Report of the Special Rapporteur to the General Assembly on Access to Information in International Organizations

The Special Rapporteur’s 2017 report to the United Nations General Assembly is now online

The workings of international organizations, including the United Nations, are deeply opaque to most people. Apart from the work of their highest profile bodies, what they do and how they do it is largely hidden from public view. In such an environment, how does information of legitimate interest to the public get disclosed? How does the general public, including citizens, students, journalists, scholars, activists, parliamentarians and even representatives of Member States, keep track of how the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations operate and how international civil servants comply with their obligation? What standards do international officials rely upon when deciding whether to withhold information? In general, how do intergovernmental organizations ensure their own compliance with the human rights norm guaranteeing everyone the right to seek and receive information of all kinds, especially information held by public authorities?

To address these questions, the Special Rapporteur presents the purposes underlying the right to freedom of information and the legal framework upon which the right is based. The Special Rapporteur subsequently identifies and evaluates the key elements of an access-to-information policy, before proposing concrete steps that international organizations should take to ensure openness and to establish policies and infrastructure that not only provide information of all kinds but also promote such requests. The report furthermore contains recommendations to Member States, civil society and media on how they can encourage and promote access to information in international organizations.  

The report’s key recommendations include:

International organizations, especially the United Nations:

  • Begin the process of adopting rigorous access to information policies. At a minimum, organizations should identify and appoint Access to Information Focal Points who can coordinate the adoption process. I specifically encourage the UN Secretary General to appoint the director of the Department of Public Information to lead such an effort on an urgent basis.
  • Develop a multi-stakeholder process to engage civil society, including the media, and Member States to identify the key elements of an access policy;
  • Consult with those organizations that already have active access to information policies, such as UNEP and UNDP, to understand their processes and any lessons they may impart;
  • Ensure that policies include the main elements identified above, in particular proactive, clear, searchable and secure disclosures; comprehensive policies with binding rules; clear rules about what information may be withheld; effective complaint and appeals mechanisms; strong implementation, review and monitoring systems; and independent whistleblowing protections.

For the political bodies of the UN, especially the General Assembly and Human Rights Council, and other IOs:

  • Promote the adoption of access to information policies through resolutions and other governance mechanisms;
  • Ensure the development of monitoring and oversight functions;
  • Provide comprehensive information concerning organizational governance mechanisms, including election and selection or appointment processes, and broader and simpler accreditation of organizations to participate in and monitor organizational activities;
  • Promote knowledge of access to information policies, including through clarity on websites and active dissemination and promotion of those policies to staff and stakeholders.

Member States

  • Encourage IOs to adopt access to information policies that meet the standards identified in this report;
  • Participate actively in the development of policies that advance everyone’s right to freedom of information;
  • Focus on ensuring the broadest possible access to information, only seeking to protect from disclosure State-generated information that could be withheld under international human rights law, in particular Article 19(3) of the ICCPR.

Civil Society, Media and Members of the Public

  • Engage directly, and seek a formal role, with IOs in the process of development of access to information policies, including by identifying for them the key areas of interest in information;
  • Make requests for information from IOs as soon as possible, even before the development of access policies, in order to determine the way in which they currently handle such formal requests;
  • Share information with other organizations and with the Special Rapporteur about the experience of engaging with IOs in the development of access policies.

Submissions to the report:

Submissions from intergovernmental organizations

Submissions from civil society, academia and others