Since 2020, PILP-NJCM has been litigating against the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation (after this: BHOS) over the right to access information on arms exports for Egypt. No documents were provided by BHOS because of the customs authorities’ duty of confidentiality. The court upheld the appeal. Some of the requested documents must now be released.
PILP-NJCM submitted a request under the Dutch freedom of information law (Wob request). This Wob request on an arms export license to Egypt was rejected by BHOS. This is because, according to the minister, these documents fall under the customs authorities’ duty of confidentiality. The PILP-NJCM was not allowed to see any of the documents, even after the objection procedure. In 2021, PILP-NJCM appealed against this decision.
According to the minister for BHOS, it is “evident” that some documents, such as license applications, are covered by the customs secrecy obligation, because these documents contain information that has been provided confidentially to customs. Other documents, such as internal memos, also fall under the duty of confidentially, according to the minister. According to the PILP-NJCM, the latter category of documents cannot in any case fall within the scope of the duty of secrecy. Moreover, by not releasing anything at all, the minister violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), according to the PILP-NJCM.
On 6 October 2022, the Amsterdam District Court gave its ruling. The court ruled that some of the requested documents should be disclosed. The disclosure of these documents could not be refused on grounds of confidentiality, or on any other grounds.
PILP-NJCM sees a worrying trend in the handling of information requests that are (partly) related to customs. Indeed, other NGOs are also facing requests that are rejected on the grounds that the requested information would fall under customs professional secrecy.
Public access to government information is vital for the proper functioning of our democratic rule of law. In a controversial subject like arms exports, where human rights are at stake, transparency is all the more important. NGOs, such as PILP-NJCM and our allies, fulfil the role of ‘public watchdog’ in this, according to the European Court of Human Rights. Without access to information, NGOs cannot properly fulfil this monitoring role.
The PILP-NJCM is currently in discussions with partners about the possibility of appeal.
Read the Amsterdam District Court’s ruling here (in Dutch).