EU, NGOs bash BiH law amendments

30/07/2012

By legalising many forms of conflict of interest and changing punishment for violations, the amendments to the 2002 legislation will increase corruption, some say.

By Anes Alic for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 30/07/12

photo

BiH parliament passed a new law that allows officials, accused of conflict of interest, to be fined instead of being suspended. [Reuters]

EU institutions and NGOs are criticising the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) parliament's passage of amendments to a law intended to facilitate the country's anti-corruption efforts, saying the amendments will lead to an increase in corruption.

Earlier this month, lawmakers passed amendments to the Law on Conflict of Interests with virtually no debate.

The most disputed provision of the new law is that officials accused of conflict of interest will be punished by being fined instead of being suspended. Violators will be warned and given several months to remedy the conflict of interest situation. The new law also abolishes ineligibility sanctions for potential election candidates.

The conflict of interest law was imposed by then High Representative Paddy Ashdown in 2002 and adopted by parliament. It restricts elected officials, executives, and advisers in government institutions from certain activities, including promising employment, granting privileges based on party affiliation, giving gifts, and providing privileged information on state activities.

The law has been important for transparency and the fight against corruption, as well as for the country's EU aspirations. However, the law was never fully implemented, as many provisions remained unclear. There was also a lack of political will to sanction officials.

The initial deadline to amend the law was May and the mandate of the parliament's inter-sectoral commission, which proposed the amendments, expired a week before the vote.

Transparency International claims that instead of improving the existing legislation, the amendments have weakened it by providing more opportunities to influence the work of political officials.

Srdjan Blagovcanin, executive director of Transparency International's Bosnian branch, told SETimes that the new legislation actually annuls the existing law by enabling additional benefits for public officials and legalising many forms of conflict of interest.

"The definition of 'relatives of elected official' will be reduced only to members of the same household. Reducing the number of close relatives would lead to a complete collapse of the system [to prevent] possible corruption," Blagovcanin said.

The new amendments also increase the limit on contracts for personal services of public officials from 2,500 to 10,000 euro per year.

"Not only is this an opportunity for abuse of office, it is also aimed at weakening the sanctions for determined cases of conflict of interests," Blagovcanin said. "The only sanctions remaining for conflict of interests are fines ranging from 500 to 5,000 euro, which are extremely low compared to the possible gain through conflict of interest."

The Bosnian Central Election Commission, tasked with implementation of the law, has so far determined many cases of conflict of interest among elected officials, based on the provisions dealing with close relatives.

According to commission data, in 2011 alone it started sanctions procedures against 250 officials. However, only 120 officials were actually sanctioned and only a dozen of those sanctions were implemented. Sanctions have also tended to target lower-level officials; no officials on the entity or state level have been targeted under these provisions.

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In 2008, the commission's investigation showed that then-Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj was a paid member of the supervisory board of a local insurance company that was doing business with government bodies.

The sanctions for the violation were suspension and a ban on holding public office for four years. However, the sanctions were never implemented and Alkalaj retained his position until this year, when his mandate naturally expired.

Damir Kaletovic, political commentator and reporter for Sarajevo-based Federal Television, told SETimes that the law effectively legalises political corruption.

"The bottom line is that politicians are securing their incomes beyond their mandate. As none of the laws related to the fight against the corruption is synchronized with EU standards, the country loses 200m euros annually because of corruption. Most of that money ends up in the pockets of companies owned by political parties and their close tycoons," Kaletovic said.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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