The Transparency Institute Guyana Inc. (TIGI), recently held its fifth annual fundraising dinner. The feature address was given by the Hon. Khemraj Ramjattan, Vice-President and Minister of Public Security. Previous speakers were Mr. Deryck Murray of Trinidad and Tobago, Prof. Trevor Monroe of Jamaica, Justice Desiree Bernard and Mr. Ralph Ramkarran.
Today’s article is devoted to outlining of the main points of the Minister’s presentation.
Paying attention to the views of citizens
The Minister referred to an article he had written in 1998 for the Guyana Bar Review, in which he warned decision-makers to pay attention to the views of citizens as expressed in the free press. In that article, he asserted that “An interest group’s protest, a splinter party’s leaflet, even the controversial lyrics of a calypso, a critical artistic or dramatic piece, or a biting commentary or viewpoint are essential messages which cognizance must be taken of in a democratic society”. The Minister indicated that he still holds strong to those words today.
The Minister commended TIGI for its “biting” commentary it expresses on matters of public importance. He asserted that “Our democracy will be half-baked if public interest watchdogs such as TIGI are not effective, and halts its digging into our decisions and public affairs. This group of dedicated patriots who exercise so much grit, courage and eagle instincts must continue to probe their flashlights into our affairs. Their investigative work and frank, sharp comments must stay here with us. We as a country will be enriched by your work. That is the democratic order this Coalition Government is committed to and will effect in good time”.
Effects of corruption
The Minister endorsed the generally accepted view that corruption is a threat to the sustainable development of people. It destabilizes and makes insecure the whole society, it destroys institutions and values of democracy, including ethical values, and jeopardizes the rule of law. It involves the illicit acquisition of wealth by a few to the detriment of thousands and even millions. On this score, he cited the cases of: Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire who looted some US$5B from the Treasury; Sani Abacha of Nigeria who amassed some US$2.2B; the brother of former President Carlos Salinas who amassed over $120M which could have taken care of health costs of approximately 600,000 Mexicans for an entire year; and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, Montesinos Torres of Peru, and Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti.
The Minister asserted that corruption has a capacity to seep into the judiciary of many countries. He cited a report that examined the Judiciary in 48 countries and found that judicial corruption was pervasive in 30 of them. He indicated that corruption also reduces foreign direct investment and local investment within countries and that any successful fight against corruption could see increases in national incomes by 40%, as indicated in a 2004 World Bank report.
The Minister referred to the forensic audits undertaken amid allegations of corrupt behaviour and maladministration at various State agencies. A total of 49 such audits were completed, and the results confirmed these allegations. Cabinet reviewed the related reports, and among the decisions taken were to: (a) have them published in the Ministry of Finance’s website; (b) refer them to their respective boards for appropriate action based on the findings and recommendations; and (c) hand over to the Commissioner of Police reports that reflected suspicion of criminality. Many of the recommendations involved tightening of systems and procedures, and the respective boards must work with management to ensure speedy implementation of these recommendations. The Minister also expressed his satisfaction with the actions taken so far and suggested that TIGI can help in making an unbiased assessment by comparing what was recommended as against what was implemented.
The Minister referred to the establishment of the Bid Protest Committee to address complaints from aggrieved bidders. In addition, after 14 years, the Public Procurement Commission was finally activated through the appointment of five Commissioners. This major constitutional prescription has now been satisfied, thereby facilitating an extensive scrutiny of all major contracts for goods/services and the execution of works.
Guyana standing on the CPI
The Minister indicated that he rather suspected that because of the above-mentioned actions taken by the Government, Transparency International has elevated Guyana’s score on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) to 34 in 2016, from 27 and 29 in years 2014 and 2015 respectively. This 5-point improvement is third highest among all the countries surveyed, with Suriname and Timor-Leste recording the highest with a 7-point increase.
In connection with Guyana’s international obligations under the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (IACAC), the Minister stated that these were in the main kept. The two most important aspects of these conventions relate to controlling and repressing corruption by requiring State Parties to, among others:
(a) take legislative steps or other measures to prevent corruption in public and/or private sectors;
(b) criminalize specified actions and omissions and recognize criminal or quasi-criminal liability for these offences; and
(c) cooperate with other States to help in detection, investigation, prosecution and punishment in addition to assistance in asset recovery;
The Minister indicated that in keeping with these obligations, the Government recently brought to the National Assembly the State Asset Recovery Bill while Cabinet is currently reviewing the Whistleblower Protection Bill and the Witness Protection Bill. These will soon be forwarded to the National Assembly for consideration. He opined that the State Asset Recovery Bill meets the requirement of our international obligations under the two Conventions. An important provision relates to a civil proceeding process that seeks to recover assets looted from the State by someone’s unlawful conduct.
The Minister acknowledged that the State Asset Recovery Bill has generated some amount of controversy due to major misconceptions and misapprehensions. He stated that civil recovery of assets is an action against property and not the person. It does not carry any penal sanction against the person holding or in possession of the property but instead pursues recovery of property which is the product of unlawful conduct. “Just think of it for a moment! A person in possession of proceeds of crime or in possession of property which belonged to the State can have no constitutional grievance if deprived of their use. So like the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering of Financing of Terrorism (AMLCFT) Act of 2009 with the relevant amendments in 2016, this State Asset Recovery Bill of 2017 will fill another gap in our anti-corruption legislative landscape”, the Minister remarked.
The Minister indicated that since the golden thread running through this Bill is to go after the loot, and is not so much directed towards the person holding the loot in that strict sense so as to inflict punishment or establish guilt for specific offences, the presumption of innocence is not under challenge. To the extent that a presumption of innocence is part of a fair trial, civil asset recovery that is calculated using presumptions of illicit acquisition is very much compatible with the Constitution and UNCAC. In addition, civil asset recovery already exists in the AMLCFT Act and under the State Asset Recovery Bill, it will continue as part of Government’s policy to shape an environment of transparency, honesty and integrity and a deterrence against corruption.
In relation to Guyana’s extractive resources, the Minister indicated that the Government wants the scrutiny of international watchdogs such as the Global Witness which probes corruption in the environmental sector. This is in addition to Guyana’s application for membership of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI Secretariat has already been set up, a Coordinator appointed and Multi-Stakeholder Group launched. The aim is to ensure responsible and transparent governance in the extractive resource sector.
The Minister stated that Cabinet is in the process of fine-tuning amendments to the Integrity Commission Act and the Schedule thereto to include an expanded Code of Conduct. The Code will incorporate the ‘The Ten Principles of Public Life’, popularly known as the Nolan Principles. These are accountability, dignity, diligence, duty, honour, integrity, loyalty, objectivity, responsibility and transparency. Other proposed amendments seek to deal with a number of prohibitions for those in public office, for example, not indulging in sexual harassment and/or misconduct, avoidance of conflict of interest, non-acceptance of bribes and gifts, and improper use of State assets. Cabinet has also recommended that the Integrity Commission be given adequate resources to investigate all disclosures made by public officials and to have its own corruption prosecution division.
The Minister concluded his presentation with the following words:
Sometimes I really feel that there is nothing wrong with this beautiful, bountiful land that could not be cured by the implantation of all those ethical standards I just mentioned into all of us…leaders and followers. But until that time comes around, until that becomes doable, watchdogs such as TIGI, and the Free Press are the best things we have going for us.