On February 5th 2021, the Public Interest Litigation Project of the Dutch Section of the International Commission of Jurists (PILP-NJCM) initiated legal proceedings against the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation (FTDC) on the right to access to information about a license for arms exports to Egypt. The Minister has not made any documents public, although according to the law and human rights she was obliged to do so. In this manner, NGOs are denied access to information on an important and controversial subject such as Dutch arms export policy.
PILP-NJCM had requested information on a license for the export of military material from the Netherlands to Egypt, in order to verify whether a correct and full human rights assessment had been carried out prior to the granting of that license. The Minister for FTDC wrongfully refused the request. According to the Minister, the requested information is covered by the obligation of professional secrecy of the customs authorities. PILP-NJCM was not permitted to review a single document. Therefore, the PILP-NJCM has written an extensive objection against the decision.
Especially with regards to a subject like arms exports, it is important that NGOs have access to underlying decision-making processes and are able to check up on those processes. “Internationally, the Netherlands are known as one of the most progressive countries when it comes to the public disclosure of data on arms exports. It was precisely the Dutch Public Access to Government Information Act (‘Wob’) that stood at the basis of this transparency. The fact that a similar request is now being rejected after previous appeals to that law were successful is unacceptable and unworthy of the Netherlands’ reputation,” says Frank Slijper, arms trade expert at PAX.
The public accessibility of government information for journalists, NGOs and citizens is of great importance for democratic control and for the rule of law. According to the European Court of Human Rights, journalists and NGOs function as public watchdogs. This means that access to information is part of the freedom of expression. Secrecy can infringe on these human rights.
In January 2021, the Dutch House of Representatives adopted the new Open Government Act, which is intended to strengthen the public accessibility of government information in the Netherlands. In the light of these developments, it is appropriate for the Minister for FTDC to give sufficient weight to the right to information, and to show restraint when appealing to professional secrecy.
Rosa Beets, legal officer at PILP-NJCM: “It is of significant importance for journalists or for an organisation such as PILP-NJCM to have access to government information. Without that information we cannot expose wrongdoings and hold the government to account. The role of the Tax and Customs Administration in the recent childcare benefits scandal demonstrates just how important government transparency is.”
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