Right to Know
Therefore, this (recognition of the right to know, ndr) is an important step forward as it lays the foundation of a principle. The battle will be long, since every step will be countered by the States. To States realpolitik means they can choose what information to share with the public and what information not to share. Getting to the point where one can force the State to disclose those informations it does not wish to share is close to impossible, because there is no political counter-part keen on stimulating, motivating or enforcing such a right. But, of course, we have no choice. We cannot remain indifferent. Just remember what indifference has led to in the past: in 1939, a Holocaust of 6 million Jews and 20 million Slavs. Largely due to indifference. Just look at the war in Syria: nearly 500.000 people killed. But the world public opinion does not react. It does not ask whether there is a case for criminal responsibility of the Russians and the Iranians, the main responsibles for Assad’s regime.
Extract from the speech by the late Prof. Em. M. Cherif Bassiouni, President of the Scientific Council for the Right to Know, at the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights on May 29, 2017.
In December 2002, Marco Pannella, leader of the Nonviolent Radical Party Transnational & Transparty, launched the initiative “Free Iraq, only alternative to the war”. The proposal aimed at the liberation of Iraq through the exile of Saddam Hussein and an interim Government headed by the United Nations. The proposal, which obtained the endorsement of the majority of Arab League Member States, was ignored by a handful of democratic world leaders, their ears hazed by the pounding drums of war. History has already shown us the disastrous short-term consequences of this hasty and unprepared decision: thousands dead, and numerous victims continue to fall today, a region destabilized, ethnic-religious hate refuelled, the birth and rise of DAESH, and the fear instilled in world leaders to intervene in ongoing massacres in other countries such as Syria.
The following inquiries into the decision-making of the Iraq War, in particular the one headed by Sir John Chilcot in the United Kingdom, revealed how this decision, pivotal in recent world events, was not only based on biased evidence, but also decided behind the closed doors of a room filled with only a handful of people who favoured the military option.
Those contrary to such an option, or those requesting more time and evidence, were consistently barred from the decision-making process. The public was largely kept in the dark or fed partial information by a media willing to cater to the leader in power. The House of Commons, asked to vote on a declaration of war to further appease the public and maintain the appearance of democratic decision-making, was fed the same biased information by the Foreign Secretary in his Statement before the House. The documentation referred to by Secretary Straw, based on the reports by UN inspector Hans Blix, was available in the Commons’ library but in a few copies and few hours before the vote was to take place, as denounced by Peter Lilley MP in his letters and statement to the Chilcot Inquiry. Conversations between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush remain confidential to this very day, notwithstanding the fact that they have decided over the lives of millions while acting in public office.
This modus operandi, rather than an exception has proved to be the guiding tool in modern policy-making. Our analysis, based on a decade of research and political action, confirms the thesis formulated by Professor Deirdre Curtin in her critique of the democratic deficit in the European Union: today’s policy-making, in particular with regard to foreign policy but on domestic policy as well, is increasingly subject to a culture of secrecy, creeping its way into democratic Institutions.
The consequences are not felt only by those succumbing to the automated weapons systems operating in areas considered remote by the general public’s standards. Public debate in democratic societies is increasingly reduced to a consideration of today’s “emergency” issues. In an era of unlimited communication possibilities, little to no room is left for profound studies and debates on causes and long-term effects. Instead, modern media theorems dictate a regime where public opinion is fed a constant flow of pro and contra propositions on the extremes of both sides of the debate. Distracted by the noise of these emergencies, information on other decisions being taken are kept away from the public eye and from the parliamentary floor as well.
In such a climate, can one feign surprise at the steady growth of populism, racism, voter discontent and disinterest? Does it not appear crystal clear how the decline in the number of professional journalists, investment in independent investigative journalism and the number of editors that refuse to abide by the paradigms of modern media is directly linked to the decline in the number of States considered democratic as denounced by Freedom House?
It is often stated that human rights are based on the liberal presumption that one’s rights end where those of the other begin. We do not believe that to be a tenable position. In our view the theorem of universal human rights is based on the principle that one’s rights can live but for and through the rights of others. When today’s citizens in a democratic society are not fully enjoying their democratic rights by participating in public debate, the rights of others around the world are at stake.
When we are not asked to debate and consider the effects of automated weapon systems, victims fall in the Middle East without any regard for their rights to due process, their right to live, and the rights of their families.
When we are not duly informed on the causes and effects of climate change, but left to a dogmatic pro and contra debate, families are drowned and shaken in Central Asia and on small islands spread in the midst of the Ocean.
When we are not informed on the long-term effects public economic policies with short-term benefits may have, families are forced to abandon generations’ worth of work and investment.
When we are asked to express a popular vote on important referendums for short-term electoral gain without proper information and profound debate, the rubble will haunt future generations. The list is endless.
We propose an antidote. We do not pretend it to be new. It was on the table of those drafting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, but discarded by States.
It has been the object of numerous deliberations of the United States’ Supreme Court, but the latter has consistently shied away from its affirmation.
It has been the subject of numerous books and articles by journalists, but kept safely away from the public eye.
It has managed to sneak its way into some departments of regional organizations, such as the European Union’s Aarhus Convention on Environmental Issues.
It is not a proposal aimed at abolishing representative democracy and its Institutions, but rather a means of reinforcing them and rendering them more accountable to citizens. Today, elected Members of Legislative Chambers are themselves victims of disinformation or a flagrant denial of insight into relevant information for their decision-making. They are turned into simple voting machines, asked for their approval or disapproval on the mere basis of their Party loyalty, rather than their conscious deliberation.
It is a proposal that intuitively goes counter to Executive Powers’ predisposition for secrecy. A predisposition officially based on the need for efficiency and the protection of the national interest, but in reality provoked by a so-called regulation creep where one executive office, both within one Nation and in international relations, induces and reinforces the other to adopt similar measures. It is however not a proposal that seeks to fully abolish measures of confidentiality, as we recognize that such needs may realistically exist.
However, we seek to spark a debate to counter the aforementioned creep and to adopt global standards governing such exceptional measures, starting from the adoption of this new human right within the United Nations bodies.
It is a proposal that seeks to complete, as was the original function in 1948, the human rights framework of freedom of expression and the right to seek and impart information in a democratic society.
It is the human right to know.