By Asoka Obeyesekere, Executive Director, Transparency International Sri Lanka
Reading a MP’s asset declaration is one of the most empowering feelings a citizen can have. Larger than life characters have to disclose their worth in a document which they can be prosecuted for falsifying – it is in that sense the humbling effect of working for the people. On Monday, 23 January 2017, Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) received more than half of the entire parliament’s asset declarations under a request made to the Speaker.
On receiving the asset declarations you have listed out before you all of an MP’s assets and liabilities, ranging from properties and vehicles to jewellery and fixed deposits, which have been very sensibly structured into two sections. First, the declaration from the time the given MP first became liable to submit a declaration – typically when first entering parliament. Secondly, their most recent declaration – in the case of our request their assets as at 31 March 2016.
The asset declaration provides you with a multiplicity of angles by which you can hold an elected official to account. How have they accumulated wealth between first entering parliament and now? What are their business interests? Has a position within the government allowed the individual to financially gain? How can they afford an expensive vehicle? The questions are limitless.
However MPs can falsify or attempt to structure their affairs in such a way as to avoid declaring their assets – a particular grey area covers beneficial ownership, which would not have been in the minds of the original framers of the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities law. In that regard asset declarations need to modernise, but the policing system also needs to be strengthened. One step that can be taken is to inform CIABOC (the bribery commission) of declarations that you suspect are not in line with ‘known sources of wealth’. However, having an asset declaration in the public domain for citizens to scrutinise, share and discuss is the strongest driver of accountability and compliance.
RTI comes into force
On Friday, 3 February 2017 the Right to Information Act came into effect. Using the power vested through the fundamental right to information, any person can request an asset declaration and publish what they request. This is a revolutionary step in the accountability of elected officials, which will ensure that the healthy and essential degree of scepticism that is required in a vibrant democracy is reinvigorated.
In this sense RTI is a significant step towards recognising the social contract between those that govern and the citizens that empower them. It is supposed to put an end to the question ‘who are you’ when you request information from a public authority – as a citizen you have a right to the information held by the state – you do not need to establish your standing.
Having shown through our recent request that citizens can gain asset declarations through the existing legislation, there is still an advantage of using RTI. The legislation found under the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act is wrapped in archaic secrecy provisions. Whilst ‘any person’ has the right to get a certified copy of an asset declaration, if you show any other person what you request, you are liable to a two thousand rupee fine and/or two years rigorous imprisonment. Information requested under RTI can be freely disseminated. To put this beyond doubt the RTI Act provides an override that in the event of any inconsistency with other written law, the provisions of the RTI Act will apply.
The President and Prime Minister’s asset declarations
To mark the first day of enforcement of the RTI Act, Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) made a public interest RTI request for the asset declaration of the President and Prime Minister. To usher in this new promised chapter of Open Government, it will also provide the two highest offices of the country an opportunity to show leadership in ensuring the need for RTI Act compliance. Under the framework of RTI this information will need to be released within a maximum of 28 days. Therefore by early March we will be able to assess the commitment of both the President and Prime Minister on the same.
The government has already shown policy commitments to reforming and empowering citizens through public access to Asset Declarations. This is evidenced through the Open Government Partnership (OGP) commitments to removing asset declaration secrecy provisions and implementing RTI. These commitments received Cabinet approval on 11 October 2016.
It is now for the government to lead by example and demonstrate Open Government in practice. It is through such actions that we can see the good governance commitment of the government in action. Using the powers under RTI, TISL will remain persistent in unlocking this information in the public interest. However, RTI will only change the rules of the game if citizens are emboldened to use their right – public access to asset declarations is just one step in the right direction.
If you want more details on how you can use your Right to Information visit www.RTIwatch.lk/process