Revised code of conduct for ministers, others too ‘bland’ – GHRA

Contending that the revised draft code of conduct for ministers and others in public life is “too bland and generalized”, the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) last Friday said it finds that no reference is made about the declaration of assets.

“Only by reference to the requirements of the Integrity Commission contained under this principle can any inference be drawn about assets. While legally this may be acceptable, the absence of explicit reference to this issue is peculiar, because in the public mind it is the raison d’etre of a Code of Conduct,” the human rights body said in a statement.

At the time it was making public its concerns about the proposed code for ministers of the government, members of the National Assembly and public office holders. The GHRA indicated that following an invitation from the Office of the Prime Minister it has submitted its comments.

In the press release GHRA said that it made specific comments on the headings as they appeared in the revised code.

Under the integrity heading, the GHRA proposed that the code “explicitly address,” the declaration of assets.

It was pointed out that in view of the attempt to be exhaustive in listing the grounds of discrimination the absence of sexual orientation appears not to be an oversight. The GHRA proposes that this be included.

With regard to Article 8 which deals with Sexual Misconduct, GHRA said that it finds sub-paragraph (1) unacceptable in its entirety. “Sexual harassment and offensive sexual conduct constitute unacceptable behaviour under any circumstances, not limited to ‘during the performance of his or her official duties’”.

As such the GHRA proposed its own formulation; that is “Any Person in public life may be liable to prosecution under Section 23(1) of the Sexual Offences Act 2009 pertaining to ‘inducement, threat or deception’ who: (1) engages in comments, gestures or physical contact of a sexual nature or any other such offensive conduct of this kind; or (2) pursues a course of conduct by which he or she exploits his/her position or authority for sexual gratification.”.

The GHRA also took issue with Article 12 which deals with Breach of Code. According to the release this section is generally unsatisfactory and excessively deferential to the President.

In light of recent experience in Guyana, it stated that exclusion of the President from any oversight with respect to his observance of the Code leaves the Code vulnerable to ridicule.

In as much as the Integrity Commission, is the logical body to exercise a monitoring function over the Code of Conduct, the Act is “flawed in discriminating against persons who are not members of religious organizations in its selection of Commissioners”. The GHRA posits that this issue is further complicated by the growing practice of selecting religious leaders to occupy parliamentary seats.

In light of these difficulties the GHRA would favour lodging responsibility for enforcing the Code of Conduct with the Ombudsperson.

“Rather than a range of sanctions appropriate to the nature of the breach, the revised code limits sanctions only to “the person in public life may be removed from office”, encouraging the notion that a lesser breach may be overlooked, the release said.

With regard to its general comments, GHRA noted that while there was an improvement over the original version, the proposed code in its current form cannot serve as an effective guide to the ethical realities facing parliamentarians in Guyana.

The GHRA stated that that Guyana’s electoral system meets only the “crudest tests having no constituencies, lacking gender balance, accountability to party leaders rather than electors and selection of MPs by party leaders.” It added that the ethnic polarization of politics further erodes the quality of parliamentary life.

It is in these circumstances, the GHRA said that it would recommend an approach to developing a Code of Conduct that aims to constantly challenge all ministers and office holders of their ethical duty to off-set the limitations and unconstitutional features of our political systems. Such a process, it was stated would tend more in the direction of a detailed code rather than reliance on general principles.

The GHRA noted that matters of confidential information and separation of government from political party business are not addressed at all effectively in this revised version. As regards the latter position, the human rights body said in its submissions on the original Draft Code in October, 2015, it had recommended that “The more effective way of insulating confidential information from unauthorized leaks is for the government to enforce public service rules against employing party activists in senior public service positions.”

With respect to separating party and government business, the GHRA said it had recommended that “The difficult area of where government business ends and party business begins needs more rigorous treatment.” The human rights body said that the best guide to relations between officials and staff, particularly with respect to what is appropriate and inappropriate regarding their engaging in political activity is the US Hatch Act which it had provided in its original submission.

“Unfortunately, the sub-Committee charged with revising the Draft Code seems to have lacked the diversity and weight required for a task of this nature,” the press release said adding that while reference is made to the list of codes studied from other jurisdictions, no mention is made of domestic submissions received in the earlier round of consultation.

APNU+AFC had originally promised to deliver a code of conduct for ministers within 100 days of entering office. It defaulted on this commitment and then said it wanted to incorporate such a code in the Integrity Commission Act. It published a draft code and submissions had been invited on it.

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