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EUROPE ADOPTS CONTENTIOUS TREATY ON ACCESS TO INFORMATION

The Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body, approved a treaty on access to information last week, which ignores serious concerns raised by its own parliament as well as ARTICLE 19 and other rights groups.

The 27 November decision to adopt the Convention on Access to Official Documents took place "without debate" - and rejected concerns raised by the council's Parliamentary Assembly, which had consulted with more than 250 civil society organisations.

"The council's decision to adopt the treaty flies in the face of concerns raised by parliamentarians representing over 800 million people in the 47 member states," said ARTICLE 19. "The council adopted a treaty that is significantly weaker than many existing European laws on the right to access information."

Rights groups say the treaty gives a right of access to information to only a narrow range of public bodies and has an unclear definition of the information to which the right applies. There are no maximum time limits for responding to requests, nor is there an independent appeal process if a request is denied.

The Parliamentary Assembly said the treaty allows "some public bodies to continue operating in the shadows."

ARTICLE 19, Access Info and the Open Society Justice Initiative, groups that have repeatedly called for a stronger treaty, also condemned the lack of transparency around the council's rushed decision to adopt it.

The Council of Europe took a decision on 12 November to reject the assembly's concerns, but did not make its decision public. Council Secretary-General Terry Davis rejected a request for information about the 12 November meeting, saying, "Unfortunately, it is not possible for me to reply to your questions ... Discussions in the Rapporteur Group on Human Rights are held on a confidential basis and the ensuing report is also restricted."

"The refusal violates the very standards that the Council of Europe is promoting with this new Convention," said Access Info. "The refusal fails to indicate any legal basis for withholding the information and does not explain how the rules have been applied in this specific case or how the public interest in the information has been taken into account."

ARTICLE 19, Access Info and the Justice Initiative are now calling for a monitoring body to oversee the Convention and propose amendments that could strengthen a future version of the treaty. See their statement here: http://tinyurl.com/55hfuv

The treaty can be read on the Council for Europe website. See: http://tinyurl.com/6zhojj

For more on the problems with the convention, see: http://www.access-info.org

(3 December 2008)

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