The President of Guyana has to act in relation to conflicts of interest- real of potential- which exist or may exist within his government. It is time not just for a code of conduct to guide public officers but also action to be taken where there is likely to be a conflict of interest.
If a public officer is involved in investigating stolen state lands, then that officer cannot be also involved in buying large tracts of lands. If a public officer is going to investigate corruption in the award of Government contracts, then that officer should not be seen being in a position to also have to tender for contracts.
If a public officer is investigating the distribution of oil blocks, that public officer must also not have any interest in acquiring oil blocks.
These are fundamental principles which should be observed within Government. There is no need for anyone, not in this day and age, to have to point this out to the government.
The government will continue to be put in an embarrassing situation unless it lays down the ground rules as to what a public official may or may not do while in the employ of the state. Without these rules, there will continue to be situations which will cause the government headaches.
The test of conflict of interest is not rocket science. It was outlined in the historic ‘Pinochet’ case before the House of Lords. Some background is important in understanding the principle. I have written about this before in these columns.
In 1973, and with the support of the United States, Augusto Pinochet, a Chilean general, toppled the government of Salvador Allende. Thus commenced one of the most brutal reins of any President. Thousands of persons were tortured and more than 3,000 disappeared during Pinochet’s bloody rule.
After he retired, some of his victims brought proceedings against him in a Spanish Court. Far away in Chile, the general and former President could not have been worried. No former Head of State had ever been convicted on the basis of the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allowed a person to be convicted in a foreign state for abuses in that person’s home state.
In 1998, Pinochet was on a private visit to England for medical treatment. Amnesty International, a global human rights body, got wind of the visit. Amnesty International had for decades been highlighting and condemning human rights violations in Chile during the rule of Pinochet.
Upon learning of Pinochet’s proposed visit, it immediately sent out a missive to all European governments reminding them of their obligation to arrest Pinochet for violations of the Convention on Torture. Eventually, a Spanish judge issued an arrest warrant for Pinochet.
Pinochet was arrested and held in a London hospital where he was seeking medical attention. He challenged his arrest and was successful in having the initial warrant quashed.
A second warrant was also quashed, but this decision was stayed, allowing for the authorities to challenge the quashing before the House of Lords. Amnesty International joined the case at that stage.
Pinochet’s bid for freedom rested on his claim of immunity as a former Head of State. The House of Lords allowed the appeal against the quashing of the second warrant, which meant that Pinochet was still under arrest and awaiting an extradition hearing to stand trial in Spain.
It was later brought to the attention of Pinochet’s legal team that one of the judges was linked to a charity which had raised funds for Amnesty International, and that the said judge’s wife was also an administrative staff with Amnesty International.
Pinochet therefore appealed the decision of the House of Lords on the grounds that its decision was tainted with bias because of this conflict of interest. Pinochet, through his legal team, argued that the relationship between the judge and Amnesty International “gave rise to a reasonable apprehension or suspicion of bias”.
The new panel of judges in their decision held that what was being argued was not actual bias, but the appearance of bias. This today has become the litmus test of conflict of interest – not only actual bias but the appearance or mere suspicion of bias. The Lords held that the judge had an ‘interest’ which must lead to his disqualification.
The President of Guyana must take action to prevent controversies relating to conflict of interest. It is time for action. And that action is simple. Those who are in or likely to find themselves in a position of a conflict of interest should remove themselves from office.
If the President does not act now, his approval rating will fall further. If he acts, he will be seen as a man who stands for principles.
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