International Day for Universal Access to Information: A new Opportunity to Advance Open Governments!

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On Tuesday, November 17, 2015 the 38th General Conference of UNESCO adopted a resolution declaring September 28th International Day for Universal Access to Information . Sponsored by Angola, Nigeria and Morocco the resolution also:

  1. Invites all Member States, United Nations system organizations, and other international and regional organizations, as well as civil society, including non -governmental organizations and individuals, to celebrate the Day in a manner which each considers most appropriate and without financial implications for the regular budget of UNESCO;
  2. Requests the Director- General of UNESCO to bring this resolution to the attention of the United Nations Secretary – General so that the “International Day for the Universal Access to Information” may also be endorsed by the General Assembly.

What is the Significance of the Day?

The International Day for Universal Access to Information has global, continental and national significance on the transparency and accountability agenda in different ways:

  1. It will positively contribute to realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) whose Goal 16 Target 10 places emphasis on the need for member states to adopt and effectively implement right to information laws. The September 2010 Millennium Development Goals MDG Summit had identified lack of transparency and failed commitments as significant hindrances to the attainment of MDGs .
  2. The number of countries committing to open governments has increased from 8 in 2011 to nearly 70 today. The International Day for Universal Access to Information provides an additional platform to stakeholders at national, continental and global levels to identify challenges and ideas to further open up governments
  3. It will provide an important platform for all stakeholders at national level to discuss the adoption and effective implementation of national right to information laws in line with continental and international standards and obligations. Currently only 17 African Union member states have adopted national right to information laws, even though they are challenged with implementation.

This said, it should be noted that there are many special days on the calendar of United Nations yet they are never celebrated and have not achieved the desired impact. Thus, this development must be seen by civil society and citizens only as an opportunity that is waiting to be exploited.
The Journey to the Resolution

In 2009, a group of African civil society organisations met to review progress the landscape of transparency in Africa especially in light of the fact that it was coming to 20 years since the adoption of Windhoek Declaration by the UNESCO General Conference in 1991.

The results were disturbing. Out of 85 right to information laws in the world, there were five in Africa: South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Ethiopia. In addition, nearly all, existing laws were not only weak in terms of content but faced implementation challenges. The transparency agenda appeared to be a lost cause but the spirit of the Working Group was very much alive. After examining different options it was agreed that UNESCO be lobbied to hold a conference to celebrate 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration in Africa with a view of boosting campaigns for adoption and effective implementation of national right to information laws in Africa.

This goal was late for the campaign as a decision had already been made to hold the event in Washington D.C. It was thus agreed that a pan African conference be held in Africa with similar objectives. It was further agreed that a declaration should be a major outcome of the conference to be used as an advocacy tool for different stakeholders.

Following consultations with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, UNESCO, the African Union Commission, governments and civil society organization, a draft declaration was discussed and adopted by about 1,000 participants at the end of the Pan African Conference on Access to Information held from September 17-19, 2011 in Cape Town, South Africa, within the framework of the Africa Information and Media Summit. This was on the eve of the launch of the Open Government Partnership by 8 Governments.

The APAI Working Group engaged the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights which in turn adopted ACHPR Resolution No. 222 of May 2, 2012 in which the African Union was requested to declare September 28th as International Right to Information Day in Africa
Simultaneously, the APAI Working Group carried out engagements with senior officials of the UNESCO secretariat at its headquarters in Paris and respective permanent delegates to UNESCO as well as the African Union for a similar decision. This outcome has been one of shared responsibility and commitment of the Working Group, governments, our partners, ACHPR and various civil society advocates.

Gilbert Sendugwa
Executive Director
Africa Freedom of Information Centre
Member, APAI Working Group

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