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An ethical code of conduct for Ukrainian parliamentarians

July 9, 2016

The current Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Andriy Paruby, in an attempt to progress Ukrainian agreements with the EU, seems keen to move along the issue of an ethical code of conduct for parliamentarians.

Well bravo – the Verkhovna Rada is (in)famous for many things – such as fist fights, political showboating, being the biggest and most exclusive business club in the country et al – and is certainly associated with an absence of integrity, individual morality and group ethic.

Whilst those realities and perceptions continue within the domestic constituency (and among many external on-lookers) there will be no chance of increasing public (or external) trust in the drivers behind and/or actions taken within the national legislature.

Whatever gains there may be in tackling corruption, be they only existing on paper, or tangibly manifest, given the almost inseparable melding of business/personal interests and politics of the parliamentarians (or those who “rent” them), the creation, adoption and enforcement of a parliamentary ethical code of practice would seem to be a necessary compliment to anti-corruption legislation and the national reform process.

Theoretically there would be numerous areas of overlap between anti-corruption legislation (and transparency initiatives) and a parliamentary ethics code – conflicts of interest, lobbying/advocacy (particularly the opaque kind behind the political curtain), parliamentarian declaration of “gifts”, “entertainment”, and assorted jollies cunningly accounted for (if accounted for) as “corporate entertainment” by those seeking favour etc., etc.  The tip of a larger iceberg, and not an exhaustive list of course.

Naturally for any parliamentary code of ethics to have any hope of being adhered to if adopted, several questions need be raised and answered – including how to enforce it when parliamentarians stray – or deliberately ignore it.  There is a necessity for (clearly identified) punishment and a body to hear the issues and decide upon punishment.  (An ethics committee of some form or another.)

There is also a requirement to insure that all parliamentarians are fully aware of just what any code of ethics contains and the exceptions placed upon them.  Perhaps a “handbook” be issued to all parliamentarians and receipt upon signature by default declares not only a familiarity with the contents, but also unquestioned agreement to abide by the code.

The issue with Ukrainian legislation and its legislature is that it creates text that either heads into micro-script detail quite unnecessarily, or is left so broad and elastic in its text as to be almost unenforceable, and thus meaningless.  Therefore care will have to be taken when creating an ethics code that is neither too restrictive, nor too slack, and without meaningful consequences for those that transgress.

But what should appear in a parliamentary ethics code?

ethics

Much can be borrowed or bastardised from innumerable existing parliamentary ethics codes the world over.  There are also some particularly Ukrainian issues relating to its political culture that will also have to be addressed.

What do Ukrainian parliamentarians consider their role to be (aside from furthering personal interests)?

What does the Ukrainian constituency consider their role to be – or perhaps what their role should be rather than it is currently perceived to be?

Clearly Ukrainian parliamentarians, whether they retain their absolute immunity or not, must undertake to act according to the Constitution of Ukraine and also to uphold the law at all times.   (It is appreciated that such things are generally within the Oath when becoming a parliamentarian – and equally generally ignored – but a reminder with disciplinary consequences within an ethics code surely wouldn’t hurt.)

Perhaps if the parliamentarians cannot manage to find the courage to actually remove their own immunity en masse and for good, then within the ethics code it may be stated that such immunity will not be allowed to shield them against the just application of the law?  Ergo the inference being immunity will be lifted as a matter of course unless it can be shown that the application of the law would be unjust.

However, if EuroMaidan/Revolution of Dignity is an indication, there may be room for a caveat, narrow as it would have to be, to exercise civil disobedience in support of democracy or human rights.

Further there is an imperative that each parliamentarian insures that the national laws they craft, draft and pass, fully comply with the national obligations and commitments to international and regional law and treaties to which the nation has entered.  Worthy of inclusion in an ethics code?  Probably so.

It would be wise to make certain undertakings regarding protecting and promoting democracy.  In the usually fractious, dirty and nefarious Ukrainian political world, undertaking to accept legitimate democratic outcomes is perhaps a necessary position to take.

A duty for inclusive, pluralistic, and tolerant discourse both within and without parliament in pursuit of a parliamentarian’s professional duties is perhaps worthy of inclusion – within the bounds of tolerance, for there are limits to tolerating the intolerable.

When mentioning necessities, given the Verkhovna Rada history, clearly an absolute ban on physical violence and/or intimidation will have to be included – perhaps with a requirement to condemn unconditionally and for the official record any such actions whenever they occur, and unavoidable yet proportional stern punishment for offenders.  Quite clearly such actions simply bring the institution into disrepute and should not be suffered without meaningful recourse.

Though there currently be little fear of the shrinking space for civil society returning in Ukraine as witnessed under the Yanukovych regime, nevertheless perhaps an ethical code should oblige parliamentarians to insure a broad and fertile space for civil society.  After all, an ethics code is a document written not with a particular moment in time in mind – but is a code of a somewhat “eternal” nature, albeit a code that will have to remain somewhat “living, breathing and evolving” to stay in step with societal ethics as they too change and evolve over time.

It would be wise to somehow include a solemn undertaking not to undermine or nefariously influence the institutions of State.  Perhaps a duty to advocate for, and protect, the institutional powers and prerogatives of all democratic institutions.

Sadly it would be quite necessary to include a specific reminder to parliamentarians that they do indeed serve the public (and not themselves).  A public interest clause making it absolutely clear that their duties within the Verkhovna Rada are to create and implement effective governance – be that through the legislation the write and/or pass, through their participation in oversight/committee debate, and in far too many cases, that they actually tun up to work regularly at the Verkhovna Rada.

Whilst on the subject of turning up to work at the Verkhovna Rada – or not – when “or not”, unless on holiday or within official visiting delegations somewhere, they should be obliged to be engaging with, representing, and serving their constituents – and accessibility goes far beyond having a Facebook page or a generic email address which goes unanswered.

(The more time that can be filled with national politics and the more obligations to the constituents within an ethics code, theoretically the less time available for furthering personal and/or vested business interests.)

It seems some consideration regarding interaction with the media will be required too.  Neither Ukrainian parliamentarians, nor the Ukrainian media have much in the way of credit when it comes to ethics.  What level of political spin and bullshit is acceptable before it becomes unethical?  What of social media interaction when a parliamentarian’s Facebook seeks to cut out an equally unethical media conduit?

Should media interaction be separately dealt with in an ethical code, or should it (perhaps far more cleverly) fall within a wider more encompassing clause relating to transparency, good will, and good faith with regard to all public interaction?

Having mentioned good will, good faith and transparency, then any ethics code will have no choice but to set out robust and unambiguous guidelines and/or rules for conflicts of interest and/or the use of improper influence.

To avoid going on and on – what, exactly, should be covered by any Verkhovna Rada ethics code – and what, if anything, should not?

T’will be very interesting to see what eventually is arrived at by way of a Verkhovna Rada ethics code – for it seems quite possible it will become a template for other institutions of State.

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