has been circulated only a week beforehand. The agenda and draft recommendations are on the OGP website.

Specifically, there was concern about examples given as illustrative of behavior that might warrant OGP concern. One source said the goal is the “tighten” the language to make it stronger. Another said there was discussion about how necessary the specific examples are.

The committee wrote:

The types of issues that may form a relevant complaint:

Over time the Criteria and Standards subcommittee will build up a body of evidence, precedent and yardsticks for what issues should be considered relevant to OGP. Criteria and Standards will in time publish guidelines on what complaints are deemed sufficiently relevant for consideration. In the initial implementation of this policy the subcommittee will need to adopt a flexible, case-by-case approach to complaints. Some of the types of issues that have been previously raised in complaints to the Steering Committee as damaging to the OGP process in a country include:

  • Harassment and intimidation of civil society.
  • Manipulation of the OGP process in terms of civil society participation.
  • Introduction of new/revised policies, practices or significant incidents that reduce fundamental freedoms, notably freedom of expression and protest, freedom to organize professional organization.
  • Introduction of new/revised policies or significant incidents that reduce the space for non-governmental organizations to work independently, voice critique, and/or receive funding (e.g. new NGO laws).
  • Introduction of new/revised policies or significant incidents that reduce online or offline media freedom, or threaten media ownership and independence.
  • Introduction of new/revised policies or significant incidents that reduce access to information for citizens and civil society.

Complaints Policy Discussed

Another area of discussion was about who can bring a complaint. The committee offered a broad policy, allowing complaints to be brought by Steering Committee members and others, including “a civil society or not-for-profit organization involved in OGP at the national or international level.”

Once registered, the complaint will be reviewed the Criteria and Standards subcommittee, working with the OGP Support Unit, to establish what – if any – action should be taken. The policy provides some standards for the review and the government will be given an opportunity to respond.

The OGP support unit will prepare a short report for the subcommittee to consider adopting, all within 20 working days.

“Once a complaint is upheld by the Criteria and Standards subcommittee, a short notice will be circulated to the OGP Steering Committee informing the group of the decision,” the subcommittee said. After that, various “stage 1” intervention possibilities are offered, to be carried out by members of the subcommittee, the OGP co-chairs, the OGP Support Unit and other interested Steering Committee members, without the approval of the full Steering Committee. They are:

  1. Engage in or broker diplomatic outreach to the government concerned at the official and/or political level, including from the co-chairs.
  2. Write an official letter to the OGP point of contact in the country informing them that the Criteria and Standards subcommittee adopted the report on the complaint (the point of contact will already have been informed by the Support Unit that a complaint was being investigated).
  3. Offer technical assistance to work on the issues raised in the complaint.
  4. Contact multilateral partners active in the country to help address the issues raised in the complaint.
  5. Invite the OGP point of contact in the country to work with the Criteria and Standards subcommittee in establishing a work plan and a timeline for the country to address the situation, where applicable.

If stage 1 interventions “have failed to have the desired impact, or the situation does not improve even after the establishment of a work plan and a timeline where applicable, the Criteria and Standards subcommittee can recommend to the full OGP Steering Committee that the following stage 2 interventions take place:

  1. Recommend the OGP co-chairs author a letter warning of imminent suspension.
  2. Recommend that the OGP co-chairs invite the government principal to attend a special session of the Steering Committee to discuss the situation and review participation in OGP.
  3. Recommend that a special session of the Steering Committee deliberate on the need to suspend the government from participating in OGP until the complaint has been addressed.”
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