The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its first-ever access to information policy last week. The pilot policy—which will be revised after its first year—aims to “enhance transparency and openness” in the organization’s work. But despite its noble aspirations, the policy falls far short of providing true transparency.
Why UNEP Needs a Strong Access to Information Policy
UNEP describes itself as “the voice for the environment within the United Nations system … acting as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment.” An access to information policy therefore falls squarely within UNEP’s own mission and could serve as a powerful tool to help the vast number of stakeholders who rely on the organization.
UNEP works on such diverse areas as climate change, disasters and conflicts, ecosystem management, environmental governance, chemicals and waste, as well as energy and resource efficiency. And its reach is huge—the organization has branches in every region of the world and acts as the facilitator of major, global treaties like the Basel Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, and several others. In theory, UNEP therefore collects an assortment of data and research—much of which could be made publicly available through a strong access to information policy. This information is important not just to academics and researchers, but to government officials, the private sector, and civil society groups who work on ensuring environmental sustainability in decision-making.
4 Areas that Could Be Strengthened
Four areas of the policy in particular are ripe for reform, including:
UNEP had an opportunity to act as an outstanding leader in proactively providing relevant, timely, and accurate environmental information and data to the public. While the policy outlines some documents that will be released proactively rather than by individual requests, it includes no obligation on UNEP to collect and disseminate information via its most publicly accessible platform, “UNEP Live.” UNEP also had an opportunity to be innovative in its policy, recognizing the potential of open data and the need to release information in new forms, such as its entire surface and ground water quality data sets over time. Unfortunately, no such innovation is reflected in the current draft.
Grounds of Refusal
Virtually all access to information policies include exemptions, recognizing that some information may cause serious harm if released—such as information that could prejudice or jeopardize national security. But these “grounds of refusal” are typically narrowly defined, only applying to very specific types of information. UNEP’s new policy includes very broad provisions that allow it to deny information requests, essentially defeating the purpose of the policy. One important example is clause 15: “UNEP does not provide access to any documents, memoranda, or other communications which are exchanged with Member States, with other organizations and agencies, where these relate to the exchange of ideas between these groups, or to the deliberative or decision-making process of UNEP, its Member States, or other organizations, agencies or entities.” This language is so broad basic communications which would cause no harm to UNEP’s internal deliberations—such as the planning of a conference—could be exempted.
Independent Appeals Mechanism
UNEP’s policy establishes an appeals mechanism for people whose information requests are denied, with appeals being considered and decided by the UNEP Access to Information Panel. However, the Panel only consists of seven UNEP staff members appointed by the organization’s executive director—there are no non-UNEP members to ensure independence or impartial application of the policy. In contrast, both the World Bank’s and the Asian Development Bank’s access to information panels include an independent appeals mechanism.
UNEP’s policy states that the organization does not need to provide a reason for denying someone’s information request. This same is true for appeals, with the policy stating that “The outcome of the review will be communicated to the requestor, and there will be no requirement for providing a detailed explanation of the outcome of the review.” This undermines accountability, as future requestors will have no guidance on how the organization makes its decisions or if decisions are made fairly by competent individuals considering all relevant facts. In contrast, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank make their review decisions public on their websites and provide reasons for the refusal of information requests.
Strengthening UNEP’s Access to Information Policy
UNEP is at a pivotal time in its history. For example, it is currently expanding Governmental membership from 58 member countries to “universal membership” involving participation of all 193 UN member states. This move will seriously broaden the organization’s scope and reach—so there’s no better time for it to improve its transparency.
UNEP took a preliminary step toward transparency last week, but it’s important that the organization use its pilot year to strengthen its access to information policy, consult broadly with civil society, and make space for innovation. It’s time for UNEP to create a policy that reflects the scale of information needed to overcome the great environmental challenges we face in this decade.