No, it’s not a Star Wars character. Today is International Right to Know Day and advocates around the world are highlighting the right of citizens to access information and touting the benefits of open and transparent government. The right to know, or “R2K,” is a cross-cutting right that benefits all of us because it encourages governments to be more accountable and applies to all kinds of information that affect our daily lives from social services, to public education, to budget expenditures.
With respect to information about the environment, it has been nearly two decades since R2K was recognized in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Many countries have enacted laws that permit citizens to obtain information held by government agencies and other public entities — including information that pertains to the environment. In the past year, new freedom of information laws have been adopted in Nigeria, Liberia, and El Salvador (among others). Many of ELAW’s partners have been instrumental in promoting and enforcing these laws.
An emerging area of R2K that I am working on involves efforts to gain greater transparency in the flow of public and private money to mining, oil, and gas development. Several resource-rich countries have or are considering enacting laws that require public disclosure of the terms of contracts and leases that are issued for mining, oil, and gas projects, and also require a public accounting of revenue received from such projects. The United States (through the Dodd-Frank Act) and European Union are taking concrete steps to require resource extraction companies to disclose all payments that are made to foreign governments related to mining, oil, and gas projects. With this information in hand, members of the public and public-interest advocacy groups can follow the “money trail” and combat fiscal mismanagement and corruption. They can ensure that the revenue governments obtain from mining, oil, and gas development is used to benefit the public, and is not squirreled away in the personal bank accounts of government officials.
It is difficult to be an effective environmental advocate without access to information. Governments collect and obtain information about air and water pollution, toxic chemical releases, public health, and much more. As citizens, it is our right to access this information so that we can demand government accountability, and influence decisions that will affect our lives, our communities, and the global environment.
ELAW Staff Attorney