Saturday, May 17, 2014

Democracy, rule of law and responsibility

 Democracy, rule of law and responsibility
Democracy, rule of law and responsibility
 M. Serajul Islam

In June 2012, US Secretary of Commerce John Bryson was involved in a hit and run car accident on a trip to California. He had hit a car but did not stop and then hit a second car and was then found by the police in an unconscious state. Meanwhile, the law took its own course and the police recorded the accident. While in hospital, it was revealed that the Secretary had a history of seizure that he had not revealed while taking his driving test because it would have disqualified him from getting his driving license. After police investigation revealed his medical problem, the Secretary accepted responsibility and resigned. He did not wait for the President to ask him to do so.

More recently, a second resignation occurred in the Obama resignation. Secretary of Health and Human Services, one of President Obama’s most trusted colleagues, Kathleen Sebellius resigned from her post. She had been with the President since day one of his first administration. The Secretary came into public criticism when the website designed to implement Obamacare for which her Department was in charge, ran into serious trouble. A company from Canada to which the job was outsourced, did a very bad job and millions eager to register for Obamacare, could not do it because of failure to access. It was also a great embarrassment for the President because there was serious opposition from the Republicans to destroy Obamacare and the glitch with the website was used by them to put the President and the Democrats and of course Obamacare on the mat.

The Secretary worked overtime and so did her collegaues. The glitches were resolved and by 31st March, 7 million Americans had registered for Obamacare, a number that even the Republicans accepted as a mark of success for the President’s health care policy, one with which he believes he would eventually be judged as one of America’s most successful Presidents. Kathleen Sebellius tendered her resignation after resolving the website problems successfully without any pressure or without being asked because she felt she was individually responsible for causing the President and his party deep embarrassment when the nation was eagerly waiting to know about Obamacare to register when the Republicans were out to destroy it.

Last month, the Prime Minister of South Korea Chung Hong-won left another glaring example of the importance of individual responsibility in a democracy. He resigned 11 days after a ferry disaster had killed 281, mostly school children because of botched rescue operations following the disaster that left the nation very angry and extremely upset. In tendering his resignation, he said: “During the search process, the government took inadequate measures and disappointed the public. I should take responsibility for everything as the prime minister, but the government can assume no more. So I will resign as prime minister.”

The two US Secretaries were not legally required to resign. The Prime Minister of South Korea was also under no legal pressure that would have removed him from office if he had not resigned. They all resigned on their own as required in a democracy where the law can only set the basic parameters of governance but where individual responsibility of those holding public offices is required to establish governance based on the principles of democracy. In any democratic government, ministers or their equivalents do not wait for the law to be told to take responsibility for failure in their ministries/departments that causes national outcry even where the failures do not necessarily occur due to their faults individually.

In fact, individual responsibility of ministers and public officials of similar status is a litmus test proof of a country’s democratic credentials. A twin litmus test of the depth of a country’s democratic credentials is the presence of the rule of law. The proofs of the litmus tests are visible in the public domain of any country that is democratic and governed by the rule of law. The nature and extent of such proofs establish the strength of the country’s democratic and rule by law foundations. The litmus test for the rule of law is a much simpler one because it occurs continuously and more frequently than cases of individual responsibility in a democratic country. Take for instance the case of the US Commerce Secretary. By the time he had regained his consciousness in the hospital, the law had taken its course and the fact that he was a minister was totally inconsequential to the police that wrote the report and reflected in it his medical condition. Therefore by the time he was out of the hospital in a few days time, he had decided to resign on his own on individual responsibility.

In fact, in the USA and everywhere else where there is rule of law, being important public officials like President/Prime Minister/Ministers or offspring’s of such individuals or related to such individuals are reasons for the law to be applied on them much more stringently than in case of the ordinary folks. In USA for example, the law treats a son or a daughter of even the President in the same manner as anyone else in the country. Therefore, if hypothetically, President Obama’s elder daughter who will be 16 on July 4th were to run into problem with the law, the White House would not intervene with the authorities to save her from the law. When President Bush’s twin daughters ran into conflict with the law on drinking charges and possession of fake ID, the White House issued the following statement: “It is an issue involving the president and the first lady and their daughters and their private lives,” and the law took its own course. The White House’s statement was intended to protect the daughters from the media and not the law.

Sadly, we cannot say that we are anywhere near fulfilling the conditions of individual responsibility or rule of law to establish our democratic credentials. In fact, if what is happening in Narayanganj is any guide, we would fail the twin litmus tests miserably. Seven murders were committed in which three officers, one a Lieutenant Colonel, of the country’s most elite law enforcing agency, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have been charged. The Lieutenant Colonel also happens to be the son-in-law of a senior Minister of the Government. The murders have caused national and international outcry. The Asian Chapter of the Human Rights Watch has addressed an open letter to the Prime Minister and has demanded impartial inquiry into the 7 murders and also on the extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances for which too fingers have been pointed at RAB.

The Government has removed the three RAB officers from service. The High Court has ordered their arrests. The Prime Minister has stated her resolve to bring the offenders to justice. Yet, the arrests have not been carried out. If those in public offices responsible for RAB had even the scantiest appreciation for rule of law and the importance of individual responsibility in a democracy, the head of the RAB and/or the Minister in charge of Home would have resigned by now. The Minister whose son and son-in-law are allegedly involved would have likewise also resigned. Regrettably, the way these officials are talking to the media on the issue that humiliated the government and the country at home and abroad, it is evident that they do not believe that individual responsibility or rule of law has any value in democratic governance. Such indifference to rule of law and individual responsibility by the guardians of the law not only obstructs democratic governance but also the credibility of the government. In fact, the Prime Minister’s current woes with the Narayanganj would have been substantially lessened if at least one of her Ministers had resigned which by the way is not an acknowledgement of guilt.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and his email id is HYPERLINK "" - See more at:,-rule-of-law-and-responsibility_858_2_5_1_0.html#sthash.eNO2gKDs.dpuf

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