The election of Maithripala Sirisena on January 8th last year brought with it the promise of ‘good governance’. A key promise was to change what is widely viewed as a destructive political culture where politicians behave as being above the law and rule the public rather than serve them. The tangible deliverable to this end was the ethical code of conduct for parliamentarians. As the Maithrimeter indicates, according to the original 100-day plan, this was to be presented to the public one year ago (22nd January 2015) and to be adopted by parliament on 2nd February of last year.
While Sri Lanka’s parliamentarians have not yet provided the public with a proposed code of conduct Sri Lanka’s recent membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) provides both opportunity and impetus for the Government to deliver on the presidential election pledge to introduce an ethical code of conduct for parliamentarians. The internationally recognised Common Ethical Principles for MPs developed by the OGP provides a framework for reform.
Signing up to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in Mexico in October, the Sri Lankan government affirmed its commitment to greater public accountability, joining 68 OGP member countries. Sri Lanka has pledged to “foster a global culture of open government that empowers and delivers for citizens.” The adoption of a set of ethical principles for parliamentarians will also help the new government to demonstrate progress on delivering on its promise of open government.
To this end, Sri Lankans need not look far to locate a model code of ethics for members of parliament. Developed by the OGP, the Common Ethical Principles for Members of Parliament (‘Common Ethical Principles’) released in October 2015 codify a set of norms that individual members of parliament should adhere to in their service as the people’s representatives.
The Common Ethical Principles, which are informed by international experience and endorsed widely by parliamentarians and civil society, canvass a universal ethical code for parliamentarians. Organised under five broad themes, they encompass important universal principles for members of parliament concerning matters of:
· Democracy, human rights and the rule of law
· Serving the public interest
· Ensuring public integrity
· Valuing diversity and pluralism
They expand on an emerging body of international standards and seek to codify crosscutting principles of ethical parliamentary conduct, as expressed by parliaments and parliamentarians themselves. The OGP principles provide both prescriptive and aspirational principles and offer a roadmap for legislative or political reform. They also serve as a tool for those monitoring parliamentary conduct.
What could it achieve?
While some aspects of the ethical principles may be aspirational or self-regulating, others can be codified into law and close loopholes that could be exploited by politicians’ when placed in a position of power. This includes a wide array of regulations including zero tolerance of hate speech, disclosing business relationships, sources of campaign financing and other gifts that may compromise independence or create a conflict of interest. It also includes internal mechanisms such as strengthening parliamentary investigative mechanisms of improper conduct and treatment of parliamentary staff.
Sri Lanka’s debate on changing its destructive political culture has largely forgotten one of the most powerful promises that could change it for the better. An ethical code could support the progress made in appointing independent commissions through the 19th amendment and provide the impetus needed for law enforcement to become more empowered and confident of their ability to treat parliamentarians as citizens held to the same, if not higher standards, than the average citizens.