Freedom of Information is a Human Right, UN Body Says

Access to government information is a human right, according to a commentary issued today by the United Nations' Human Rights Committee. The comment is the most comprehensive statement to date embracing freedom of information as integral to human rights under international law.

On July 21, the committee adopted General Comment 34, detailing its interpretation of governments' obligations to protect freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The United States is one of the 167 states party to the ICCPR, which is considered part of the "international bill of human rights." However, the comment's direct impact on U.S. law will be minimal, as Congress prevented the ICCPR from having any real power when ratifying it.

Nevertheless, the Human Rights Committee's authoritative statement is a reminder of the imperative of transparency, which it calls "essential for the promotion and protection of human rights." Access to government information, which the committee considers an element of freedom of expression, is an "indispensable condition[] for the full development of the person" and "the foundation stone for every free and democratic society."

The comment also details the steps to be taken by governments to realize the right to information. In my view, three aspects of these obligations are particularly important:

Proactive disclosure: Governments "should proactively put in the public domain Government information of public interest" and "make every effort to ensure easy, prompt, effective and practical access to such information."

Presumption of openness: "[T]he relation between right and restriction and between norm and exception must not be reversed."

Minimal restrictions: "Restrictions must not be overbroad… they must be the least intrusive instrument amongst those which might achieve their protective function." In particular, national security secrecy laws cannot be used to "suppress or withhold from the public information of legitimate public interest that does not harm national security."

The committee is to be commended for its work on the comment, as are the many non-governmental organizations and experts who provided their feedback over the past two years of drafting. Even without an immediate effect on U.S. law, at a time when the Obama administration is looking abroad to strengthen its transparency agenda, the comment is a welcome addition that can help point the way forward.

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