Military and RTI bill
IN small but important ways, the Senate is distinguishing itself as a legislative forum in which important issues of the state are being debated. On Wednesday, a Senate select committee discussing the federal Right to Information Bill, 2016, made crucial observations about the extension of right-to-information laws to the armed forces. As several senators rightly observed, the military is unjustifiably exempted from disclosures on the grounds of national security and institutional prerogative. Far better, from a democratic, institution-strengthening perspective, for cases involving human rights violations, corruption and embezzlement to be required to be shared with the public rather than remain cloaked in military-mandated secrecy. But will the Senate discussion really lead to a push for change? Part of the problem is the relative weakness of the civilian side of the state in comparison to the security establishment. Even when making a justifiable demand, as wanting the security establishment to put itself up to the most basic and justifiable scrutiny, the civilian leadership backs down rather than pushes for clarity and a legally enforceable definition of national security. Perhaps, even if the several senators who argued for such a delineation were to prevail at the committee stage, the Senate as a whole and parliament are unlikely to push the matter too far.
The question that ought to be asked is, why? Why does the military resist even the most basic of outside scrutiny and why are parliamentarians too timid to push for a modicum of oversight of the armed forces even in the most justifiable of circumstances? From the security establishment’s perspective, two factors appear to dominate: a belief that internal checks and balances are adequate and concern that public accountability is a politicised process that can chip away at the hard-earned respectability and public standing of the military. At least one half of the excuse has some merit — the civilian side of the state does not seem interested in accountability per se and is perhaps motivated by a desire to see other institutions implicated in the muck of corruption too. The answer lies in equal, and real, accountability for all. Consider the record of the provincial RTI laws so far. Scarcely have the bureaucracy or the political leaderships found themselves in the dock for any transgression. Indeed, the civilian side of the state has done much to water down the existing provincial RTI laws thwarting their implementation. Equal transparency for all is the correct starting point.