The method adopted by the Labour administration to address claimed injustices bears the hallmarks that pervaded “the culture of impunity” which killed Daphne Caruana Galizia. The distinctive features are political patronage and circumvention of the law.
See what happened in the Armed Forces of Malta in the run-up to the 2017 election and follow closely what is going on now, just months away from the electorate again being summoned to the ballot box. About 700 army officers and other ranks complained they had suffered injustices over the years. A government-appointed board heard their case and submitted a report about three years ago but no action was taken, a failing in itself perpetuating the injustices claimed by the applicants.
Enough time has gone by for both the government and the army high command to right any wrongs if they truly wanted to. However, judging by experience, they are probably waiting for the ‘right’ time to act. And what better time to hand out the candy than on the eve of an election, which some speculate could be held before year’s end?
There is a feeling of déjà vu. In 2017, half the army personnel were promoted during the electoral campaign, some of the promotions backdated by 20 years.
It is, of course, commendable that discrimination is dealt with and promotions are given where justified, especially within a disciplined force. However, the ostensible righting of wrongs cannot be done by creating a bigger injustice. It must, therefore, be ensured that the whole procedure is followed correctly and in a timely manner by those bodies set up by law for the purpose.
Yet, what happened in the past and what seems likely to repeat itself within the armed forces is but a blatant manoeuvre to curry favour with voters and bypass statutory bodies, such as the ombudsman.
Earlier this year, the ombudsman declared that the process to promote four officers soon after the 2013 election was irregular, illegal, improper and discriminatory. The promotions, he concluded, had been ordered directly by the home affairs minister and without the AFM commander’s knowledge. Political expedience had prevailed over a fair process.
Also of concern to the ombudsman was the way the government had chosen to address the claims of injustice, both within the army and beyond, by setting up internal boards.
In 2015, he had expressed “reservations” about the fact that such boards did not enjoy the same guarantees of independence and impartiality that his office could offer. He had also raised the fears of a popular perception that, for one to get what one deserves, one must go to those wielding power, rather than those empowered by law to mete out justice.
In his Ombudsplan the following year, he even warned that the lack of transparency of internal complaint mechanisms could undermine the ombudsman’s office as well as other constitutional authorities, such as the employment commission, which deals with cases of political discrimination.
But, as had happened when everything was pointing to the devastating extent of the culture of impunity and state capture before the inevitable eruption occurred, the government is likely to continue burying its hand in the sand in this case too.
That sour experience should prompt the prime minister to take the sound advice that the ombudsman so prophetically offered in 2015.
He had urged the authorities to ensure an end to “the time of clientelism and political patronage, which caused so much harm in the past” and to base themselves on “the law and fair and equal rights”.
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