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.
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.
Singapore Principles, 1971
Para 6 of the Declaration of the Commonwealth Principles issued
at the Heads of Government Meeting at Singapore in 1971, states
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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".
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.
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.
disclosure obligations and policies
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association
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.