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Video message to Carter Centre Conference on Access to Information for Women

Available languages: en

Strasbourg, France, 14 February 2018

Good afternoon everyone and a very warm welcome from the European Parliament in Strasbourg in France where I live and work as the European Ombudsman. I’m speaking to you in the middle of what’s called ‘session week’ when the members of the European parliament drawn from all of the 28 Member States of the European Union come together in plenary session to debate and to vote on resolutions and laws.

Strasbourg is also the home of the Council of Europe and of the European Court of Human Rights – the two big post second world war institutions that safeguard human rights throughout all of Europe - and while I’m very sorry that I can’t be with you in person in Atlanta, I think it is fitting that I can speak to you from such an iconic place when it comes to the protection of fundamental rights.

I want to begin by congratulating The Carter Centre for initiating this work on how to help to transform the lives of women through the ability to access information relevant to their lives, to the lives of their families and to the lives of their communities.

It is an aspect of transparency that is rarely the subject of mainstream discussion on access to information or gender equality and so I commend Laura Neuman and all of her colleagues and collaborators for their innovative thinking.

I don’t know whether this conference was planned before or after the beginning of the cultural shift we are witnessing in relation to the rights and recognition of women, While many people saw the election of Donald Trump as potentially damaging for women’s rights among others, what has happened has been in some ways counter-intuitive.

Women, and young women in particular have been empowered through the opening of their eyes as to the real state of play when it comes to their place in the world and many are now looking with fresh eyes at their lives and beginning to move and to mobilise to look for change where change is vital.

Previously unchallenged norms are now being challenged and changed and that must continue to happen but not just in the west, not just in developed countries but in places where women struggle not just with so called everyday sexism and misogyny, in places where the challenges faced by women in rich democracies are nothing compared with those faced by their sisters in much of the rest of the world.

Access to information is a fundamental right and it is a particularly vital tool for women in the developing world because it is women who do so much of the work that protects their families and protects their communities. It is women who give birth, women who mind the young, women who take care of the elderly, who seek out food and water to keep their families alive, who seek healthcare, who literally keep themselves and their communities alive.

A UN study of time and water poverty in 25 sub-Saharan African countries, for example, estimated that women collectively spend at least 16 million hours a day collecting drinking water; men spend 6 million hours; and children, 4 million hours . Gender gaps in domestic and household work, including time spent obtaining water and fuel and processing food, are intensified in contexts of economic crisis, environmental degradation, natural disasters, and inadequate infrastructure and services. And that is why it is not just a good thing in itself to empower women to access information relevant to their lives, it is also an economic and humanitarian imperative.

And while the higher level work of the EU might seem removed from those concerns, in our globalised world decisions made at EU level can and do trickle down to the most marginalised communities both in Europe and across the wider world.

As European Ombudsman I deal with complaints from citizens, businesses, NGOs and others about the EU institutions such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the regulatory agencies  The European Commission – comprised of 28 Commissioners from the Member States - proposes laws  and also regulates in key areas. Many of those complaints concern access to documents, freedom of information. Many of the issues I deal with appear to be far removed from people’s day to day lives as matters such as social protection, healthcare, housing, etc, are dealt with at the level of the EU member states.

But the laws passed at EU level, whether about the regulation of digital technologies, or medicines, or tobacco, or chemicals, or trade, do ultimately impact on the day to day lives of all of us in the EU and even globally.  A significant part of my work has been to secure greater transparency around those who advise the lawmakers, those who lobby the lawmakers, so that privileged access is not given to those who represent the private and not the public interest. A law is essentially the sum total of every influence on it and it is important that the ability to influence is not limited.

For example, I’ve done a lot of work in the area of trade deals between the EU and other parts of the world, such as Vietnam and indeed the United States through the stalled talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. My focus has been on making those deals more transparent so that people from the very start know what’s going on and can seek to influence the talks if they so choose.

And although the TTIP negotiations are currently stalled the result of my work, plus pressure from parliament and from civil society has led to changes in the way in which the Commission conducts its trade negotiations with significant documents now being published throughout the life cycle of the talks thus enabling many more people to seek to influence the talks in the public interest.

Trade deals with developing countries are I would suggest of particular interest to women as they can impact on local market economies which families rely on either to secure affordable food and other supplies or even to trade in them through street stalls and other small commercial avenues. Equally issues such as food and medicines safety are of interest to the mothers who are making decisions about their families’ welfare. In the case of the EU Vietnam deal I secured a commitment from the European Commission to monitor the human rights impact of the deal as it is rolled out.

To promote access to public health information, following a complaint from an NGO, I launched an inquiry into the European Medicines Agency’s (EMA) public access to clinical study reports. We had already secured transparency around many drugs including one taken by many young people with skin problems but which had significant mental side effects.

This more recent investigation related to Humira, one of the world’s biggest selling anti-inflammatory drug. The agency initially claimed that there were commercial interests are stake but were persuaded by the argument that any clinical information of value to doctors, patients and researchers, must be disclosed in the public interest and trumps commercial interest.

The agency has since increased transparency across all of its clinical trial work so that we can all become a lot more aware about the safety of the medicines that we and our families take.

The European Commission has a particular responsibility to ensure that policy-making in public health is as transparent as possible. The lack of public access to information on meetings between EU policy-makers and lobbyists was a real concern and lobbying by the tobacco industry was the focus of another investigation by my office. In the last number of years, stricter controls have been placed on lobbying and it has become increasingly difficult for direct lobbying to take place at least in Brussels completely out of sight but regulation at Member State level is inconsistent with widely varying attitudes and standards across the block.

Those of you who followed the Volkswagen car emission scandal will have seen how rules were bypassed to allow pollution to continue despite denials that this was actually happening. And this isn’t an abstract issue.  Air pollution caused by car emissions has a direct negative impact on the health and lives of men, women and children right around the world.  Making sure that regulators and lawmakers work independently of industry is also a significant strand of the work that I do.

 I have also asked the President of the European Council Donald Tusk to consider publishing information about meetings he and his cabinet hold with interest representatives and only to meet with registered lobbyists.  The Council represents the member states and is a co-legislator along with the European Parliament so it is important that citizens know who is seeking to influence the Council as well.

I have also sought to ensure greater gender balance in the hundreds of expert groups that advise the EU Commission on regulation and I have to say, that the renewed focus on gender equality in the last year has made these issues a lot more high profile and a lot more sensitive within the institutions. The lack of female representation, whether at an EU seminar, on an expert group, or at other important points of participation in EU life is now much more likely to be commented on.

We all know that information is power and in today’s hyper connected world where information flows at unprecedented rates and where the trading and manipulation of data is arguably the major defining feature of our era, access to those information flows has never been as vital. Great benefits can come even to the poorest communities through information technologies but they need to be given the tools to maximise those benefits.

I know that the Carter Centre is very aware of the work of the Open Government Partnership in enabling communities to thrive through government interventions that include greater ease of access to information. The success stories that have already emerged demonstrate how the abstract issues of transparency and access to information can become vital and real when they empower communtiies and give them greater agency, greater control over their own lives. As European Ombudsman I support the workof the OGP and encourage EU participation in it.

So thank you for inviting me to participate today. I look forward to future collaboration if what I have said today strikes a chord with you. The work you are doing is timely and important and I wish you well with it and I hope that you have a wonderful conference.