Climate Change Gets Its Day in Court

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Opinion

Credit: Save the Children Vanuatu/Facebook

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, May 25 2023 (IPS) – As a matter of global justice, the climate crisis has rightfully made its way to the world’s highest court.

On 29 March 2023, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously adopted a resolution asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on the obligations of states on climate change. The initiative was led by the Pacific Island state of Vanuatu, one of several at risk of disappearing under rising sea levels. It was co-sponsored by 132 states and actively supported by networks of grassroots youth groups from the Pacific and around the world.


Civil society’s campaign

In 2019, a group of law students from the University of the South Pacific formed Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), a regional organisation with national chapters in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. PISFCC advocated with the Pacific Island Forum – the key regional body – to put the call for an ICJ opinion on its agenda. The government of Vanuatu announced it would seek this in September 2021, and Pacific civil society organisations (CSOs) formed an alliance – the Alliance for a Climate Justice Advisory Opinion – that has since grown to include CSOs and many others from around the world, including UN Special Rapporteurs and global experts.

The campaign made heavy use of social media, with people sharing their stories on the impacts of climate change and emphasising the importance of an ICJ opinion to help support calls for climate action, including climate litigation. It organised globally, sharing a toolkit used by activists around the world, and took to the streets locally. In Vanuatu, where it all started, children demonstrated in September 2022 to call attention to the impacts of climate change as their country’s single greatest development threat and express support for the call for an ICJ opinion.

In the run-up to the UNGA session that adopted the historic resolution, thousands of CSOs from around the world supported a letter calling for governments to back the vote.

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The ICJ’s role

The ICJ is made up of 15 judges elected by the UNGA and UN Security Council. It settles legal disputes between states and provides advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by other parts of the UN system.

The questions posed to the ICJ aim to clarify the obligations of states under international law to protect the climate system and environment from human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. They also ask about the legal responsibilities of states that have caused significant environmental harm towards other states, particularly small islands, and towards current and future generations.

To provide its advisory opinion, the ICJ will have to interpret states’ obligations as outlined in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreement as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a variety of international covenants and treaties. It may consider previous UNGA resolutions on climate change, such as the recent one recognising access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right, and other resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council and reports by the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and its independent human rights experts. It may also take into account decisions by UN treaty bodies and its own jurisprudence on climate and environmental matters.

Next steps

According to its statute, the ICJ can seek written statements from states or international organisations likely to have relevant information on the issue at hand. On 20 April, it communicated its decision to treat the UN and all its member states as ‘likely to be able to furnish information on the questions submitted to the Court’ and gave them six months to submit written statements, after which they will have three months to make written comments on statements made by other states or organisations.

Civil society doesn’t have any right to submit formal statements, so climate activists are urging as many people as possible to advocate towards their governments to make strong submissions that will lead to a progressive ICJ opinion. After submissions close, the ICJ is likely to take several months to deliberate, so its opinion may be expected at some point in 2024, likely towards the end of the year.

Advisory opinions aren’t binding. They don’t impose obligations on states. But they shape the global understanding of states’ obligations under international law and can motivate states to show their compliance with rising standards. An ICJ opinion could positively influence climate negotiations, pushing forward long-delayed initiatives on funding for loss and damage. It could encourage states to make more ambitious pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It might also help raise awareness of the particular risks faced by small island states and provide arguments in favour of stronger climate action, helping climate advocates gain ground within governments.

A progressive advisory opinion could also help support domestic climate litigation: research shows that domestic courts are increasingly inclined to cite ICJ opinions and other sources of international law, including when it comes to determining climate issues.

The risk can’t be ruled out of a disappointing ICJ opinion merely reiterating the content of existing climate treaties without making any progress on states’ obligations. But climate activists find reasons to expect much more: many see this as a unique opportunity, brought about by their own persistent efforts, to advance climate justice and push for action that meets the scale of the crisis.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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USAID Offers Protection to Journalists & NGOs Facing Defamation Lawsuits

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, May 12 2023 (IPS)

The world’s news media — both under authoritarian regimes and democratic governments– continue to come under relentless attacks and political harassment.


“Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy and justice. It gives all of us the facts we need to shape opinions and speak truth to power. But in every corner of the world, freedom of the press is under attack,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on World Press Freedom Day May 3.

Journalists and media workers, he said, are directly targeted on and offline as they carry out their vital work. They are routinely harassed, intimidated, detained and imprisoned.

At least 67 media workers were killed in 2022 — a 50 per cent increase over the previous year. Nearly three quarters of women journalists have experienced violence online, and one in four have been threatened physically, according to the UN.

But there is also an increase in non-physical attacks, including defamation lawsuits against media organizations challenging their legitimate right to free expression.

The Washington-based US Agency for International Development (USAID) last week launched Reporters Shield, a new membership program that protects journalists around the world– who report in the public interest– from defamation lawsuits and legal threats.

Established as a U.S.-based nonprofit organization by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, Reporters Shield has been described as “a first-of-its-kind global program that defends investigative reporting around the world from legal threats meant to silence critical voices”.

USAID, which has a long history of fostering the growth of independent media across the world, plans to work with Congress to contribute up to $9 million in seed funding for this groundbreaking new program to support media outside the United States, according to a May 2 press release.

In a statement released last week, USAID said investigative journalists and civil society organizations reporting in the public interest are increasingly facing lawsuits that aim to harass and silence them by burdening them with the cost and time of a legal defense until they abandon their stories or go out of business entirely.

Reporters Shield will help to reduce these risks through training and pre-publication review, as well as funding legal representation to fight lawsuits and other legal actions meant to intimidate and financially burden reporters.

In order to keep the program sustainable, member organizations participating in Reporters Shield will pay reasonable annual fees that are based on a variation of factors, including location of the outlet and how many stories they produce a year.

“To be considered for membership in Reporters Shield, an organization must be legally registered and focus primarily in news, public interest, and/or investigative reporting; publish reporting in print and/or online; have non-profit status or transparent ownership; be independent from political, commercial, or other undue influence or interference; and have editorial independence and adhere to professional editorial standards”.

Reporters Shield is accepting applications worldwide and will be reviewing them in a phased approach, with some regions receiving benefits in the coming months, and others added later this year and in 2024.

Interested organizations can find more information and apply for membership by visiting reporters-shield.org.

The development of Reporters Shield has been supported by the generous pro bono legal support of the law firms of Proskauer, Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer PC, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP.

www.usaid.gov/democracy/reporters-shield.

Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations (CSOs), told IPS “these are hard times for media freedoms due to disinformation and attacks on civic space spurred by deepening authoritarianism, denigration of democracy through populism and consolidation of wealth by oligarchs”.

Uncovering serious human rights violations and high-level corruption, he pointed out, is becoming increasingly dangerous and costly for investigative journalists and civil society activists.

When few companies are ready to sign the Anti- Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) pledge and crafty politicians are busy undermining the independence of judiciaries, this initiative comes at a critical time,” he declared.

According to the Anti-SLAPP pledge by Global Citizen, an international education and advocacy organization, strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, are not a legitimate business strategy for companies.

“The private sector thrives in functioning democratic societies, where the right to freedom of expression is a respected bedrock principle and where everyone can express their views without fear of intimidation or reprisal”.

“Lawsuits and legal tactics meant to silence civil organizations and human rights defenders aren’t just bad for societies, they’re also damaging to companies. When companies stifle free expression, they limit their ability to manage risk related to their operations and global supply chains.”

As companies that are committed to operating in societies where people are able to exercise fundamental rights, said Global Citizen, “we pledge to: define Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, as both lawsuits and legal tactics that are designed to silence critics and abridge citizens’ ability to exercise fundamental rights.”

— Refrain from engaging in SLAPPs against human rights and environmental defenders and civil society organizations that support affected rights-holders.

— Recognize the critical role that civil society organizations and human rights defenders play in creating a profitable enabling environment for the private sector.

— Encourage partners and suppliers within our value chain to refrain from engaging in SLAPPs to silence legitimate activism.

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


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Parliamentarians Ask G7 Hiroshima Summit to Support Human Security and Vulnerable Communities

Parliamentarians attending the Global Conference of Parliamentarians on Population and Development Toward the 2023 G7 Hiroshima Summit. Credit: APDA

Parliamentarians attending the Global Conference of Parliamentarians on Population and Development Toward the 2023 G7 Hiroshima Summit. Credit: APDA

By Cecilia Russell
JOHANNESBURG, May 9 2023 (IPS)

Parliamentarians from more than 30 countries agreed to send a strong message to the G7 Hiroshima Summit in Japan later this year, focusing on human security and support of vulnerable communities, including women, girls, youth, aging people, migrants, and indigenous people, among others.


The wide-ranging declaration also called on governments to support active political and economic participation for women and girls, enhancing and implementing legislation that addresses gender-based violence (GBV) and eradicating harmful practices like child, early, and forced marriages. During discussions and in the declaration, a clear message emerged that budgetary requirements for Universal Health Care (UHC) should be prioritized and the exceptional work done by health workers during the pandemic be recognized.

In his keynote address, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio reminded delegates that Covid-19 had exposed the “fragility of the global health architecture and underscored the need for UHC.”

Kishida said that the central vision of the G7 Hiroshima Summit was to emphasize the importance of addressing human security – through building global health architecture, including the “governance for prevention, preparedness, and response to public health crises, including finance. We believe it is important for the G7 to actively and constructively contribute to efforts to improve international governance, secure sustainable financing and strengthen international norms.”

Apart from contributing to resilient, equitable, and sustainable UHC, health innovation was needed to promote a “more effective global ecosystem to enable rapid research and development and equitable access to infectious disease crisis medicines … and to support aging society,” Kishida said.

Former Prime Minister of Japan Fukuda Yasuo, Chair of APDA, and Honorary Chair of JPFP said this conference and its declaration would follow in a tradition of delivering strong messages to the G7 that improving reproductive health was crucial to the development and the future of a planet which now had 8 million people living on it.

“International Community is becoming increasingly confrontational and divided, and there is the emergence of a national leader who is threatening the use of nuclear weapons. No nuclear weapons have been used in the nearly 80 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We must work together to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, which can take many precious lives and people’s daily lives. In this instance, I would like you to search for the path toward appeasement and not division. We must keep all channels of dialogue open so as to ease tension,” Fukuda asked of the conference.

While calling on parliamentarians to work together to address challenges, Fukuda also expressed concern about the widening inequities caused by Covid-19 and climate change and noted: “This network of parliamentarians on population and development has been a vital resource for parliamentarians who share the same concern for not only their own countries but for the entire planet and future generations.”

Kamikawa Yoko, MP Japan, Chair of JPFP, said that with a world population of 8 billion, it was essential to “realize a society where no one is left behind … and Japan would share its experiences of being on the frontlines of an aging society with declining birth rates. “We are living in an aging society … and given these challenges in Japan, we will try to share with you our experience and lessons through our diplomacy while trying to deepen our discussions and exchanges to seek solutions.”

Japan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa said it was essential for all to cooperate during the “Anthropocene era, when human activities have promised to have a major impact on the global environment, global issues that transcend national borders, such as climate change, and the spread of infectious diseases, including Covid-19 are becoming more and more prevalent.”

He reminded the delegates that at the center of Japan’s economic growth post World War II was mainly through health promotion and employment policies.

Delegates of the Global Conference of Parliamentarians on Population and Development Toward the 2023 G7 Hiroshima Summit agreed to send a strong message on human security to the Summit. Credit: APDA

Delegates of the Global Conference of Parliamentarians on Population and Development Toward the 2023 G7 Hiroshima Summit agreed to send a strong message on human security to the Summit. Credit: APDA

Director of the Division for Communications and Strategic Partnerships of UNFPA, Ian McFarlane, said it was not about the “numbers of people but the rights of the people that matter. It’s not about whether we are too many or too few, but whether women and girls can decide if, when, and how many children to have.”

A recent UNFPA report indicated that nearly half of the women across the globe could not exercise their rights and choices, their bodily autonomy, and expressed hope that policies in the future continue to focus on humanity and universal human rights.

Despite being close to the 30th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the conference heard that much still needed to be done regarding women’s rights.

New Zealand MP and co-chair of AFPPD Standing Committee on Gender Equality and Women Empowerment, Angela Warren-Clark, reminded the audience that women still only held 26 percent of parliamentarian seats globally. While women make up 70 percent of the workforce in the health sector, only 25 percent have senior leadership positions.

“It is women in this pandemic who bore the increased burden of unpaid work at home as schools were closed, and it is girls and the poorest families who were taken out of school and forced into early marriages … We believe that if women had an equal say in decision-making during the pandemic, some of these mistakes would have been avoided.”

Baroness Elizabeth Barker, MP from the United Kingdom, told parliamentarians their role was to ensure that “no person on earth, from the head of G7 country to a poor person in a village, can say that they do not know what gender equality is. And they do not know what gender violence is.”

Barker suggested they use international standards, like the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women, to compare countries. “And you know that if your country doesn’t come out very well, they really don’t like it.”

She pointed to two successes in the UK, including stopping virginity testing and tackling the practice of forced marriages. She also warned the delegates that there was a right-wing campaign aimed at destroying human rights gained, and they chose different battlegrounds. The overturning of abortion rights in the United States in the Roe vs. Wade case was an example, as was the anti-LGBTQ legislation in Uganda.

Hassan Omar, MP from Djibouti, gave a host of achievements in his country, including ensuring that women occupy 25 percent roles in politics and the state administration and the growing literacy of women numbers in his country.

Risa Hontiveros, MP Philippines, painted a bleak picture of the impact of Covid in her country.

Hontiveros said GBV increased during Covid and extended to the digital space.

“The Internet has become a breeding ground for predators and cyber criminals to prey on children, especially young women, and girls. The online sexual abuse and exploitation of children … has become so prevalent in the Philippines that we have been tagged as the global hotspot.”

In a desperate attempt to provide for their families, even parents produced “exploitative material of their own children and sold them online to pedophiles abroad.”

To address these, she filed a gender-responsive and inclusive Emergency Management Act bill, which seeks to address the gender-differentiated needs of women and girls, because they were “disproportionately affected in times of emergencies.”

Former MP from Afghanistan Khadija Elham’s testimony united many in the conference and even resulted in proposals from the floor to include a condemnation of the Taliban’s women’s policies.

Elham said GBV had increased since the Taliban took over – women were forced to wear a burqa in public, they were not allowed to work, and those who wish to “learn science or (get an) education are forced to continue their studies and hidden places like basements.”

If their secret schools are exposed, they face torture and imprisonment. During the last two months, 260 people, including 50 women, were publicly whipped – a clear violation of their human rights. Women’s representation in political life has been banned, and women are no longer allowed to work in NGOs – and it has been “550 days since women could attend high schools and universities.”

She called on the international community, the United Nations, to pressure the Taliban to restore women’s work and education rights.

Nakayama Maho, Director of the Peacebuilding Program at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, announced new research on factors contributing to men’s propensity to GBV. The research found that the higher a man’s educational attainment, the lower the level of violence. There were also lower levels of violence with “positive” masculinity – such as a man being employed, married, and capable of protecting his family. Men who experienced violence during times of conflict tended to support violence to instill discipline, or protect women and communities.

Dr Roopa Dhatt, Executive Director of Women in Global Health, summed up this critical session by saying, “Equal leadership for women in all fields is a game changer, particularly in politics and health.”

Japan’s Health, Labour and Welfare Minister, Kato Katsunobu, noted during his closing address that the G7 countries “share the recognition that investment in people is not an expense, but an investment… and as you invest in people you can create a virtuous cycle between workers well-being and social and economic activities.”

He said Japan had a lot to offer concerning aging populations.

“Japan has been promoting the establishment of a comprehensive community-based care system so that people can continue to live in their own way in their own neighborhood until the end of their lives and is in the position to provide knowledge to the G7 countries and other countries who will be facing (an aging population) in the future.”

Dr Alvaro Bermejo, Director-General of IPPF, commended the conference and said he was “thankful” that the conference declaration would tell G7 governments to set an example. “Marginalized and excluded populations are at the heart of human security and can only be achieved in solidarity, and that message from this conference is clear.”

Professor Takemi Keizo, MP Japan, Chair of AFPPD, summed up the proceeding by saying that parliamentarians as representatives of the electorate were vital to creating a “positive momentum in this global community and overcoming so many difficult issues.”

Takemi elaborated on some issues facing the world now, including climate change and military conflicts, but as parliamentarians, there was the opportunity to “build up the new basis of the global governance, which can be very beneficial.”

NOTE: Global Conference of Parliamentarians on Population and Development Toward the 2023 G7 Hiroshima Summit was organized by the Asian Population and Development Association (APDA), the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (AFPPD), and the Japan Parliamentarians Federation for Population (JPFP).

It was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Japan Trust Fund (JTF), and Keidanren-Japan Business Federation in cooperation with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


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Statement on the G7 Hiroshima Summit, the Ukraine Crisis and “No First Use” of Nuclear Weapons

Dr. Daisaku Ikeda. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun

By Daisaku Ikeda
TOKYO, Japan, May 8 2023 (IPS)

The Ukraine crisis, which in addition to bringing devastation to the people of that country has had severe impacts on a global scale—even giving rise to the specter of nuclear weapons use—has entered its second year. Against this backdrop and amid urgent calls for its resolution, the G7 Summit of leading industrial nations will be held in Hiroshima, Japan, from May 19 to 21.


In February of this year, an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly was held, where a resolution calling for the early realization of peace in Ukraine was adopted. Among the operative paragraphs of the resolution was one that urged the “immediate cessation of the attacks on the critical infrastructure of Ukraine and any deliberate attacks on civilian objects, including those that are residences, schools and hospitals.”

With that as a first essential step, all concerned parties must come together to create a space for deliberations toward a complete cessation of hostilities. Here I would like to propose that, as negotiations advance through the cooperative efforts of the concerned countries, they be joined by representatives of civil society, such as the physicians and educators who work in schools and hospitals to protect and nurture people’s lives and futures, participating as observers.

In March, the leaders of Russia and China issued a joint statement following their summit meeting which reads in part: “The two sides call for stopping all moves that lead to tensions and the protraction of fighting to prevent the crisis from getting worse or even out of control.” This is aligned with the resolution adopted by the emergency special session of the UN General Assembly.

The G7 Hiroshima Summit should develop concrete plans for negotiations that will lead to a cessation of hostilities.

I also urge the G7 to commit at the Hiroshima Summit to taking the lead in discussions on pledges of No First Use of nuclear weapons. The current crisis is without parallel in the length of time that the threat of use and the fear of actual use of nuclear weapons have persisted without cease.

Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the hibakusha of those cities, in coordination with the larger civil society movement, have stressed the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons; non-nuclear-weapon states have engaged in continuous diplomatic efforts; and the states possessing nuclear weapons have exercised self-restraint. As a result, the world has somehow managed to maintain a seventy-seven-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons.

If international public opinion and the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons were to fail to provide their braking function, nuclear deterrence policy will compel humankind to stand on a precipitous ledge, never knowing when it might give way.

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, I have written two public statements. In both, I referenced the joint statement by the five nuclear-weapon states (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China) made in January 2022, which reiterated the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” and called for it to serve as the basis for reducing the risk of nuclear weapons use.

Also of important note is the declaration issued by the G20 group in Indonesia last November, which stated: “The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.”

The G20 member countries include nuclear-weapon states as well as nuclear-dependent states. It is deeply significant that these countries have officially expressed their shared recognition that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is “inadmissible”—the animating spirit of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

It is vital that this message be communicated powerfully to the world from Hiroshima.

As the G7 leaders revisit the actual consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation and the bitter lessons of the nuclear era, I urge that they initiate earnest deliberations on making pledges of No First Use so that their shared recognition of the inadmissible nature of nuclear weapons can find expression in changed policies.

If agreement could be reached on the principle of No First Use, which was at one point included in drafts of the final statement for last year’s NPT Review Conference, this would establish the basis on which states could together transform the challenging security environments in which they find themselves. I believe it is vital to make the shift to a “common security” paradigm.

Commitment to policies of No First Use is indeed a “prescription for hope.” It can serve as the axle connecting the twin wheels of the NPT and TPNW, speeding realization of a world free from nuclear weapons.

For our part, the SGI has continued to work with the world’s hibakusha, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)—which arose from its parent body IPPNW—and other organizations first for the adoption and now the universalization of the TPNW. As members of civil society, we are committed to promoting the prompt adoption of policies of No First Use of nuclear weapons, generating momentum to transform our age.

The author is Peace builder and Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda, who is President of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI). https://www.daisakuikeda.org/ Read full statement here full statement.

IPS UN Bureau

 


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UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists

Credit: Shutterstock
 
On World Press Freedom Day 2023, UNESCO will organize a special anniversary event at UN headquarters in New York, marking the 30 years since the UN General Assembly’s decision proclaiming an international day for press freedom.

This anniversary edition of World Press Freedom Day will include a full day of activities at the UN Headquarters on 2nd May. Partners from the media, academia, and civil society are invited to organize events in New York and around the world centered on this year’s theme.

By Audrey Azoulay
PARIS, May 1 2023 (IPS)

Freedom of the press is the cornerstone of democratic society. Without a debate of ideas, without verified facts, without diversity of perspectives, democracy is a shadow of itself; and World Press Freedom Day was established to remind us of this.


For the international community, it is first and foremost a question of combating the impunity that still surrounds crimes of which journalists are victims, with nearly nine out of ten murders of journalists going unpunished.

This, for instance, is the objective of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the issue of Impunity, which UNESCO has been leading for ten years. It is also about ensuring that independent media can continue to exist.

With the digital revolution, the information landscape and its modes of production and distribution have been radically disrupted, jeopardizing the viability of independent professional media.

To ensure that information remains a common good in the digital age, our Member States, through the Windhoek +30 Declaration of 2021, have undertaken to support independent journalism, ensure greater transparency of online platforms, and develop media and information literacy.

We will not be able to do this without the actors who now have significant control over access to information: the digital platforms. This is why UNESCO held the “Internet for Trust” conference in February, as an essential step towards the development of principles to regulate digital platforms.

This is a fundamental issue, because it involves both protecting freedom of expression and fighting disinformation and hate speech. Thirty years after the first World Press Freedom Day, we can see how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

So, let this Day be an opportunity to renew our commitment, within international organizations, to defending journalists and, through them, press freedom.

Footnote: As the UN Organization responsible for defending and promoting freedom of expression, media independence and pluralism, UNESCO leads the organization of World Press Freedom Day each year.

This year’s celebration will be particularly special: the international community will mark the 30th anniversary of the proclamation of the Day by the United Nations General Assembly.

It will serve as an occasion to take stock of the global gains for press freedom secured by UNESCO and its partners in the past decades, as well as underline the new risks faced in the digital age.

IPS UN Bureau

 


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Excerpt:

Audrey Azoulay is Director-General of UNESCO Source

A Proposal for a UN Freedom of Information Act Never Got Off the Ground

Credit: UNESCO Attribution 3.0 IGO
 
Celebrated every 3rd of May, this year’s theme for World Press Freedom Day will be “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all other Human Rights.”  

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, May 1 2023 (IPS)

The United Nations has consistently been a vociferous advocate of freedom of the press – and, most importantly, the right of journalists to report without fear of reprisals.

But regrettably, the UN is also one of most opaque institutions where transparency is never the norm.


Journalists, rarely if ever, were able to get any on-the-record comments or reactions from ambassadors, diplomats and senior UN officials because most of them follow the advice given to Brits during war-time censorship in the UK: “Be like Dad, Keep Mum”.

As Winston Churchill once remarked: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people ‘to go to hell’ in such a way that they ask for directions.”

But as a general rule, most ambassadors and diplomats did not tell us either to go to hell or heaven– but avoided all comments on politically-sensitive issues with the standard non-excuse: ”Sorry, we have to get clearance from our capital”.

But that “clearance” from their respective foreign ministries never came. Still, it was hard to beat a response from a tight-lipped Asian diplomat who told me: “No comment” – and as an after-thought, added: “And Don’t Quote Me on That”.

And most senior UN officials, on the other hand, never had even the basic courtesy or etiquette to respond to phone calls or email messages even with an acknowledgment. The lines of communications were mostly dead.

When I complained to the media-savvy Shashi Tharoor, a former UN Under-Secretary-General, head of the one-time Department of Public Information (DPI) and a prolific author, he was explicit in his response when he said that every UN official – “from an Under-Secretary-General to a window-washer”—has the right to express an opinion in his or her area of expertise.

The US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which dates back to 1967, has provided the public and mostly the press in the United States the right to request access to records from any federal agency—and has been described as “the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government”.

As a result, some of the newspaper scoops and insider information in the US mainstream media have come following requests from American journalists under the FOIA.

But a longstanding proposal for a FOIA at the United Nations has failed to get off the ground due largely to the inaction by the 193-member General Assembly, the UN’s highest policy making body, resulting in the lack of transparency in the inner workings of the UN and its Secretariat.

So has the proposal for a UN Special Envoy to deal with safety of journalists—dead on arrival (DOA).

Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS: the UN is an institution that exercises public authority directly and indirectly with over 30,000 working in the Secretariat (plus the UN system worldwide).

“As such, it needs to be accountable not only to its member states but to citizens and the public at large.

Establishing a proper freedom of information procedure at the UN will be an important tool to enhance this, declared Bummel, co-author of “A World Parliament: Governance and Democracy in the 21st Century.”

Martin S. Edwards, Professor and Chair, School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in the US, told IPS: “I must admit I don’t know the legal angles here. This having been said, it’s pretty clear to me that the only way forward for the UN in an era of political division is greater transparency”

Greater efforts to “tell your story better” are not enough. You can’t advocate for “effective, accountable, and inclusive” institutions at the national level without it, within the UN system too. Things like access to information are an essential step in that direction, he added.

In the US, federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

In Australia, the legislation is known as Right2Know; in Bangladesh, the Right to Information (RTI) provides resources for those seeking to file a request with government agencies; in Japan, the Citizens’ Centre for Information Disclosure offers help to those interested in filing requests; in India, the Right to Information: a Citizen Gateway is the portal for RTI; Canada’s Access to Information Act came into force in 1983 and Kenya’s Access to Information Act was adopted in August 2016, according to the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD).

And Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 has been described as the “oldest in the world.”

While FOIA covers access to federal government agency records, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) guarantees access to state and local government records. All 50 states in the US also have freedom of information laws that govern access to these documents, though the provisions of the state laws vary considerably.

The Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is mandated to oversee press freedom, defines Freedom of Information (FOI) as the right to access information held by public bodies.

According to UNESCO, the FOI is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognized by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom to “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

FOI has also been enshrined as a “freedom of expression” in other major international instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the American Convention on Human Rights (1969).

In an interview with IPS back in 2017, Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General who headed the one-time Department of Public Information (DPI), said the right to information is an integral part of U.N. principles.

But providing that right—even the basic information available in the public domain– has been stymied both by member states and the UN bureaucracy, he added.

He pointed out that the need to “inform the peoples” is implicitly indicated in the UN Charter.

But implementing it was “a basic issue I had experienced throughout my work, with both certain government officials– including those publicly claiming open channels– and many senior U.N. Secretariat colleagues”.

Those who believed “Information is Power” were very hesitant, to what they perceived was sharing their authority with a wider public, said Sanbar who served under five different UN Secretaries-General.

“It was most evident that when I launched the now uncontested website www.un.org, a number of powerful Under-Secretaries-General (USGs) and Permanent Representatives cautioned me against “telling everyone what was happening” (in the UN system) and refused to authorize any funds.”

“I had to raise a team of DPI volunteers in my office, operating from within the existing budget, to go ahead and eventually offer computers loaned from an outside source, to certain delegations to realize it was more convenient for them to access news releases than having to send one of their staffers daily to the building to collect material from the third floor.“

Eventually, everyone joined in, and the site became one of the ten best official sites worldwide.

“We had a similar difficulty in prodding for International World Press Freedom Day through the General Assembly. It seems that even those with the best of intentions– since delegates represent official governments that view free press with cautious monitoring– are usually weary of opening a potentially vulnerable issue,” said Sanbar, author of the book “Inside the U.N. in a Leaderless World’.

This article contains excerpts from a 2021 book on the United Nations—largely a collection of political anecdotes– titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” available on Amazon. The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


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