Framework for an rtc convention

Framework for an rtc convention

As envisioned here, a Convention on the right to communicate will have two main parts: a clear description that leads to a common understanding of the right; and, a formal definition that can be embodied in a binding convention of the right. Description prepares for definition.

At the outset, it is essential to distinguish between description and definition. The intent here is to describe the right to communicate clearly enough to facilitate various lines of thought and action. In time, a common understanding of the right can be expected to emerge. With such an understanding as a foundation, a formal definition of should become possible within the context of a Conventionor equivalent instrument. As Unesco has demonstrated, absent a common understanding, a definition of the right will be illusive.


A multi-layer description of the right to communicate is set forth below: fundamental, inclusive and comprehensive. It has been distilled from a wide range of activities and across decades. Even so, it has no formal standing.


In this multi-layer framework, the first layer begins to differentiate the right to communicate from the other human rights included in the UDHR.

The right to communicate is a fundamental and inclusive human right; it is both a

  • natural right of the human person and a
  • prerequisite for the exercise of other human rights.

This fundamental right enriches the common heritage of humankind.

Today, it is understood that this right is a prerequisite for the exercise of other, some would say, all, human rights. For that reason alone, it is essential.

A framework for this right must accommodate two perspectives: the fundamental and the inclusive. From the fundamental perspective, agreement that everyone has the right to communicate appears to be commonplace. From the inclusive perspective, however, the exercise of any specific communication right may, at times, generate intense debate, even conflict. Such debate often focuses on communication freedoms and on communication responsibilities.

At the core of this fundamental right is the basic and universal claim that everyone has the right to communicate. Attached closely to this core and inseparable from it emerge three classes of specific communication rights: association rights, information rights, and global rights.

This description of the right to communicate also uses Article 19 of the UDHR as a touchstone, as others have done. In its entirety, Article 19 reads:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The bias of Article 19 is toward a transmission view of communication processes, a view consistent with the dominant one-way print and broadcast technologies of the 1940s. In addition to Article 19, several other articles in the UDHR contain elements essential to an interactive and participatory right to communicate. Note also the phrases: without interference; and, regardless of frontiers.

The specific rights and freedoms listed in Article 19 are included here under the fundamental right to communicate. However, the right to freedom of opinion and expression is consolidated under the ancient term, that is, the right to speech, as is consistent with the preamble of the UDHR. The terms used for the right to seek, receive and impart information have been re-cast and re-ordered to be compatible with an interactive view of the communication and information processes: to inform, to be informed and to inquire. And, assembly, participation, privacy, and culture have been imported from other UDHR articles and recast. A new right to choose has been added.

Specific communication rights that are not included in Article 19 are drawn from other articles of the UDHR for this global and interactive description of the right.

  • Assemble. Article 20: Everyone has the right to peaceful assembly ...
  • Participate. Article 21: Everyone has the right to take part in ... and, Article 27: Everyone has the right to freely participate ...
  • Privacy. Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy ...
  • Culture. Article 27: Everyone has the right to ... the cultural life of the community ...
  • Choice. Not specifically included in the UDHR but implicit in the UDHR as a whole.

In sum, nine specific communication rights are included in this description: four from Article 19, four from other Articles, and one from the UDHR as a whole.

The second layer of an inclusive framework for the right to communicate is displayed below:

Association rights Information rights Global rights Assemble Inform Privacy Speech Informed Choice Participate Inquire Culture ... ... ...

The three dots signify that from time to time any two specific communication rights may be consolidated or that new specific rights may be added as circumstances warrant. In that sense, the right to communicate is an open and flexible concept; this framework anticipates that the right will evolve and expand in the decades - perhaps, centuries - ahead (Harms, 2001).

The specific communication rights are interdependent. Consider inquire and privacy, or participate, inform and culture. Perhaps, each specific right will be found to have a working range. Further dialog, study and data are needed on these and other interdependencies -- a research task for the immediate future.


In a framework intended to parallel other UDHR Articles, the third layer of the right to communicate may be described as follows:

Everyone has the right to communicate; this fundamental human right includes but is not limited to the following specific communication rights:

a right to assemble, a right to speech, a right to participate and related association rights;

a right to inform, a right to be informed, a right to inquire and related information rights;

a right to privacy, a right to choose, a right to culture and related global rights

As a standard for achievement, the full recognition of the right to communicate requires that the resources be available to meet the basic communication needs of everyone.

An earlier version of this description of the right appeared in Many voices, one world, the MacBride Report, published in 1980 by Unesco. Of that earlier version, the MacBride Report stated: "this approach promises to advance the democratization of communication on all levels - international, national, local, individual" (MacBride, 1980, p.173).

A few years later, Sean MacBride wrote:

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was only declaratory, it is now regarded by most international lawyers as having acquired the force of Customary International Law. Thus, the right to communicate was recognized implicitly in the first code of human rights ever adopted (MacBride, 1983).

From MacBride's view, the right to communicate received implicit recognition in the UDHR. A task ahead is to move this implicit right toward an explicit status.


It is assumed that a clear description can both lead to a a common understanding of the right and provide a base for a definition. From that base, a definition can be built gradually and fitted into the framework of a formal Convention. As seen here, description leads to common understanding while definition forms the core of a Convention. Description precedes definition.

Even though Unesco was charged back in 1974 in Resolution 4.121 with producing a definition of the right to communicate, the fact that it has been unable to do so has been used in the years since by critics to minimize the importance of the concept.

The shell of a Convention sketched out below is a zero draft -- the draft before the first. You are cordially invited to fill in the outline.

For each of the Article stems, complete in 25 words or less.

Zero draft of a Convention on the Right to Communicate


  • Everyone has the right to communicate.
  • This right is a standard for achievement of all peoples.
  • This right allows the exercise of the other human rights. ...


Association Rights

  • Article 1. Everyone has the right to assemble. This right includes ... (+25 words)
  • Article 2. Everyone has the right to speech. ...
  • Article 3. Everyone has the right to participate. ...

Information rights

  • Article 4. Everyone has the right to inform. ...
  • Article 5. Everyone has the right to be informed. ...
  • Article 6. Everyone has the right to inquire. ...

Global rights

  • Article 7. Everyone has the right to privacy. ...
  • Article 8. Everyone has the right to choice. ...
  • Article 9. Everyone has the right to culture. ...


[Note: as the the studies of the 'Conventions in process' are completed, it will become possible to develop the following steps into a long-term implementation plan.]

The pathway leading to adoption, ratification and implementation of an rtc Convention is likely to span a decade and more:

  • Establish an International Committee to study closely the feasibility of an rtc Convention;
  • Draft a 'Concept Paper' that describes at the global level the present and future communication challenges to be addressed by an rtc Convention;
  • Develop a draft Convention that begins with a Preamble and embeds the basic provisions of the right to communicate in a series of Articles;
  • Secure sponsorship of five or more Member States and in due course secure UN General Assembly adoption of the proposed Convention;
  • Arrange for the Convention to be available for ratification by the Member States within the required time frame.


  • Sponsorship of the draft Convention by five or Member States is essential.
  • Websites on the rtc in five or more different countries and languages will be important.
  • Research that anticipates and answers basic questions will be needed.
  • Education that builds a common understanding of the rtc will be helpful.


At this writing, it is not completely clear whether or not there ought to be a Convention on the rtc and, if yes, given world conditions, whether it might be possible to gain adoption and implementation of it. There are many yet to be answered questions.

There is also the real possibility along this pathway toward a Convention that by 'accident and sagacity' an outcome different from and better than the one sought might be discovered: serendipity.

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