Australia Refuses to Release Emails With UNESCO

4 August 2016

The government of Australia has declined to release documents concerning the removal of all references in a UN report to damage from climate change to the Great Barrier Reef and other Australian World Heritage sites.

UNESCO subsequently dropped the references after Australian officials argued that mentioning the damage would harm tourism, a development disclosed in May by Michael Slezak in The Guardian.

A request under the Australian freedom of information law for the exchanges between Austrialian and UN officials has been largely rebuffed, according to an article in ClimateHome by Karl Matheisen.

Emails between various government agencies and UNESCO were released, but almost all of the content and names of officials were redacted.

“UNESCO advised that it is their practice not to disclose exchanges of letters or correspondence between the secretariat and its member states, and requested that this type of material not be disclosed pursuant to this FOI request,” said an Australian official, Deb Callister.

Most of the redactions were based on the FOI exemption protecting disclosures that “would or could reasonably be expected to, cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth.” The government also cited privacy concerns in deciding to black out the names of officials.

“UNESCO spokesman George Papagiannis would not comment on the conversations between Callister and the World Heritage Centre and denied that governments have the power to veto the contents of any UNESCO publication,” ClimateHome reported.

Concerning the exemption cited, Australian FOI expert Peter Timmins commented to FreedomInfo.org:

Generally the decision to refuse access is a reflection of shortcomings in the Australian Freedom of Information Act which contains a number of absolute exemptions that do not require consideration of the public interest in disclosure, and the ongoing preference to hide behind the exemptions where something potentially embarrassing is the subject of some probing.

UNESCO’s portfolio also includes advocacy for freedom of information, managed by the Communication and Information branch.

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