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Levinas on the Enlightenment and the European Ethical Tradition

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Clearly the title Europe designates the unity of a spiritual life and creative activity–no matter how inimical the European nations may be toward each other, still they have a special inner affinity of spirit that permeates all of them and transcends their national differences… There is an innate entelechy that thoroughly controls the changes in the European image and directs it toward an ideal image of life and of being. The spirited telos of the European in which is included the particular telos of separate nations and individual persons, has an infinity; it is an infinite idea toward which in secret the collective spiritual becoming, so to speak, strives.”   –Edmund Husserl

Modern Western Civilization presents us with a Janus-like face: On one side Renaissance Humanism which begins in Italy in the 14th century with Petrarch, on the other side Enlightenment Rationalism which begins in France in the 17th century with Descartes. After Descartes, there is a dangerous tendency to separate the two cultural phenomena and consider Humanism either anachronistic, or superseded. The inevitable result has been sheer confusion in the area of cultural identity; consequently, at this critical juncture of the new polity called European Union, there is talk of a “democratic deficit,” that democracy that is integral part of Western Civilization. We are in urgent need of cultural guides to show us how to better harmonize the two above mentioned phenomena. One such guide is Emmanuel Lévinas’ humanistic philosophy. In as much as it challenges the Western rationalistic philosophical tradition, it is extremely important for the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity. It explores in depth the threats to the authentic cultural identity of Europe, how modalities of thinking powerfully affect other ideas and shape a whole cultural milieu, sometimes with less than desirable consequences.

A few background biographical details may be useful to better understand Lévinas. He was born in Lithuania in 1902. In 1923 he moves to Strasbourg to study under Husserl and writes a doctoral dissertation on his philosophy. There, he also comes in contact with Heidegger’s philosophy. The dissertation on Husserl’s phenomenology gets published in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, Lévinas is beginning to take his distance from Heidegger. He enlisted in the French army, was captured in 1940 and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps. Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. He became a teacher and administrator in an institute for Jewish education in Paris (l’alliance Uneversel Juif); there he begins to study traditional Jewish texts under the directorship of the Talmudic sage Mordechai Shoshani to whom Elie Wiesel (who also studied with him) devotes a chapter in Legends of Our Time. In 1961 Lévinas defends the first of his two major philosophical works (Totality and Infinity) before the philosophy faculty of the Sorbonne becoming a professor of philosophy. His second major work bears the title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.

Those are the basic events that dramatically change Lèvinas’ thinking. Prior to World War II he had merely criticized elements of 20th century Western thought; afterward he begins to attack the whole European philosophical tradition, especially its culmination in Heidegger’s thought, for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He begins to indict western philosophers in general for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts, such as Hegel’s “Spirit,” or Heidegger’s “Being,” which assimilate countless individuals to rational processes, thus negating their individuality. To be sure Kierkegaard had also criticized this Hegelian tendency, countering it with his existentialist philosophy. Those who understood his critique only too well, promptly proceeded to relegate his thought to the theological within a false dichotomy (shown absurd by Thomas Aquinas way back in the 13th century) of philosophy/theology, thus insuring that Kierkegaard would never be as influential as a Hegel or a Heidegger. In any case, Lévinas too argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers included—interact with persons different from ourselves. He argues that this “face-to-face” realm is not the same thing as the realm of abstract concepts. It possesses its own texture which is primarily an ethical one. In this domain we are challenged by “the otherness of the other person.”

It is this “otherness,” which is an integral characteristic of human life, but the Western philosophical tradition has overlooked and even negated it, thus contributing to the dehumanization of Man. Lévinas’ life and thinking were deeply affected by the trauma of the Nazi genocide, better known as the Holocaust. But what is unique about his thinking is that it refuses to make those monstrous events its core subject matter. As Derrida, who admired Lévinas’ philosophy, aptly expressed it once: the danger of naming our monstrosities is that they become our pets. Lévinas’ writings provide no extensive discussion of the Holocaust itself; therefore, the assumption, on the part of those who were thinking and writing on it, has often been that Lévinas could not be considered a valid source of philosophical insight into this dark period of human history. But that is an erroneous assumption, just as invalid as the assumption that he unreservedly admired Heidegger’s philosophy because he happened to have translated it into French. As a matter of fact, Lévinas’ thinking is a reaction to the Holocaust by the mere fact that it asks the crucial question: What does it mean to be a human being? Were one to encapsulate the whole of Lévinas’ philosophy in two succinct words, they would be “being human.” This philosophy insists throughout that an extreme, unbalanced rationality devoid of imagination, feelings, senses and spirit, unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of life, is the equivalent to a refusal to be human, to allowing oneself to become a monster.

Not unlike Vico in the 18th century, he individuates such a root in the Cartesian ego, an autonomous center of consciousness which in modern philosophy has assumed the function of a paradigm for thinking about human beings. Lévinas does not deny this world-constituting ego, rather he leads it to the discovery of an ethical core within itself; which is to say, he uncovers another root growing within the first root which he calls the “self.” The conundrum seems to be this: if it is true that the ego does the conceptual work of philosophy by announcing what there really is in the world, how can this ego then acknowledge the essentially ethical “self” which lives within itself? Somehow a bridge has to be found between this limitless power and freedom of the independent intellect, and the particular concrete ethical obligations to another person. For, this ethical self, unlike the ego, finds itself caught up with the welfare of the other prior to a conscious, rational decision, in a recognition, even when unwilled, of his/her humanity. Indeed this ethical capacity seems to come from another place than our rational powers of analysis evidenced within the Cartesian ego. Even if we grant that such an ego is adequate in identifying the truths of philosophy, it somehow remains unable to acknowledge a domain where there is no choosing of the connection with the other; in fact the other way around may apply: the other chooses me, one is “already responsible” for the other prior to any rational analysis.

And here is the philosophical paradox: Lévinas’ task becomes that of using rationality to take the Cartesian ego beyond rationality, somewhat similar to what Vico does with his concepts of fantasia, which for him precedes rational reason, and the concept of Providence who guides human events and is both immanent within history but also transcendent. Which is to say, the rational ego has to be brought to recognize a sort of enigmatic “ethical” truth which Lévinas calls “pre-originary,” i.e., arising outside, prior to the usual time-line of the reflective ego. In attempting this operation, Lévinas will proffer statements such as: ethics is “older” than philosophy, it is “first philosophy,” on the scene before the arrival of rational philosophical thinking; something ingrained in being human. Within purely classical categories, that may be equivalent to the Socratic preoccupation with dying well by living a life of integrity and devotion to truth, as exemplified in Plato’s Apology. It is this ancient voice of goodness, which even Vico’s pre-historical “bestioni” possess to a degree, a voice often overlooked by rationalist philosophers, but powerfully present in Talmudic texts, that Lévinas finds strangely silent in the modern Western philosophical tradition. In mytho-poetic language, it’s as if Lévinas were to come face-to-face with the goddess Europa, as she is being abducted by a black bull (Zeus in disguise), to journey to another shore, there to assume a different persona, and he were to ask her, “Europa quo vadis?” after warning her to remember her original identity: “nosce te ipsum”; which is to say, go back to the future and know yourself holistically: know your Greco-Roman origins, yes, but also the Biblical tradition (the foundation for Christianity), the Christian heritage, the Humanistic synthesis of Graeco-Roman and Christian civilizations, Celtic and Germanic cultures with their ideas of freedom, the universalizing Enlightenment rooted in the democratic-scientific tradition born in ancient Greece, the Islamic influences. Voltaire and Descartes yes, but Vico and Novalis too are part of your identity. Your unity will be a chimera if it is only a unity of a bank and neglects its spiritual elements. Undoubtedly this hermeneutics, or re-interpretation of the Cartesian ego, placing at its core an non-refusable responsibility for the other without granting the ego any time to think it over and choose, so to speak, challenges some of the most basic assumptions of modern, and in some way classical, rationalistic philosophy. Not since the times of Mamonides in the 13th century had a Jew dared such a fundamental challenge from within the Western philosophical tradition. It is the challenge of Paul to Greek culture revisited. For indeed Lévinas is saying nothing short of this: the knowing ego does not exhaust what it means to be human. Some have called his philosophy one of “ethical subjectivity,” as a way of dismissing it as the raving of a lunatic, just as the ancient Greeks dismissed Paul in the agora. For the serious reader, however, it is rather a re-definition of subjectivity face to face with a totalizing kind of Cartesian reflection.

While Lévinas does not write directly about the Holocaust, other thinkers, who influenced Lévinas, were nevertheless reflecting upon the philosophical implications of this dark event of human history. One such was Berel Lang who wrote an essay titled “Genocide and Kant’s Enlightenment,” which appeared in his Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide. In this essay Lang uncovers certain lines of affinity between some classical aspects of Enlightenment thought, and the Nazi genocide. His conclusion is that there are two important aspects of the Enlightenment that formed the intellectual heritage, which needed to be in place, for genocide to occur in the heart of civilized Europe: namely, the universalization of rational ideals, and the redefinition of the individual human being in terms of its possessing or not such a universal rationality. The genocide, Lang argues, was aimed at those groups who stuck to their own ancient pre-Enlightenment sources of particularistic identity, considered “irrational.” Hence the racial laws and racial exclusion were expression of ingrained Enlightenment prejudices. Which is to say, the Enlightenment sheds light on everything except itself; it remains to be enlightened. This powerful essay leads many cultural anthropologists comparing civilizations, to begin to wonder: which, in the final analysis, is more obscurantist: religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, or a so called “enlightened” era throwing out the window the baby with the bathwater and arrogantly refusing any suggestion that it ought to enlighten itself, and not with its own light?

This line of thought conjures up that terrible face to face encounter of Dante with the poet Bertrand Del Bornio in a cave in hell doing “light to himself” with its own decapitated head. There we have reason eating its own tail; internal logical thinking and assuming the grammar of lunacy. I dare say that such a question has not been satisfactorily answered yet. In that question lies the challenge of Lévinas’ philosophy: in its displacing of the centrality of Cartesian thinking within modernity, in order to re-center it around ethics: the face-to-face encounter with another human being which is always hopeful unless it occurs in hell. Everything we have discussed above begs this particular question: is Lévinas’ challenge to the Western philosophical tradition philosophically tenable? To answer the question adequately we need to be first aware that Emmanuel Lévinas, as well as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenweig (the author of Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections in a Dark Time, 1988), are representative of learned European Jews with great familiarity with the texts of both the Jewish and the Western philosophical tradition. They challenge the latter exactly because they are so knowledgeable in both.

Lévinas is fully capable of confronting the intellectual traps of those rationalists who would relegate him to the sphere of theology. To the contrary, he insisted on writing in both spheres and claimed that Jewish religious textuality contains hitherto unexplored philosophical insights. For this is a tradition which puts great emphasis on interpersonal, social and familial relationships; phenomena not contemplated in traditional Western philosophy. Which is to say, the challenge is to Western philosophy’s totalizing pretense, beginning with Plato’s times, that it can gather everything up in one synchronic whole. It is that challenge that irritates control freaks, thought policemen, rationalists and mysologists galore. It goes a long way in explaining their attempt to relegate Lévinas’ philosophy to the sphere of the merely mystical.

Finally, let us briefly examine how Lévinas develops this fundamental challenge to Western rationalism. He names both the texts of Jewish tradition and philosophical discourse “the said,” while calling the living activity of interpretative struggle (its hermeneutics) with the texts, and the self which suffers for the other, “the saying.” The said always tries to capture the saying, which may partly explain the ancient grudge of Plato towards poets (see Plato’s Republic, book X, on Homer). In any case, it is the saying which launches the said and puts it into circulation. The saying echoes outside of space and time destabilizing the comfortable, rationally secure positions rationalists take up in the said, in conceptual truths (thought to be universal and eternal), in a secure totalizing kind of knowledge. Yet it is this very destabilizing process that injects the ethical outward-directness into the said.

Lévinas will often contrasts the saying’s vulnerable openness to the other (which he calls “being ex-posed) with the said’s relative security (which he calls “exposition”). He asserts moreover, that there is a rich unexplored relationship between the way we are “exposed” in ethics, and the life “exposition” we use to analyze and order the world. Indeed, this is a new, essentially Jewish, philosophical reflection which places into question the claim to totalizing completeness, by an appeal to the priority of ethics. It insists that any person that confronts me, needs to be placed outside the totalizing categories seeking to reduce her/him to an aspect of a rational system. Basically, what Lévinas is doing is relocating our dangerous ability to deny others their legitimate sphere of difference; an ability which is capable of destroying our own humanity. This is nothing short than the core struggle for the achievement of moral humanity which was also the root ethical aim of Vico’s New Science.

Like Vico, Lévinas shows us the way to keep the benefits of universal Enlightenment ethics while avoiding its perils. For, his ethics is not based on a totalizing sort of universalism, but on the particular concrete needs and demands of each unique individual, every “other’ that I meet within time and space. Every time I meet the other, she/he constitutes an ethical challenge to my self, a challenge as to who I am as a human being. This kind of philosophy is a challenge to each one of us to go beyond nostalgic returns to Greek classicism, as important at that may be, in the understanding of Western Civilization; to establish intellectual-background-assumptions which are different from those of the Enlightenment; to search for urgently needed new cultural paradigms, new ways of thinking appealing to the priority of ethics and the importance of the particular as a category of thought, a place in thought wherein genocide and hatred of the other becomes inconceivable; in short to prepare new wineskins for the new wine which is a “Novantiqua Europa.”

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Russia-EU break possible but unwanted

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Pressures in relations between Russia and the West have recently become so strained that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of the possibility of a complete break in ties.

In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based academic and diplomatic think tank established upon a presidential decree, assessed how real the threat is and what consequences it could lead to.

It is necessary to make it clear what “a possible break with the EU” means – whether cutting relations with individual European countries or with European Union structures, said Kortunov.

“If we talk about EU countries, we shouldn’t forget that they now account for more than 40% of Russia’s trade turnover, they are the main source of investments and technologies that go to Russia. No one is ready to give up on this, and no one will,” he said.

As for structures of the EU bloc, in general, a break would be possible, but it would be both unwanted and unwelcomed, he said.

Kortunov noted that cooperation between Russia and the EU shrank in recent years, and a great many of the structures established to build bilateral ties have been closed.

“For example, in the past, we regularly held EU-Russia summits twice a year – in the first half of the year in Russia, in the second half in the EU presiding country or in Brussels,” he explained.

“Now such summits do not take place. The number of working groups that work in specific areas has decreased.”

Following this logic, breaking or freezing the remaining ties is possible but it is an extremely unwanted scenario because it is impossible to have good relations with European countries – EU members – and not have any relations with the EU itself, Kortunov said.

“A number of important issues lay within the competency of the European Union, including but not limited to trade and scientific and technical cooperation,” he said.

He warned: “Sooner or later, our projects with individual countries will run into unresolved issues at the level of the EU bureaucracy. Therefore, in principle – I repeat once again – a break is possible, but it is extremely unwanted because it is fraught with many negative consequences.”

Cooperation in ‘non-toxic’ areas

The EU is interested in cooperation with Russia as well, as it is a big market and important partner, he added.

Russia also plays an important role in the Middle East, and the situation in the region directly affects life in the EU, so cooperation on regional conflicts is another important part of Russian-EU interaction, said Kortunov.

To defuse the situation, he said, both sides have to exercise caution in their rhetoric.

“It’s one thing for members of parliament to say something critical, and quite another for the decision-makers in the executive branch to do that. The latter should exercise as much restraint as possible,” said Kortunov.

Cooperation in “non-toxic” areas, where Russia and the EU can work together despite political differences without making any difficult concessions, would also contribute to building trust, he said.

“And we need an open discussion with the EU about how we see ourselves in the world in five, 10, maybe more years,” he said.

“We need a strategic dialogue, which is not currently being conducted, at least I do not know that it is being conducted. And then we can gradually correct the relationship.”

Foreign Minister Lavrov said last week that the EU had been breaking bilateral mechanisms established under agreements on partnership and cooperation.

Asked if Russia is heading for a breach with the EU, Lavrov said he believed Moscow would be ready for it, and the country has to become fully economically self-sufficient in case sanctions are imposed in a sphere where they could risk the Russian economy.

From our partner RIAC

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Dara of Jasenovac

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The region that we now call Western Balkans does not remember that the realization of a movie caused many reactions and comments as ” Dara of Jasenovac”. The movie deals with the most painful topic in Serbian history – the genocide that Croats and Bosnian Muslims committed against the Serbian people in the so-called Independent State of Croatia, in the Jasenovac concentration camp during World War II.

All Nazi concentration camps after the end of the World War II were preserved to this day, so that the memory of the crimes would not fade. Millions of visitors come to Auschwitz, Dachau and other death camps, and pay their respects to the innocent victims. When in December 2009 from a museum in Auschwitz the “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) sign was stolen, it was a planetary news. The sign was found after less than a month, although broken into three parts, which was again world news.

But few, outside of the Balkans, have heard about the Jasenovac extermination camp in Croatia, which was never liberated, but instead saw roughly 1,000 inmates escape in the hope that at least one of them would live to tell the world about the horrors of being imprisoned by the Croat Nazi-aligned puppet government that was appointed to rule a part of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia.

Israeli professor Gideon Greif, an expert on Auschwitz, researched the history of Jasenovac, which resulted in his book Jasenovac: Auschwitz of the Balkans. The Croat-run Jasenovac extermination camp was the size of about 150 football pitches and was established on April 10, 1941, four days after Nazi Germany invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

The wartime Independent State of Croatia, or NDH, was a Fascist satellite that was created by Nazi Germany and Hitler’s closest ally, Mussolini’s Italy. Under its leader, Ante Pavelic, the NDH set out to exterminate the Serbs, Jews and Roma who lived in the areas that were under their control – the Jasenovac camp was built to serve this purpose.

What made Jasenovac particularly cruel was the existence of a special camp for children where more than 20,000 Serbian children were brutally murdered. The methods used by the Croat guards to kill and torture the inmates were reportedly so barbaric that even SS chief Heinrich Himmler is believed to have suggested to the Croats that industrial killing, i.e. gas chambers, was a “cleaner way” to liquidate victims so that the guards wouldn’t need to use knives, axes, and other handheld weapons against those that they were sending to their deaths. Menachem Shelah, a historian with the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, wrote in 1990 that “the crimes committed in Jasenovac are among the most terrible in the entire history of humanity.”

Historians have estimated that between 700,000 to 1,000,000 people were killed at Jasenovac. The Nazis, themselves, recorded up to 750,000 deaths. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Croatian government has continually insisted that only 83,000 people were killed at Jasenovac. Croatia’s first post-Yugoslav president, Franjo Tudjman, an unabashed nationalist and the man responsible for restoring the Ustase-era flag as the national symbol of Croatia, insisted until his death in December 1999 that a mere 30,000-40,000 people died while imprisoned at Jasenovac.

The total number of deaths that occurred at Jasenovac may never be known as concerted attempts to suppress the extent of the horrors of the camp continue to this day. This, however, is not a new process. Immediately after World War II, Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, played down the crimes that were committed at Jasenovac as they were seen as a potential threat to the “brotherhood and unity” doctrine of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

“Dara of Jasenovac“ is the first film dedicated to the Nazi Croat camp Jasenovac for mass extermination of Serbs. The decision of the authorities to show the movie “Dara of Jasenovac” simultaneously on the public services of Serbia and Republic of Srpska, as well as on commercial television in Montenegro, was  the right decision in the public interest.

It should be noted that the film Dara from Jasenovac has not only a historical role, but also a geopolitical one. Republic of Srpska has been under pressure since its inception in 1995, with the ultimate goal of abolishing it. There is a whole list of Hollywood films in which Serbs and their struggle in the wars of the 1990s were shown in a negative context. The aim was to show the Serbs as evil and Republic of Srpska as a criminal creation. The ideologues of this theory were the Bosnian Muslim political leaders and the financiers were predominantly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. That is why “Dara of Jasenovac“ has not only historical and artistic value, but also has a geopolitical one.

`We should continue to make films that will show the suffering of the Serbian people throughout history. I think that we will adopt it, not only as a program act, but also as a program of the Government of Republic of Srpska, to treat Serbian victims in the Independent State of Croatia in the right way“, said Serbian member and chairman of the BiH Presidency Milorad Dodik, after the premiere of “Dara of Jasenovac“.  This statement shows that the leading Serbian politician in Bosnia and Herzegovina has strategic thinking, and that is to be commended. All that remains is, that Milorad Dodik should be supported in this plan by other Serbian institutions and especially by the state of Serbia.

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Council of Europe fights for your Right to Know, too

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Authors: Eugene Matos de Lara and Audrey Beaulieu

“People have the right to know what those in power are doing” -Dunja Mijatovic Council of Europe, Commissioner for Human Rights.

Access to information legislation was first seen in 1766 in Sweden, with parliamentary interest to access information held by the King. Finland in 1951, the United States in 1966, and Norwayin 1970 also adopted similar legislation. Today there are 98 states with access laws; of these, more than 50 incorporated in their constitution. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights 2006 and the European Court of Human Rights 2009 both ruled that access to information is a human right, confirmed in July 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a sine qua non of 21st-century democracy.

Global civil society movements have been promoting transparency, with activists and journalists reporting daily on successes in obtaining information and denouncing obstacles and frustrations in the implementation of this right. To this end, the Council of Europe was inspired by pluralistic and democratic ideals for greater European unity, adopted the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents recognising a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities. It brings a minimum standard for the fair processing of requests for access to official documents with the obligation for member states to secure independent review for restricted documents unless with held if the protection of the documents is considered legitimate.

The right to freedom of information

Access to information is a government scrutiny tool. Without it, human rights violations, corruption cases, and anti-democratic practices would never be uncovered. Besides exposing demerits, the policy is also known to improve the quality of public debates while increasing participation in the decision making process. Indeed, transparency of authorities should be regarded as a fundamental precondition for the enjoyment of fundamental rights, as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The policy equips citizens and NGOs with the necessary tool to counter refusal from authorities to provide information. The European Court of Human Rights recognized that withheld documents could be accessed in specific circumstances. In principle, all information should be available, and those upheld can also be accessed, particularly when access to that particular information is crucial for the individual or group to exercise their freedoms unless of course, the information is of national security or of private nature.

Access to information in times of crisis a first line weapon against fake news

The COVID pandemic has enabled us to test access policies and benchmark the effectiveness of the right to know during trivial times, as Dunja Mijatovic mentioned. In fact, having easy access to reliable information protects the population from being misled and misinformed, a first-line weapon dismantling popular fake news and conspiracies. Instead, during COVID, access to information has supported citizens in responding adequately to the crisis. Ultimately, transparency is also a trust-building exercise.

Corruption and environmental issues

Information is a weapon against corruption. The Council of Europe Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) is looking at the specific issue of access to official documents in the context of its Fifth Evaluation Round, which focuses on preventing corruption and promoting integrity in central governments and law enforcement agencies. In about a third of the reports published so far, GRECO has recommended the state to improve access to official documents. In regards to the environment, the United Nations Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, commonly referred to as the Aarhus Convention, expands the right of access to information on environmental matters thus complementing the Tromsø Convention. Declaring these policies as the primary tools that empower citizens and defenders to protect the environment we live in.

Good models exist

Most Council of Europe member states have adequate mechanisms regarding the right to information. For example, in Estonia, “the Public Information Act provides for broad disclosure of public information” states Mijatovic. Moreover, “in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and several other countries there is an independent oversight body – such as an Information Commissioner – responsible for monitoring and enforcing the right to information, while some other countries entrust Parliamentary Ombudsmen with supervision of the right of access to information”. Finally, “the constitutions of several European countries do indeed guarantee the fundamental right to information.” Nonetheless, there are still in consistent levels of transparency among state institutions or a failure to meet the requirement for proactive disclosure. The entry into force of the Tromso Convention willbe an opportunity to bring back to the table the importance of the right to information and to read just European States practices regarding the enhancement.

Barriers and Challenges

Digitization is still recent, and authorities are not accustomed to dealing openly. There is a sentiment of reservation and caution. Before the advent of the internet, governments enjoyed a level of political efficiency and practical obscurity. Viewing public records required the time and effort of a visit to the records’ physical location and prevented easy access to details of individual files. Openness has made the policy cycle longer, with a more thorough consultation process and debates. The availability of digital documents has caused an unavoidable conflict.

One of the conflicts is a privacy protection and policy safeguards invoked against freedom of information requests. Requirements to provide transparency of activities must be mitigated with national security, individuals’ safety, corporate interests, and citizens’ right to privacy. Finding the right balance is essential to understand how local governments manage the dichotomy between providing open access to their records by maintaining the public’s privacy rights.

Several governments think twice before pursuing transparency policies. Access to information hasn’t been a priority for some of the European States. Mijatovic reported that “filtering of information and delays in responses to freedom of information requests have been observed in several member states”. Although there is a growth in these laws’ popularity, we are always a step behind meeting the supply and demand of information objectives in an era of digitization.

Legal perspectives

Tromso Convention has only been ratified by eleven countries, which are mostly located in Scandinavia (Finland, Norway and Sweden) or in Eastern Europe (Bosnia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Moldavia and Ukraine). Reading this statement, three questions should come to our minds:

1.    Why not all European states have ratified Tromso Convention?

2.    Why do Scandinavian countries have chosen to ratify the Convention?

3.    Why are most of the Member States from Eastern Europe?

Regarding the first question, the answer resides in the fact that the ones who haven’t taken part in the Convention already have strong national laws protecting freedom of information and don’t need to bother with extra protection and external surveillance. For instance, Germany passed a law in 2005, promoting the unconditional right to access information. Many other European states such as Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France &Poland have similar national law.

Regarding the second question, considering that all Scandinavian countries already have national laws assessing freedom of information, the most likely reason behind their ratification would be symbolic support to the cause or because the Convention’s framework is less restrictive than their national laws.

Finally, concerning the last question, we could suppose that most Eastern countries have an interest in demonstrating themselves as more transparent, more following the rule of law. For example, if we examine Montenegro’s case, we could assume that taking part in the Tromso Convention is a step closer to their accession to the EU in 2025.

As for the reservations that have been made, only Finland, Norway and Sweden have made some noticeable. Regarding Norway, the country declared that “communication with the reigning Family and its Household” will remain private in accordance with Article 3,paragraph 1 of the Convention. This limitation covers something interesting, considering that, as mentioned earlier, access to the data type of legislation was first adopted in order to get access to information held by the King. In parallel, Finland declared that “the provisions of Article 8 of the Convention concerning the review procedure [will] not apply to a decision made by the President of the Republic in response to a request for access to a document. Article 8 provides protection against arbitrary decisions and allows members of the population to assert their right to information. Sweden has made a similarreservation on Article 8 paragraph 1 regarding “decisions taken by the Government, ministers and the Parliamentary Ombudsmen”.

Thoughts towards better implementation

For smoother data access implementation, governments can act on transparency without waiting for legislation through internal bureaucratic policy. These voluntary provisions for openness can be an exercise towards a more organic cultural transformation.

Lengthy debates on open access are entertained by exceptions to access. To be sure, governments have enough legal and political tools to withhold information, regardless of how exemptions have been drafted. Instead, a more productive and efficient process is possible if we concentrate on positive implementation and enforcement, including the procedures for challenges on legal exemptions.

The implementation phase of access laws is challenging due to a lack of leadership motivation, inadequate support for those implementing these requests, especially since they require a long term social and political commitment. To do so, an overall dedication and government bureaucratic cultural shift should take place. Although the implementation of access to information should be included internally in all departments, considering a standardized centralized approach to lead the new regime with authority could send an important message. Record keeping and archiving should be updated to respond to requests with improved information management systems. As such, the goal would be to make a plethora of information immediately and unconditionally available.

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