This article was published in Dawn on October 23, 2017 and is available at the following link
THE quest again seems to be on for a consensus on a new accountability law. Initially, the major political parties had appeared to agree on repealing the existing National Accountability Ordinance, 1999. The PPP and PML-N had proclaimed in the 2006 Charter of Democracy that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) formed under the NAO would be replaced with a national accountability commission.
The 2008-2013 PPP-led federal government tried unsuccessfully to pass a national accountability commission act which was later renamed ‘holders of public offices (accountability) act’. The draft law remained stuck in the parliamentary committee on law and justice throughout the term of the previous National Assembly. Major differences between the PPP and PML-N had remained unresolved till the completion of the assembly’s term.
The current federal government led by the PML-N restarted the process some three years after assuming power. The National Assembly passed a unanimous motion in August 2016 to form a parliamentary committee on a national accountability law but the 20-member committee consisting of legislators from both houses of parliament was formed only in January 2017. The committee, headed by the federal law minister, has representation from nine major political parties. It has met 14 times during the past 10 months.
The key disagreement seems to be over the scope of the proposed accountability law.
Initially, the committee seemed to have made some progress when the committee chair shared the news of a broad agreement on a draft national accountability commission act (NACA). However, now with the country entering an election year, and political polarisation intensifying following the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, all signs of a consensus seem to have evaporated. Major differences are coming out in the open.
The key disagreement seems to be on the scope of the proposed law. Initially, the three major political parties (the PML-N, PPP and PTI) had reportedly agreed to extend NACA’s scope to include officials of the military and judiciary by enlarging the definition of ‘public office holder’. The current accountability law had kept both institutions out of NAB’s reach. Lately, only the PPP seems to be insisting on bringing all public officials within the purview of the proposed accountability law as both the PML-N and PTI have publicly distanced themselves from the proposition.
Opponents of the proposed expansion hold that both the military and judiciary have their own internal systems to hold their respective officials to account, and that, therefore, the proposed expansion is uncalled for. Supporters for the inclusion of these institutions feel that the latter’s internal accountability mechanisms are not effective and have seldom been used for curbing corruption in military and judicial ranks.
Another major difference among political parties is over the territorial jurisdiction of the proposed law. The PPP and the Sindh government have already taken a strong position against the applicability of the current ordinance to Sindh by passing a law in the provincial assembly which effectively limits the scope of the NAO to federal government institutions and personnel.
Although the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999, Sindh Repeal Act, 2017, passed by the provincial assembly in August 2017, has been challenged in the Supreme Court, the PPP is not ready to accept a new federal accountability law which encompasses the province’s public office holders. Similarly, the KP provincial assembly had passed its own accountability law in the form of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Ehtesab Commission Act, 2014, and the Ehtesab Commission was consequently established. The PTI, therefore, also supports PPP’s stand of limiting the territorial jurisdiction of the proposed accountability law to the federation only. On the other hand, the PML-N continues to advocate a national accountability law which is applicable to the provinces as well, as is the case with the NAO and NAB.
Political parties also differ over the effective date of the start of accountability. The PML-N reportedly suggested that the cut-off year should be 2007 and cases before 2007 should stay out of the scope of the proposed accountability law. The PTI wants accountability to start from 1985. The current accountability law, the NAO 1999, has a commencement date of Jan 1, 1985.
Two controversial provisions in the existing NAO apparently continue to stoke controversy in the proposed NACA as well. NAO’s Section 25 provides for ‘voluntary return’ and ‘plea bargain’. The Supreme Court had criticised these two provisions in the strongest terms and had even stopped NAB from taking voluntary returns of ill-gotten wealth in 2016.
Although an authoritative text of the NACA is not available, PTI parliamentarians who are members of the parliamentary committee on the national accountability law have criticised the two provisions in the new law and termed them unacceptable. The PTI has also objected to a proposed provision that will reportedly give the right of bail to an accused who has been in custody for more than a year without the trial being concluded.
The three major parties also differ over other clauses pertaining to jurisdiction and powers of the accountability courts. There is a difference of opinion on the definition of such basic terms as ‘corruption’ and ‘corrupt practices’. In addition, a consensus has yet to evolve over the federal government’s suggestion that cases of bankruptcy should be referred to the banking courts under the new law.
The differences over the proposed draft of the new accountability law have prompted the PTI to reject the whole idea of a new accountability law. The party, instead, wants the current law to be amended. In fact, it may be a more realistic and prudent idea to amend NAO, 1999, and drop its controversial provisions rather than seeking a consensus on a new law. As election time draws closer, it is becoming less likely that the political parties can secure a consensus on the proposed accountability commission act.