UNESCO Drafting Standard For Disclosure of Information

10 August 2016

By Toby McIntosh

UNESCO, the agency whose portfolio includes advocating for freedom of information laws internationally, is preparing its own FOI policy, according to a UNESCO official.

UNESCO already has some internal rules on what should be confidential, but there is no disclosure policy resembling a national FOI law.

“We … have nothing similar to a right of information law,” said a Department of Public Information official.

The Office of Legal Affairs is now reviewing a draft “access to information policy,” another UNESCO official told FreedomInfo.org, indicating it may be ready in September or October. Whether a public comment period is envisioned is unclear. The UN Environmental Programme adopted a new access policy this year following a public consultation process.

Although UNESCO currently does not provide a clear process for requesting documents, a few openings exist for seekers of modern records.

A semblance of a disclosure policy is laid out in two section of the internal Administrative Manual.

The manual is listed on the website, but is not readily available to the public. FreedomInfo.org found that the page was sometimes “Forbidden” and sometimes offered an enquiry form for outsiders. Freedominfo.org has requested access, but unofficially obtained the two relevant sections concerning transparency: 9.2 “access rules” (text)  and 9.5 “Handling of classified documents.” (text)  The Administrative Manual is also being revised.

UNESCO’s rules describe  a variety of reasons to keep documents confidential: including to protect information submitted in confidence, personal privacy and dialogue with members.

The latter issue came up recently with regard to a UNESCO-Australia matter. The government of Australia 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. A request under the Australian FOI law for the exchanges was largely rebuffed, and an Australian official said UNESCO had discouraged disclosure of exchanges of letters or correspondence between the secretariat and the government. (See FredomInfo.org report.)

Possible Openings for Requesting UNESCO Records

Several possibilities appear to exist to obtain UNESCO records, although the request and decision mechanisms are somewhat obscure.

One opening for a researcher lies in a clause stating that special permission is required from the Secretariat to access anything under 20 years old that is marked “restricted” or “confidential.”

The policy gives the Chief Archivist the power to grant access to documents under 20 years old, provided that the applicant, “who may be required to provide documentary evidence to this effect, has a legitimate interest in the material,” and that “the granting of access would in no way be detrimental to the interests of the Organization.”

The restrictions aren’t defined in the access rules, but more information turns up on the guidance to staff on what constitutes “confidential” information.

UNESCO’s internal guidance on “Handling of Sensitive Information /Documents,” begins with a general policy statement:

UNESCO is committed to an open and transparent disclosure of information.  However, there exist legal, operational and practical considerations pursuant to which, in order to preserve the organization’s interests as well as those of its staff and its various partners, certain information may be restricted.

“Classification principles” are then described:

UNESCO recognizes that sensitive information needs to be protected and restricted from the wider circulation. Information under the following categories is deemed sensitive and meant for restricted circulation:

(a)     Information received from or sent to third parties, under an expectation of confidentiality;

(b)     Information whose disclosure violates individual privacy;

(c)     Information covered by legal privilege, investigation or disciplinary proceedings;

(d)     Information which, if disclosed, in UNESCO’s view would seriously undermine the policy dialogue with Member States or implementing partners.

As for declassification, the rules state:

Confidential documents shall be declassified when the information they contain ceases to meet the standards of confidential information.

The policy also says:

Unless otherwise decided by the authority who originally classified it, documents and other material classified as “Confidential” will be automatically declassified five years after the date of first distribution.

The policy sets out rules on who should designate documents as confidential and how to handle them.

Other Sources of UNESCO Information

The most obvious place to look for UNESCO documents would seem to be UNESCO’s Transparency Portal.

But despite its name, the Transparency Portal is only for UNESCO financial data. As described on the website, “The platform publishes data (projects that were financially active in 2015) in accordance with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Activity Standard.”

The portal’s “About” page contains a broad statement committing UNESCO to transparency:

Public access to information is a key component of UNESCO’s commitment to transparency and its accountability vis-à-vis stakeholders. UNESCO recognizes that there is a positive correlation between a high level of transparency through information sharing and public participation in UNESCO-supported activities.

The portal also links to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, another resource. It is described as “the primary source for cross-nationally comparable statistics on education, science and technology, culture, and communication for more than 200 countries and territories.”

UNESDOC is the page for finding USECO publications. The page lists the top 10 most consulted documents from the past eight days. There are basic, advanced and expert search options.

Indeed the page titled “Search in UNESDOC,” is a place to begin looking for reports, speeches, and other documents.

There’s a link to “Administrative documents” with search options and links to Circular Letters, Depository Letters and Director General’s Ivory Notes (Restricted to UNESCO staff and Delegations as of February 2014).

Another set of links concerns UNESCO’s governing bodies. Here you can find the documents prepared for the General Conference, such as the one held in November, 2015. There are minutes for meetings of subgroups, for example, of a June 2016 meeting on UNESCO governance. The agenda is broad, with discussions about voting, meeting frequency and other topics, but one paragraph hints at concerns about internal transparency, stating:

Two Member States called for more transparency in the work of the Bureau of the General Conference, and asked that minutes of the meeting of the Bureau be distributed to all Member States. The Secretariat informed that the President of the General Conference reports to the Plenary immediately after each meeting of the Bureau.

Other links (on the Working Tools page) are for Administrative Manual (for which you apparently need to make a request) and to two pages: the Human Resources Manual and Circulars.

The page guides readers to UNESDOC and suggests:

To obtain printed publications as well as stamps, coins and other UNESCO-related gifts, you can visit the bookshop at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris or purchase online at UNESCO Publishing.


At the bottom of the page is an “enquiry form.”

The UNESDOC page, despite it many buttons, doesn’t appear to include a policy on documents are to be disclosed, or how to request them.

Promisingly, the Contacts link includes this entry

For any bibliographic information or information on accessibility of restricted titles E-mail: library(a)unesco.org

The Library page itself offers many possibilities, but a virtual stroll down one avenue suggests it is outdated. The link entitled “Communications and Information resources” includes a category for “official documents”– strategy documents, programme documents and meeting documents. However, there are no documents more recent than 2013.

Another promising sounding page, Open Access Publications, has a nice logo saying “open access” but the point of the page is to link to major publications, with the explanation:

You are encouraged to download, copy, translate any publication below and use it free of charge, as long as the original author is given credit for the original creation. No prior permission is required to do so.

There’s a link to a the “Open Access Policy,” approved in 2013, that “grants an irrevocable right of access to copy, use, distribute, transmit and make derivative works in any format within certain constraints. It applies to all UNESCO Publications published from July 31, 2013.

This is a publication policy, not an open access policy.

The UNESCO Archives page describes vast holdings“ more than 10,000 linear meters of occupied shelving of textual records and documents, photographs, sound recordings and 120,000 microfiches.” A catalogue page describes the holdingsat a very general level.”

The Archives has indexed and scanned UNESCO documents since the creation of the Organization in 1945 – more than 150,000 documents are therefore available full text in UNESDOC. The UNESCO History project was launched in 2004.

The Global Open Access Portal presents a current snapshot of the status of Open Access (OA) to scientific information in 158 countries worldwide.


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Filed under: IFTI Watch


In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
Contact: freeinfo@gwu.edu or
1-(703) 276-7748