To its credit, the Commonwealth has recognised the fundamental importance of the right to access information on a number of occasions. As far back as 1980, the Commonwealth Law Ministers declared in the Barbados Communique that "public participation in the democratic and governmental process was at its most meaningful when citizens had adequate access to official information." Collective policy statements since then have encouraged member countries to "regard freedom of information as a legal and enforceable right." The Commonwealth Secretariat has even prepared guidelines and a model law on the subject.
Despite strong commitments to openness and transparency, the Official Commonwealth itself however, has failed to lead member states by example in the area of information sharing. The Commonwealth Secretariat does not have a comprehensive disclosure policy in place - other than a rule requiring release of certain documents after thirty years. Despite some welcome good practice at recent meetings of its officials, the Official Commonwealth continues to hesitate to engage civil society in its working or functions.
Commonwealth Singapore Principles, 1971
Para 6 of the Declaration of the Commonwealth Principles issued at the Heads of Government Meeting at Singapore in 1971, states that:
We believe in the liberty of the individual, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief, and in their inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which they live. We therefore strive to promote in each of our countries those representative institutions and guarantees for personal freedom under the law that are our common heritage.
Commonwealth Law Ministers' Barbados Communique, 1980
The Paragraphs 24 and 25 of the Communique address Freedom of Information.
Ministers expressed the view that public participation was at its most meaningful when citizens had adequate access to official information. At the same time they recognised that this was necessary to strike a balance between the individual's right to know against the government's need, in the wider public interest, to withhold certain information from disclosure. This issue had to be addressed in developing any "Freedom of Information" legislation...
Report of the Expert Group Meeting on the Right to Know and the Promotion of Democracy and Development, 1999
The Report built on the statements of the Law Ministers in Barbados and drew on the values enshrined in the 1991 Harare Declaration. The Report contained a strong set of Principles and Guidelines as well as key statements regarding the value of the right.
Freedom of information has many benefits. It facilitates public participation in public affairs by providing access to relevant information to the people who are then empowered to make informed choices and better exercise their democratic rights. It enhances the accountability of government, improves decision-making, provides better information to elected representatives, enhances government credibility with its citizens, and provides a powerful aid in the fight against corruption. It is also a key livelihood and development issue, especially in situations of poverty and powerlessness.
Commonwealth Freedom of Information Principles, 1999
The Commonwealth Freedom of Information Principles were based on the recommendations in the 1999 Report of the Expert Group. Unfortunately, the final Principles endorsed by the Commonwealth Law Ministers at their Meeting in 1999 in Trinidad and Tobago were less comprehensive and progressive than the Principles and Guidelines submitted by the Expert Group. The Principles were noted by the Commonwealth Heads of Government at their Durban Meeting in 1999. CHOGM recognised the importance of public access to official information, both in promoting transparency and accountable governance and in encouraging the full participation of citizens in the democratic process.
The Commonwealth Freedom of Information Principles state that:
- Member countries should be encouraged to regard freedom of information as a legal and enforceable right.
- There should be a presumption in favour of disclosure and Governments should promote a culture of openness.
- The right of access to information may be subject to limited exemptions but these should be narrowly drawn.
- Government should maintain and preserve records.
- In principle, decisions to refuse access to records and information should be subject to independent review.
CHOGM Aso Rock Declaration 2003
Paragraph 7 of the Aso Rock Declaration issued at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Abuja, Nigeria in 2003 states:
"we commit ourselves to make democracy work better for pro-poor development by implementing sustainable development programmes and enhancing democratic institutions and processes in all human endeavours. We recognise that building democracy is a constantly evolving process. It must also be uncomplicated and take into account national circumstances. Among the objectives we seek to promote are...vi. the right to information".
Commonwealth Model Law
To assist member countries which have yet to enact laws providing for access to information, the Commonwealth Secretariat prepared a draft model Bill for examination by Senior Officials, drawing on the laws in existence in various member countries and reflecting the principles adopted by Ministers.
Note: Many of the laws upon which the model annexed to this paper draws, establish an office of Information Commissioner. The Bill did not do so on the basis that small island states and developing countries often experience human resource constraints which would make the staffing of such a position difficult. It was the view of the Secretariat that freedom of information legislation can work in small countries without the assistance of a dedicated officer. However, CHRI maintains that an independent oversight body is essential to any FOI system, and, even if not embodied in a dedicated agency, can still be fulfilled by a body such as the National Ombudsman.
Commonwealth disclosure obligations and policies
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is an association of parliamentarians and legislators from across the Commonwealth concerned with issues of good governance, democracy, gender, youth and human rights. In recent times, the CPA has taken a keen interest in promoting the right to information as a key issue amongst countries of the Commonwealth. In July 2004, in partnership with the World Bank Institute and the Parliament of Ghana, the CPA convened a Study Group on Access to Information for this purpose.