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SAARC: Potential Global Champion of Right to Information

The essence and emergence of the right to information lies in empowering individuals to hold public authorities to account and get engaged in exercising own fundamental rights as sovereign citizens.

Most probably, the world-known leader Mahatma Gandhi was intending to highlight the importance of self-awareness as strength to check wrongdoings of authorities – a true process of deepening participatory democracy.

‘The real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity by all to resist authority when abused.’

–  Mahatma Gandhi

It is presumed that an informed citizenry possesses the capacity to ask question to authorities when abused and creates opportunity to participate in decision-making process.

The ‘Swaraj’ prescription by non-violence apostle Gandhi has been substantiated with increasing level of access to information in the South Asian region – characterized by high levels of poverty and population density as well as strong recent economic growth and a mixture of more or less Democratic States.

Right to Information – a fundamental human right allowing access to public information – is well established, both in legislation and in practice. It has been swiftly gaining popularity in many parts of the world as an effective tool to strengthen participatory democracy, promote good governance, check corruption and help ensure other rights thereby building an open and accountable society.

As a result, billions of people around the world now enjoy the right to access information held by their governments and public agencies. Millions of people around the world have utilized these laws to access public information, to expose and check corruption, to enhance their ability to participate in public affairs, to improve public service delivery and to protect other human rights, opportunities and justice.

Globally, a number of countries have provided constitutional protection to the right to information: 101 countries have so far enacted RTI laws. Internationally, the right to information has been recognized as a fundamental human right and a touchstone for all other freedoms.

A number of international and human rights charters, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also recognize the importance of the right to information. The international recognition of the right to information has been widely attributed to the effects of globalization and democratization.

RTI in South Asia

In South Asia, the enactment of RTI legislation has followed closely in the wake of political reform and deepening democracy. Against a background of political change and transformation, six South Asian countries to date — Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives and Pakistan — have enacted RTI laws.

Pakistan was the first country in the region to pass RTI legislation in 2002; however, the federal Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 is considered an ineffective law that does not meet international best practices.

India is widely regarded as a leader on RTI in the region. The country’s Right to Information Act 2005 was passed following a decade-long grassroots and civil society campaign.

India’s Right to Information Act is widely recognized as a strong law that has been extensively used by citizens to access entitlements, redress grievances, and expose corruption and mismanagement in government programs.
Nepal enacted RTI legislation in 2007 and Bangladesh in 2009.

However, the effectiveness of the laws in both countries has been withered by poor implementation and limited awareness and use of the laws by citizens.

Bhutan and the Maldives have only recently passed RTI legislation, while in Afghanistan; a draft bill is currently under government consideration.

In Sri Lanka, civil society organizations and the media have been campaigning for the legal recognition of the right to information for many years; however, legislation is yet to be enacted.

Most recently, in 2011, a draft bill was presented to parliament but was turned down.

However, over the past decade, countries in South Asia have made remarkable progress towards providing their citizens with a guaranteed right to access information from their government – through constitutional guarantees, legal statutes, and most importantly through the enactment and implementation of RTI legislation.

At a regional level, the secretariat of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) can support the effective implementation of the right to information in member countries.

The SAARC Charter adopted by the Heads of State and Governments at the 2004 SAARC Summit held in Islamabad, Pakistan underlined the importance of the transparent and accountable conduct of administration in public and private, national and international institutions.

Specifically, in 2008, at a SAARC Ministerial meeting, delegates committed to adopt “appropriate legislation conferring the right to information for all citizens from governments and public authorities, to eliminate arbitrariness and corrupt practices and improve governance at the regional, national and local level.”

Learning from experiences

Countries in the region can learn considerably from each other’s experiences in implementing RTI. There are many areas where the SAARC member-state could collaborate for leveling up the citizen’s access to information in the region.

Demonstrating  political will and commitment to entrench RTI at a country and regional level, ensuring effective implementation of the law at the country level, setting a regional minimum standards for proactive disclosure, linking RTI to broader movements for governance reform within the region, creating country-specific and regional caucuses of parliamentarians in support of RTI and good governance, facilitating dialogue and exchange visits among RTI champions in the region are some of the areas for interventions.

SAARC can play proactive and effective role in promoting RTI in the region thereby improving the state of transparency, accountability and good governance. For this, promotion of RTI in SAARC region should be included in the agenda of SAARC.

The SAARC Secretariat should have its own ‘Disclosure Policies’ for SAARC Secretariat as well as its regional centres established in the member states.

There is huge potential for the SAARC region to showcase rest of the world the success of right to information as a cross-cutting tool for integrating deeper peace and cooperation.

This is what the 18th SAARC Summit should make a broader consensus among the member-states to harness collective strengths to become the global champion of right to information for transparent, accountable and well-governed society.

Author: Krishna Sapkota, RSS.

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DATED: Monday, 24 November 2014 12:50
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