The heads of the police or the army, are privy to intelligence about matters of national security. They would have been part of agencies that were required to gather and share to the government top secret information.
They would also be knowledgeable about the weaknesses of the security forces, the strength of their forces, their tactical methods as well, also about which political operatives are under the radar and for what. At the same time, they are familiar with certain plans that the national authorities have in place, and other highly confidential information.
Against this background, it must be a concern to learn that after retiring from their positions, heads of national security agencies are venturing into partisan politics. There are ethical issues involved here and there is the risk that what is known and what should be kept secret and confidential could be passed on to opposition parties.
The fact that someone joins a political party does not mean that what they know and what they should keep confidential are going to be revealed. But there is that risk and guarding against this risk is an ethical issue.
Of course every individual has a right to freedom of association. Judges too have this right but no judge is going to exercise his or her right to become active in politics while he or she sits on the bench. This would be unethical and the judge would be in a conflict of interest.
There is also the reverse situation whereby a high judicial official upon retiring opts to take up a political appointment. No conflict of interest here (the judge is retired) but it is not a good precedent because it opens the individual concern to criticism, which may be wholly unjustified, that when that person was sitting as a judge he or she had political sympathies. As such here too the right to freedom of expression is always conditioned by ethical principles.
In the case of former heads of national security agencies, it may not be advisable for them to enter into partisan politics after they would have retired. It sends the wrong signal and does not set a good precedent even though there is nothing unlawful about it.
In the same way, it does send the right signal when persons leave high judicial office to take up political appointments or when after leaving high political office they take up high judicial office. This too is an ethical issue.
While there is no legal impediment preventing this from happening, it does not set a good example at all when it does occur.
The government, of course, has a right to be concerned about senior personnel from the security agencies finding their way into partisan politics after they would have retired. The government would have concerns about the effects of such moves on the image of professionalism and independence in the security services. But the government must equally be concerned about the possible effects on perceptions about the independence of the judiciary when persons leave high judicial office to take up political appointments.
One solution to these problems is not to leave such decisions to the persons concerned but for some code of conduct for judicial and security officers to be developed. This code should emphasize the right to freedom of association but should insist that the persons concerned be discouraged (not barred) from involvement, in the case of security officers, from partisan politics for at least five years after retiring, and in the case of retired senior members of the judiciary, from active government jobs for a similar period.
This past week a good example was set when the Chairman of the Ethnic Relations Commission indicated that he would be stepping down as the head of that body since he has appeared on the list of candidates for the ruling party that is contesting this year’s general and regional elections.
The person recognized that by so appearing on the list and by appearing on the political platform of the ruling party, he was placed in a position whereby he was required to step aside and he rightly and commendably did so.
It is hoped that some consideration will be given under the new administration that will come into being next week to drafting a code of ethics for members of the security services, constitutional office holders and senior members of the judiciary. This will go a long way in ensuring that the reputation of independence and professionalism and objectivity within the security services, the judiciary and constitutional office holders.
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