Government of officials should be held accountable for conflicts of interest

08. December 2021.

The new proposal of the Law on prevention of the conflict of interest, which is currently in the phase of public consultation, is a step backwards in the transparency, impartiality and fair action of state officials. That was pointed out during the round table “What does the new Law on prevention of the conflict of interest bring?”, organised by Gong and Miko Tripalo Centre.

“Establishing the Commission for Conflict of interest was one of the conditions for Croatia entering the European Union. Eight years later, a Law was released for public debate, which could seriously jeopardise the Commission's work and prevent government control. The government is obliged to account for its work before independent institutions because they serve as a control of the government. Corruption is confining Croatia. Because of that, the democracy is falling apart. Gong was a member of a working group which did not accept the recommendations which were in the lines of Greco’s, to prescribe sanctions for violating the principle of action and therefore strengthen Article 5,” said Oriana Ivković Novokmet and invited all the participants to try and answer the key question: has Croatia given up on processing conflict of interest and will the new Law strengthen or disassemble the Commission, making it a “card reader”?

Vedran Đulabić, a member of the Gong Council and a professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Zagreb, says that the new Law represents and improvement in technical terms, as it expands the scope of people to whom it applies, but in a strategic sense, it represents a step backwards due to the inability to conduct proceedings.

“The biggest problem is the inability to independently apply the principle of action. For example, buying expensive furniture or an expensive car for your own ministry, all according to the law, a public procurement was done – is it honourable, fair and impartial? Is conflict of interest naming your friends as ambassadors? Is conflict of interest using public resources in political campaigns? These examples tell us why the principles of actions are necessary and why they should be additionally operationalised,” Đulabić pointed out.

“Conflict of interest is not negative if it is acted upon – if we recognise it, report it and act on it. The Commission had the ability to act preventively so that as little cases as possible end up in criminal court. I think it is problematic that we, as a society, did not react to Greco’s recommendations and that we did not adopt the Code of Ethics, which we were supposed to adopt in 2015,” Sunčana Roksandić from the Faculty of Law of the University of Zagreb and a member of the Gong Council pointed out. She added that it is important to develop ethical integrity in all professions because not everything can be prescribed by law.

The president of the Commission for Conflict of interest Nataša Novaković said that the legislator who really cares about the principles of action should adequately regulate them in the new Law.

“The argument that the case law is such is not valid in the making of the new Law because nothing stops the legislator from regulating sanctions for breaking Article 5 or 6 in the new Law. Case law is a cowardly defence of the new Law. The legislator lacks the will to say they will fight against non-transparency and nepotism. We will no longer be able to ask an official (there is no longer any basis to) who went on a trip with an official and who paid,” she explained.

“Why establish a new ethical body in which some political actors will be elected and will make decisions partially? It is better to strengthen the existing body. Those principles are just called principles, they are not general law principles, they are purely ethical principles,” added Davor Ivanjek, the vice president of the Commission for Conflict of interest.

The High Administrative Court of the Republic of Croatia judge Mirjana Juričić said that if someone does not respect the law, they will not respect the ethical principles. “It is not a matter of fining someone, but of officials adhering to the principles of action and not getting into conflicts of interest. It is highly questionable whether they could be sanctioned. A climate should be created so that people should be held accountable for conflicts of interest, and ultimately be punished in the elections. The current government disregarded one very important fact – a prerequisite for entering the EU was a judicial reform, i.e., administrative judicial action. Just from the name of the Law on prevention of the conflict of interest, it is clear the intention is on preventing, not sanctioning. Preventing conflict of interest is impossible without the presence of the principle of action,” explained Juričić.

A Member of Parliament and a member of the National Council for Monitoring Anti-Corruption Strategy Implementation Dalija Orešković wondered who would lead the implementation of ethical provisions and whether Andrej Plenković would put Minister Ćorić in charge to decide on his fellow ministers.

“This Law is in line with expectations if we consider the genesis of the HDZ’s relationship with independent institutions. If one of the goals is strengthening the integrity of officials, prevention of corruption and prevention of conflict of interest – that is where we are in a bad position. A discontinuity in the application of particular institutions and a stalemate in the court practice will occur,” Orešković explained.

“The goal of this Law is to identify conflicts of interest and eliminate them, the easy way or the hard way, and this new Law disables that,” Nikola Grmoja, a member of the National Council for Monitoring Anti-Corruption Strategy Implementation pointed out. “The media rightly identified the spin. The Commission was stripped of power, the key authorities were taken away from them, but something was added, so it would look like an improvement,” Viktor Gotovac from the Faculty of Law of the University of Zagreb concluded.

Members of the parliamentary anticorruption Council, Gong and Miko Tripala Centre, legal experts and members of the Commission for Conflict of interest participated in this expert discussion. Mirela Ahmetović (SDP) and Zorislav Petrović were invited, but excused themselves. Damir Habijan (HDZ) did not respond. The morning before the public event, the representative from Ministry of Justice, i.e., the government representative.

Gong is a beneficiary of operational support - structural support to European think-do-tanks in the unit "Democratic and Civic Participation", under the Europe for Citizens program.

Gong is the Center of Knowledge in the field of civil activism and building of democratic institutions in the society, within the framework of the Development cooperation with the National Foundation for Civil Society Development.