Earlier this year marked a historic moment in Sri Lanka as five members of parliament (MPs) from across party lines came together to take a significant leap forward to improve the transparency and accountability of elected representatives.
At a press conference convened by Transparency International Sri Lanka (TI-SL), the five MPs released their declarations of assets and liabilities for 2017–2018, making this information public for the first time and becoming the first elected representatives in the country’s history to do so.
A secrecy provision in existing law
TI-SL has been a long-standing advocate for the public disclosure of asset declarations of elected representatives, primarily because this information is an invaluable tool in the fight against corruption. This is especially true given the political backdrop of corruption allegations around wealth accumulation of government officials.
Whilst all members of parliament in Sri Lanka are required to submit their declaration of assets and liabilities to the competent authority annually, the existing law does not provide for public dissemination.
In fact, although any member of the public may procure a copy of an MP’s asset declaration for a fee, the law prevents the sharing of this information more widely, with up to two years imprisonment for offenders.
For four years, TI-SL worked to challenge this secrecy provision and change the status quo. Our goal was to advocate for increased public scrutiny of elected representatives to help curb corruption.
Right to information (RTI)
The enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2016 (PDF) was a critical and necessary first step towards public disclosure of MP asset declarations.
The provision placing the RTI Act above all other written law preceding it, meant that if asset declarations could be obtained through RTI applications, the secrecy provision under the existing law (PDF) would be rendered null and void.
As such, when the RTI Act came into force in February 2017, TI-SL filed RTI applications with the Presidential Secretariat and Prime Minister’s office, seeking copies of the asset declarations of the country’s apex political leaders.
A pivotal decision
Despite the new RTI Act and stated commitment of the political leadership, the Sri Lankan government initially refused the RTI requests to release the President and Prime Minister’s asset declarations to the public.
After a long, drawn out appeals process the newly established RTI Commission issued an order directing the Presidential Secretariat to release the asset declaration of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
In addition, the RTI Commission encouraged President Maithripala Sirisena to make his own asset declaration public, noting that whilst the law does not require it, there is a growing trend for Presidents worldwide to do so to improve transparency.
Advocating for change
Immediately following the RTI Commission’s decision, TI-SL stepped up its advocacy campaign to encourage MPs to follow suit.
Using social media and traditional media, we created a public awareness campaign for International Anti-Corruption Day on 9 December 2018 to highlight the issue. As a result, several MPs expressed their willingness to disclose their asset declarations to the public and work across party lines to put accountability before partisan politics.
On 28 February 2019, a group of five MPs comprising a state minister, two senior opposition members, a leader of a minority party and a first term parliamentarian took a stand for transparency and accountability. Instead of scoring partisan political points, this group worked together towards changing political culture for the better.
A way forward
Since February, five more MPs have submitted their asset declarations to TI-SL for public disclosure and we will continue to advocate for more MPs to do the same in the coming months. Our goal is to publish at least 25 per cent of all MPs asset declarations before the next general election in 2020.
Through TI-SL advocacy, asset declarations are also included in the second national action plan under Sri Lanka’s commitments to the Open Government Partnership (OGP). One of the specific commitments involves the establishment of an online asset declaration system to ease submission, verification and public access.
Together with greater transparency of MP assets and an organised system for verification, we can help strengthen accountability and empower Sri Lankan citizens to hold their elected representatives accountable.
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