• Friday, Nov 22, 2019
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What transparency really means

  • Published at 12:02 am October 19th, 2019
Magnify glass transparency
We should not be kept in the dark BIGSTOCK

Citizens have the right to know what their government is doing

Transparency in governance does not only mean openness in government business, application of laws, or financial transactions. It also includes our dealings with other countries, what treaties the country enters into, their purposes, and costs and benefits. 

In a totalitarian state where governance is absent or opaque, people remain in the dark not only on what the government does, but also what dealings it has with other countries. But in a democracy, government transactions cannot be hidden, because these are discussed in the parliament.  

Treaties or agreement with other countries are presented before the parliament or legislatures before they are signed, sealed, and delivered. 

That is why in many countries, treaties and agreement take months, even years before these are operational even though the heads of governments of these countries had agreed in principle. 

In many instances, treaties agreed upon by a head of state or government of a country with another entity or country never took effect because the parliament did not endorse or ratify it. 

A most notable example was US Senate’s non-ratification of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I as a result of which US did not become a member of the League of Nations. 

A much later example of such non-ratification was when the US Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. 

The point of all this argument is that in a democratic country a treaty or an agreement with a foreign nation, the norm is to have the treaty reviewed by the parliament and then get it endorsed. 

Such a review not only gives the people’s representatives a chance to understand what the treaty is all about, how it benefits the country, but it also provides transparency on the treaty or agreement to the whole nation. 

Yes, there is a risk that the agreement may be rejected by the parliament as has happened in the US Senate, but there is no such danger in a parliament where the party in power is in a majority. 

The discussions in the parliament bring out the facts as also demonstrate the cost and benefits of the treaty. This in fact, shifts the onus of the agreement from a single individual, which may be the head of government, to the parliament, as this body will sign on this agreement. 

This open process will not require a post-agreement justification to people. No one will accuse the government of opacity or non-transparency or worse still spreading falsity about the agreements.

In her recent trip to India, several agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) were signed between the countries, the most notable among them were agreements on withdrawal of water from Feni river by Tripura, standard operating system for use Chittagong and Mongla ports by India, and bulk export of Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) to India (Tripura).  

There is nothing unusual in such agreements being signed during visit by a prime minister or head of government to another country. This has happened before. The difference now is that these took place in the face of expectations of many other pending agreements with India such as Teesta water sharing, help with Rohingya repatriation, cross border issues, etc. 

Therefore, some MoU and agreements took the country by surprise. It required a full one hour of press briefing by the PM on her return to explain the rationale of the agreements. 

All these post-facto explanations and justifications of agreements would not have been necessary if the public had full prior information on them. And this public information need not have been through gazettes or notifications, this would have been available to people if these were discussed in the parliament, by people’s representatives. 

A discussion in the parliament would have given transparency to the process, shown people of government’s good faith, and earned their trust. A discussion in a parliament where the majority is from the ruling party would not have jeopardized the agreements, nor would it have hampered our relationship with our neighbour. 

Above all it would have definitely quelled misgivings about the agreements and saved the government hours of needless explanations.

Openness in government is a cardinal guideline in democracies. Trust is built where people can see for themselves what is contained in government dealings, not only domestically but internationally as well. 

People vote for transparency not opacity. Secrecy in government dealings leads to distrust and finally to loss of public support for a government. People do not vote for people they don’t trust. Leadership is strongest which is built on trust. 

What has been building in the country over last several years is a trust deficit between people and those who govern. People take to rumours when facts are scarce, and take law in their hands to correct what they believe to be true. These would not be necessary if people were kept informed of all governmental actions and transactions. If there was openness in government and governmental entities. 

There would be more treaties and agreements with India and other countries in the future. Maybe all of these will not affect everyday life of people, but as conscious citizens, they have a right to know what these are, and what benefits they bring to the country. 

These should not be shrouded in secrecy, nor should these be explained after the fact. The only way treaties and agreements can be transparent is when they are discussed in public forums, and in democracies in the parliament. 

We hope we can see these debated in our parliament and not explained through post facto press briefings. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.