More Links in News & Events

Next Steps in the Right of Access to Information in the Americas

A Q&A with Laura Neuman, associate director of the Carter Center's Americas Program and the access to information project manager

Although about one half of all the countries in the Americas now have some form of access to information legislation, and almost all of the remaining countries are considering establishing a statutory right to information, there remain a number of critical challenges. In many countries, implementation and enforcement of the law has been weak. In other places there are signs of backsliding where once vibrant laws are now politicized or ineffectual; and in all cases there is a need to broaden and deepen the usage of the right to information.

Carter Center photo Attendees of the Carter Center's regional right of access to information conference, which was held April 28-30, 2009, in Lima, Peru.

Q: What is the movement toward change in the Americas?

In 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that access to public information is a fundamental human right. This ruling was the first of its kind by a regional or international Court. The Court found that the state must ensure mechanisms for guaranteeing the right of access to information, with openness as the guiding principle, and it called for the establishment of effective procedures, including training to public servants, to ensure the citizens' abilities to exercise this critical right. Following this decision, Chile passed a freedom of information law, which went into effect on April 20, 2009. 2009 also saw the Guatemala and Cayman Islands access to information laws begin. But as we know, passing a law is only the first step. As the Court case found, governments also must establish procedures and fully implement the law, and people must begin to make requests and use the information in order for all of the benefits of this right – fight against corruption, better governance, increased development, etc. – to be enjoyed.

Q: What is the Carter Center's role in promoting the right of access to information in the Americas?

The Carter Center has been working to promote the right of access to information for almost a decade. Beginning in Jamaica in 1999, we helped inform the debate about the value of access to information and provided observations to help strengthen their proposed legislation. Following the passage of the law, we provided support to the government as it met the challenges of implementing the law and with civil society to use the new right. Using this model as a framework, we developed programming in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Mali. The Carter Center seeks to support all stakeholders – government, civil society, media, and private sector – as they work to establish and exercise the right of access to information. We provide advice and technical assistance based on the international experiences and share lessons learned across countries and regions. Most recently we have served a convening role. In February 2008, we brought together 125 leaders in the area of access to information from 40 countries to explore the challenges and consider solutions. This conference culminated in the Atlanta Declaration and Plan of Action for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information. Last month, from April 28-30, 2009, The Carter Center in collaboration with the Organization of American States, the Andean Commission of Jurists, and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, held a similar conference in Lima, Peru. The Americas Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information, using the Atlanta Declaration as a basis, sought to contextualize the specific issues facing the Americas and agree upon a roadmap for future action.

Q: Give me an example of why access to information is needed in the Americas.

As the old saying goes, "information is power," and without access to information a person cannot act to improve the life of their family, community, or country. In Mexico, the vast majority of people using the right to information law were young, urban men. To expand the user pool, the Federal Information Commission (IFAI) began a project called Comunidades (Communities). The project operated in nine states in partnership with local organizations and sought to raise awareness about the right of access to information, its value, and how the law can be used with a particular emphasis on indigenous populations, women, and people living on less than US$2/day. The results were notable. There were countless examples of how these populations, once armed with the right of access to information, were able to exercise their rights to housing, education and health care. For example, according to IFAI accounts, poor women in the state of Veracruz used access to information requests to learn that their names were on the lists of beneficiaries for health and housing programs -benefits they have never received. They also identified men on the list of beneficiaries for Pap smears and mammograms, while they were being denied this care. These women are now pressing for the benefits to which they are entitled.

Q: What is the significance of the World Bank's inclusion of our conference participants for the consultation on the draft disclosure policy?

The International Financial Institutions (IFIs) are the largest source of development financing in the world. The IFIs, including the World Bank, regional development banks, and the IMF lend between US$40-50 billion annually to low- and middle-income countries, money that must be paid back often with interest. Yet, much of the information regarding this lending and the obligations that it imposes upon the governments and citizens of these recipient states remain secret. Many documents remain confidential or are released only after the commitments are made. The World Bank has redrafted its policy and is in the process of sharing the draft provisions and seeking comments and recommendations. The Bank hopes to hold 30 public consultations around the world. Originally, the only consultation scheduled for the Southern Cone was in Argentina. But in consideration of the great number of regional experts that The Carter Center conference was convening, the Bank decided to hold a consultation regarding their new draft policy the first day of our conference and include any of our participants that were interested. The consultation was chaired by the World Bank's director for Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela and there were more than 75 people in attendance. The recommendations and suggestions from our participants have been sent directly to the president of the World Bank and the committee responsible for the draft policy, and we hope will influence the final product to be more in line with the principles of the Atlanta Declaration.

Carter Center photo President Carter gives remarks at the Carter Center's regional right of access to information conference in Lima, Peru.

Q: What impact has the Atlanta Declaration had so far?

The Atlanta Declaration, issued at the conclusion of the Carter Center's international conference in February 2008, has been widely disseminated and used. President Carter personally sent it to all heads of state and major organizations, such as the United Nations, Organization of American States, African Union, World Bank, and regional development banks. The Declaration was sent to the Council of Europe in advance of their finalizing a treaty on the right of access to information, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and was used as the basis for the Organization of American States "Recommendations on Access to Information," which was endorsed by the General Assembly. The principles and findings of the Atlanta Declaration have been cited by governments, including Canada, Australia, Sierra Leone, and Bolivia, was shared with the Obama Administration as they sought to reinforce the Freedom of Information Act, and mentioned in countless newspaper articles, Web sites, scholarly papers, and blogs. The Declaration is available in six languages.

Read the Americas Regional Findings and Plan of Action in English or Spanish (PDF) >>

Read Access to Information: A Fundamental Right, by Laura Neuman (February 2008)

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top