It takes a lot of effort to arrive at a consensus when the subject you’re tackling is as amorphous and gigantic as the global public’s right to information.
Should this right be confined only to governments, or should it also include institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF? Is the right to information important in and of itself or only as a means to more fundamental rights, such as education and health? Is the very concept loaded, often used by the West to intervene in the affairs of other governments?
The whole day Thursday was taken up at the Carter Center hashing out these and many other issues concerning the right to information. There were multiple working groups wrestling with such subjects, and I got to observe them in action.
Thankfully, there was a group dedicated to ensuring that the World Bank and the IMF were brought into the agenda. Interestingly, a World Bank staffer taking part in the conversation was openly critical of Paul Wolfowitz and almost exultant that an internal staff revolt had caused his ouster.
“We told him that you can’t demand accountability from governments and then escape accountability yourself,” she said.
She and other participants felt that if the conference arrived at a consensus demanding that the World Bank be more open in its workings, Wolfowitz’s replacement Robert Zoellick may just listen, due to the Carter Center’s imprimatur and the global nature of the gathering. A tad too optimistic, in my opinion.
In another group, a participant from Venezuela raised the question of whether the right to information can be used as a bludgeon against governments such as Hugo Chavez’s. “Was the decision to wage the Iraq War arrived at transparently?” he asked.
The Venezuelan government is in many ways very transparent, with social audits being carried out regularly to seek community input on how to spend money, he stated. Emphasizing that he wasn’t part of the Venezuelan government and was, in fact, sometimes critical of it, he still cautioned that the very notion of the right to information may be problematic.
In this, he found an ally in a participant from Bolivia.
In spite of all these disagreements, the two working groups I observed during the second half of the day almost miraculously arrived at a consensus document at the end of the proceedings. Quite impressive, considering the sharpness of the disagreements. Tomorrow, a final declaration will be issued, summarizing the consensus.
A highlight of the day was meeting with people from all around the world. Tseliso Thipanyane of the South African Human Rights Commission filled me in on the relative shortcomings of South African President Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s likely heir.
Rodolfo Aldea of Chile told me how exhilarating it was to work in the government when democracy returned to Chile in 1990 after seventeen horrible years of the Pinochet dictatorship. He also invited me to visit him in Santiago. Maybe I’ll take him up on his offer.