Wednesday, January 26, 2005

UN Human Rights - Right to Information?

I'm interested in other people's opinions as to how the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be interpreted when it comes to the question of the right to information.

Article 26 promises free (and mandatory!) elementary education for all. Higher education opportunities must exist, but can be made merit-based. Article 27 protects intellectual property and guarantees the right of all people to participate in cultural activities, enjoy the arts, and reap the benefits of scientific advancement.

If a government were to bar people from schools, as the Taliban did for girls and women, it would be violating the rights outlined in this Declaration. So would a government that shut down all the theaters or blocked distribution of effective new medicines. However, it seems that the Declaration does not guarantee people any right to other forms of information, including information about what is happening outside their own country or what the government of their own country is up to!

Article 13 permits people to both leave and return to their homeland, so they should be free to see for themselves what life in other places is like. Yet this is not something people would be likely to do if they'd been lied to about the dangers of traveling abroad or harsh conditions in other nations. Article 21.3 says "the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government", which might offer some protection against massive government deceptions or the withholding of important information, but it is not clear to me that this would apply to all cases.

If the "will of the people" gives officials power through fair elections, can the officials then do as they like or are they required to keep the public informed as to their activities?


  1. I hadn't looked much at that until you asked the question about information but then I looked closer and actually Article 19 does mention information. "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Interesting. So, then if a country restricts information at all it must be doing so as Article 29 mentions... to meet "the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society", as these are the only legitamate reasons to limit freedoms (by this declaration). hmmm...

  2. These comments bring up an interesting question: what exactly is the role of the UN in equity of global information access and distribution? Pippa Norris writes (Digital Divide) that the UN is most concerned about a North-South global ICT split that seems to be deeper every year. She notes that other forms of information like newspapers, radio, and assemblies also are often restricted where digital information rates are low. Yet Norris also urges that we look at which countries HAVE advanced against information poverty “far more successfully than would be predicted by their level of socioeconomic development alone”. No Declaration of Human Rights can make the change. So what are these advancing countries doing right with ICT? Did the UN have any role?

  3. In the preamble of the Declaration of Human Rights, it states, "Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms". This document then gives 30 articles to adhere by, but the statement above indicates it's in each country's hands to enforce this declaration. It's the will of the people who influence their country. I believe the UN has influence over how countries create equity for all and access to information for all. It sets a universal standard. It seems interesting though, that equity for all seems very different depending on what distributive justice principle each country decides to adopt.

  4. In a "Law of Information and Communication" class I've taken in Italy, our professor explained that the right of receiving information (given by article 19) could be interpreted as the "right to be informed". This, from what I've understood (and it's not so much, believe me!), should oblige the governments (at least it is what law commentors deduce by the Italian Constitution and from the Italian case) to perform different ways to keep citizens informed about its acts or, at least, to let them being able to check every government's act. This is called "Transparency". The Government should also act and legislate in a way that could provide citizens fair and equitable opportunities to access to any form of communication. It seems to me that this is called "right of access" or something similar. There are several other rights (for companies, operators and whatever) that could be deduced from the right of information and freedom of speech. Right now I can't recall all of them (I should have studied more and in a better way...) and the risk is that I'm giving you distorted informations as I don't remember well.
    Anyway, article 19 should cover completely the entire spectrum of information rights, granting citizens the right to be informed by their government.

  5. Oh, about what Trisha wrote...
    The right of speech and information has limits too. Those are defined by morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society (as she pointed out). The problem, as Italian Constitution Commentors underline, is that those concepts are not very clear. What is morality? What does it mean exactly? Who decides what is moral or not?
    Besides, those are concepts that could vary a lot from culture to culture and from time to time. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was relased in 1948. Is our concept of morality the same as it was in 1948? What sounds immoral to an English person is moral for an American and vice versa (just to remain in the "Occidental culture" borders)?

  6. [note: This should be a post not a comment...I am having technical difficulties added a post so here is my question]
    What I have been trying to piece together is how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights deals with equality, equity, and justice. I found (as I stated earlier in my comment in response to Kelly) that article 29 seems to have the ability to trump all the articles by discussing when a country can limit human rights.
    Article 29 (2): “In the exercise of his rights and freedom, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society”

    As soon as a nation is allowed (without violating a human right) to limit rights legally based on “morality”, how can you ensure equality, equity, or justice? If a government (let’s just say Texas, for example—smile) decides that it is immoral or it would disturb public order to teach sex education the state can legally limit the right of teachers to teach this subject and still be within the guidelines of the declaration (am I reading Article 29 correctly?) Is this fair because it is supposed to be done in a democratic society where everyone votes for governmental representation and therefore “should” have a say in government decisions? Or maybe this could be solved by the fact that someone should have the right to leave Texas or leave the United States for that matter?

    Also, how unequal or inequitable can a nation be if the members agree to it and how does it all look from the outside…not knowing the culture? Who gets to say what is equal, equitable, or seeks justice? Many people in the United States agreed with affirmation action quotas based on the idea of equity. Many people believed that this practice was creating equality of opportunity after a long history of inequality (among other things). Still, many people in the United States did not agree with this practice, even with the knowledge of slavery and racism. How would this practice look from outside this country?