In support of openness and transparency

We should be wary any time a government insists it needs more secrecy to effectively govern.

Hilary Stauffer July 17, 2013
The writer is an international lawyer who has worked on human rights and humanitarian law projects in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa

Since his death by radiation poisoning in London in 2006, the mystery of what exactly happened to ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, has continued to confound the public and police alike. Theories abound, but there is no definitive evidence and the only suspect is in Russia — where he is serving as a parliamentarian and is protected by Article 61 of the Russian Constitution, which forbids their citizens’ extradition.

In late 2011, the UK government launched a “public inquest” into the event, assigning a senior judge to preside as coroner; however, the inquest has been postponed several times and has been dogged by controversy from the start. In recent months, the coroner has openly accused the UK government of obstructing the proceedings through a series of logistical delays, alongside government requests that certain information related to the inquest remain secret for reasons of “national security” or “harm to international relations”.

Such was the coroner’s frustration, that in early June 2013, he suggested that an inquest held under such constraints could lead to a verdict that is “potentially misleading or unfair”. In an attempt to mollify governmental concerns, he proposed that the government undertake a “public inquiry”, which would allow for the analysis of sensitive information behind closed doors. However, even this watered-down examination proved too much for nervous officials at the Foreign Office and the coroner’s request was denied. The inquest could conceivably move forward in some hamstrung format, but further extended delays are likely, as there will inevitably be appeals against the government’s decision.

What to make of all this? One would think that an alleged assassination at a posh hotel in the heart of London would make the UK government anxious to bring the perpetrators to justice, if for nothing else, then to show that it is tough on crime. As ever, the tangled web of post-Cold War international relations (diplomacy, trade, security, economic and legal interests) complicate interactions between the West and Russia, but the UK government seems particularly keen to avoid any provocation in this instance. Perhaps, most troubling is the UK government’s willingness to invoke the spectre of “national security” and its insistence that it is appropriate for some evidence to be examined in closed sessions. While such shenanigans are not unique to the UK, it is a disappointing development in a nation whose justice system was the basis for so many other countries’ justice systems .

I have mixed feelings on the Bradley Mannings, Julian Assanges and Edward Snowdens of the world. I have served both, as an adviser to governments and as a human rights advocate, who vocally criticises governments, and the varying perspectives available from each respective post makes for nuanced opinion. I am not a believer of blanket transparency: in sensitive negotiations, the parties involved must build trust and often this means discussions happening outside of the public eye while everyone becomes comfortable with each other (and/or with the outcomes they must eventually sell to their voters).

That being said, governments, too, readily adopt the patronising position that their citizenry is too uneducated, unsophisticated and unworldly to “understand” the “tough decisions” elected officials take on their behalf. The Obama Administration’s lackadaisical defence of the widespread, warrantless data-mining of its populace comes to mind — its unconvincing argument was that Americans didn’t “need to know” their phone calls and emails were being tapped because a small group of legislators had reviewed the programme and given their consent. Such condescension is insulting. We should be wary any time a government insists it needs more secrecy to effectively govern and we should maintain scepticism about any institution where secrecy is built-in.

Mr Litvinenko’s widow and the British public may ultimately be the beneficiaries of some kind of public hearing into the circumstances of his death. They deserve one. But what they urgently need is a government whose primary instincts are to support openness and transparency, even if it may prove embarrassing for the powers-that-be.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2013.

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