As we have seen in the United States, political transitions can be a precarious time for government openness and accountability. There are myriad ways that governments backslide, ranging from abandoning international agreements and multi-stakeholder initiatives, to threatening the independence of courts and legislative bodies, to direct attacks against journalists, civil society and political opponents.
However, the United States isn’t alone. Democratic institutions worldwide are particularly vulnerable to regression in times of leadership rotation or political upheaval. At the regional Open Government Partnership (OGP) summit in Argentina last month, OTG explored the relationship between political change and the undermining of advances in openness and transparency.
Experts came together in Buenos Aires to share experiences and strategies on how to respond to government backsliding and threats to democracy. The summit provided an important venue to learn about how those in the openness community have sometimes been forced to pivot in their approach to promoting accountability in response to government overreach.
For example, civil society leaders from Mexico shared important lessons from their decision to collectively leave the OGP negotiating table and no longer participate in negotiations with the government in the wake of the growing scandal over revelations of targeted government spying on advocacy groups, journalists, and human rights defenders. Experts from other countries shared similar cases of how they have worked to increase transparency relating to government surveillance in their own countries. In addition to challenges stemming from surveillance secrecy, the participants shared ideas on how to enhance cross-border collaboration on international transparency efforts, relating to environmental transparency, beneficial ownership transparency, and other anti-corruption initiatives.
OTG and our partners have been leading participants in the process of promoting model commitments and evaluating the progress and implementation of the United States’ OGP initiatives. Under this administration, however, there is a clear antipathy to government openness and international agreements, exemplified in the delay of the release of the United States’ 4th National Action Plan. These new challenges have led to a shift in tactics by many OTG partners, who have moved away from the OGP framework towards other advocacy approaches, including a stronger focus on Congressional oversight and the courts. There has been a steep rise in FOIA litigation, as well as a growing focus on legal action aimed at blocking the implementation of Executive Orders and other policy changes from the White House.
At the summit, OTG spoke on a panel about declassification policy and the importance of government archives in human rights clarification and justice initiatives. OTG’s Jesse Franzblau presented examples on ways that declassified U.S. archives have been used as evidence in human rights trials throughout Latin America, and discussed how U.S. secrecy relating to torture, extraordinary rendition programs, and domestic government spying, hinders accountability efforts here. The panel led to an informative discussion on the connection between freedom of information policy and human rights truth and justice work.
Only through international collaboration and learning from each other’s experiences, can we in the United States best fight attempts to backtrack on policies that provide openness, accountability and transparency in government.