“The Right to Information” Gaining Ground in Latin America?
By Claire Navarro
After decades of fighting, civil society groups in Latin America are beginning to pull the truth surrounding enforced disappearances from the tightly clasped hands of their reluctant governments. On November 4th, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held two hearings regarding the efforts of Latin American NGOs to establish a culture of openness within their governments.
During the first hearing, “Access to Public Information in Latin America,” petitioners Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte, Edison Lanza and Moises Sanchez of the Latin American NGO, Regional Alliance for Free Expression and Information (Allanza Regional por la Libre Expresion e Informacion), presented their request for IACHR-endorsed transparency standards throughout Latin America to pressure Latin American governments into cooperating with ongoing and future investigations of human rights abuses by releasing requested documents.
The petitioners made several points about Latin American nations, particularly Nicaragua, Paraguay, Panama, El Salvador, Argentina, Honduras, Chile, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic:
- Lingering remnants of the 1960s-1990s “culture of secrecy” have impeded the progress of government openness;
- Latin American governments exploit the vagueness of present regulation as a loophole to evade the release of information; and
- Latin American states obstruct free access to information by ceasing production of government-sensitive material anticipated to be of interest to the public; and by claiming that requested documentation poses a threat to National Security or does not exist or was destroyed.
Though the specifics of the petitioners’ call to action were somewhat vague, their emphasis on the need for legal support of the people’s right to freely access information as well as the need for public criticism of state-imposed impediments were important points.
The second, more localized hearing, addressed a concern for preserving the work and safety of Guatemala’s Historical Archive of the National Police, a collection of nearly 80 million pages of documents discovered by accident at an abandoned munitions depot in Guatemalan City in 2005. During the hearing, “Protection and Guarantee of Access to the National Police Historical Archive in Guatemala,” the petitioners – Gustavo Palma of La Asociación Para El Avance De Las Ciencias Sociales En Guatemala (AVANSCO), Maynor Alvarado of El Grupo De Apoyo Mutuo (GAM), and Mónica Leonardo of La Fundación Myrna Mack – called the Commission to enhance the rule of law by creating a standard that would pressure the State of Guatemala to:
- Ensure the physical and mental integrity of those who work within the Archives;
- Promote the maintained security and integrity of the Archive documents and free access to information regulations;
- Endorse the adaptation of Guatemalan legislation to sustain the legal protection of all archives, including the National Police Historical Archive; and
- Protect the right of the citizen to freely access government information.
The petitioners also called attention to the indispensability of the Guatemalan Historical Archive of the National Police*, and the underlying need for the Archive’s continued protection and availability. Documents within the Archive have identified the Guatemalan ex-military officials responsible for the abduction of leftist student, Edgar Fernando Garcia.
In response to the petitioners, State Representatives, Hugo Martinez and Maria Elena Rodríguez; Secretary of Peace of the State of Guatemala, Eddy Armas; Director of the Peace Archives, Mario Tulio Álvarez; and Representative of the Department of the Public of Guatemala, Aura Mancilla agreed that the protection and guarantee of free access to information would be essential to the strengthening of Guatemala’s democracy. The two sides further agreed that the reparation of the country’s historic memory would help to advance the nation forward into a better future. Paz (peace) and concordia (harmony) were cited multiple times by both sides as the ultimate consequences of guaranteed and protected free access to information.
Dinah Shelton, President of the IACHR and Mario Tulio Álvarez, Director of the Guatemalan Peace Archive explained the challenge that the Guatemalan Presidential elections would have on the progress of the free access to information movement. Tulio Álvarez advocated signing a free access to information policy into law. Eddy Armas, the Secretary of Peace of the State of Guatemala, suggested the creation of a civil society Commission to carry the movement from one administration to the next. Both sides spoke of opening up the academic curriculum to examine the armed conflict during the country’s dictatorship.
Though little progress has been made and many ideas may be too ambiguous or overly-idealistic, these hearings attest to the growing awareness, dialogue and action being taken to use free access of information to ensure accountability and reconciliation for past human rights cases.
For Spanish-language audio and visual recordings of the 24 October 2011 “Access to Public Information in Latin America” and “Protection and Guarantee of Access to the National Police Historical Archive in Guatemala” IACHR 143rd session hearings, click here.
*To see the recent report released by the Historical Archive of the National Police, check out the National Security Archive’s electronic briefing book, “From Silence to Memory: A Celebration of the Report of the Historical Archives of the National Police.”