Transparency at The Castle becomes a human rights issue

The battle against secrecy within St Helena Government has been taken up by the island’s human rights co-ordinator.

And emails have been sent to all of the island’s councillors asking whether they support transparency in the way they carry out their duties on behalf of the public.   

The St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign has cast doubt on SHG’s insistence that it acts “in the spirit” of UK laws on open government.

Catherine Turner has intervened after concerns that the government’s refusal to disclose information was not in keeping with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

She has been asked by the island’s human rights capacity building committee to see if the constitution of St Helena offers ways to bring freedom of information – known as FoI – to the island. 

One concern is understood to be that the island’s Attorney General, Ken Baddon, is already overburdened with demands for new legislation.

Catherine said: “First of all we are going to examine the existing constitution to look for means of obtaining FoI more speedily.

“Our main thrust will be to demonstrate it is possible to have the legislation, and to allow for the fact that the Attorney General has a massive legislative programme in front of him already, and FoI may not be seen as urgent as legislation on the environment or economic development or discrimination.”

She said her involvement was not about confrontation with St Helena Government. “Human rights is about bringing people together and increasing understanding,” she said.

Faryma Bahrami, the island’s new assistant public solicitor – who has researched international law – will help look for ways to make freedom of information legislation achievable.

Senior officials have repeatedly stated that St Helena Government acts “in the spirit” of the UK legislation.

But a series of requests by the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign has cast doubt on this claim.

The campaigners have been pushing for details of council meetings to be published, as a first step towards fully open government. This would not require a new law and it is felt that there is no credible reason for withholding information that is freely published elsewhere. 

But requests to see agendas for meetings – a basic requirement of Freedom of Information laws in the UK – have been sidestepped. 

In the coming week, the campaigners expect to produce firm evidence of SHG acting against the “spirit” of the UK laws on transparency in government. 

SHG’s conduct is in direct conflict with the urgings of the UK government in its recent White Paper on overseas territories. It said:

“Those territories which choose to remain British should abide by the same basic standards of good government as the UK.”

The UK FoI laws require councils to publish papers like those that have been unsuccessfully requested from SHG, as a matter of routine. And Parliamentary business in London is published in word-for-word detail – in sharp contrast with what happens in Jamestown.

An overseas expert – who prefers not to be named because they are in a position of authority – has advised that the SHG claim should be treated with caution:

“As part of the Right to Free Expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Freedom of Information is a fundamental right. It is not good enough to say ‘we live up to its spirit’, since that means you can retract it whenever you please, which equals having no right at all.” 

  • St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign is supported by The St Helena Independent and St Helena Online.

SEE ALSO:
Campaigning MP investigates open government on St Helena
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle
What UK local authorities must publish

LINKS:
St Helena Freedom of Information – blog
St Helena Freedom of Information – Facebook page

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