The Constitution and you

Accountability through Freedom of Information

On Wednesday, 26 September, 2007, the Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts, formally launched the Freedom of Information Unit headed by Mrs. Carole Excell.

The messages of all presenters, which included Governor Stuart Jack, signalled a change in the culture of government.

The proactive step of passing the Freedom of Information Law, 2007, goes hand-in-hand with the recognition that accountable government is becoming increasingly more important in our society.

Whilst experts still debate whether access to information has absolute footing as a fundamental human right enshrined in the United Nations Convention on Human Rights, the majority view is that there is an inextricable link between access to information and the right to freedom of expression and the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs (see UNHCR arts. 19 & 21)

The United Nations itself in its Human Rights Handbook for Parliamentarians refer to the fact that ‘…many countries have adopted access to information laws and that such laws have proved instrumental in exposing human rights violations and fighting impunity…’

In my article of Friday, 21 September, 2007, I wrote about checks and balances in government through the independence of the judiciary and the civil service. Likewise, we see that the freedom of information legislation provides an avenue for civil society to play a direct role in promoting increased accountability and improved democracy.

The FOI Coordinator, Carole Excell, discussed the change in the culture of government when she stated in her message, that implementation of the FOI Law will no doubt be a challenge to the ‘…Westminster style of government, which has a tradition of official secrecy…’ Steps will therefore be taken through the FOI Unit to facilitate the change in policy which now directs that ‘…government information belongs to the public and is held on trust by the government for the people’ (Message from FOI Coordinator, FOI Newsletter, September 2007).

Accordingly, we see that human rights will only be meaningful to the individual and the society if mechanisms are in place to exercise such rights. The implementation of the Freedom of Information Law marks a change in how the Cayman Islands recognizes and respects the human rights of its citizens and residents.

To complete this puzzle, we must now ensure that the right to access information in the FOI Law is enshrined in the highest law of our land – the Constitution.

When the time comes to decide whether a Bill of Rights should be included in the Constitution, remember, that access to information is supported in the fundamental right of freedom of expression and the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs.

Without a constitutional footing, the enforcement of our rights are possible but not without difficulty.

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