In the light of recent events I feels that a clarification should be issued to ensure that debates do not fall into primitive tribalism but are constructive and healing. At this juncture we can afford no less.
During this ordeal one of the frequently mentioned issues was the issue of political responsibility and criminal responsibility. Politicians from all parties have used this term interchangeably at times, I believe, with deceitful intent which I feel duty bound to shed light on.
Politicians and private individuals cannot be held to the same standards.
On the one hand, a private person has access to one’s own financial resources, large or small and to the rights and obligations that the State has imposed upon him/her.
On the other hand, this is not the case with politicians in Government.
Politicians in Government have broad powers to enact legislation, influence policy and access public finances. This requires that a proportionate level of responsibility is required.
Hence, different levels of conduct are expected of private individuals and politicians in Government.
In Criminal law an individual is innocent until proven guilty and can only be held criminally responsible for their own acts. The burden of proof rests on those that are forwarding the accusations which in criminal matters is mostly the State. This makes sense because individuals per se are less powerful than those who are at the command of the machinery of the State and therefore require benefits and protections to ensure that proceedings are fair and just.
Politicians on the other hand cannot and should not avail of the same protections in the public arena. Politicians in terms of their public duties should not be presumed innocent until proven guilty but whenever a sufficiently serious allegation, particularly if this is being followed up by legal recourse, should act as if they are guilty until proven innocent and temporarily suspend themselves until the outcome of the proceedings are final.
Politicians can and should be held responsible for acts undertaken by civil servants within their remit. The reasoning behind this vicarious responsibility is that given the huge resources of a civil service at the disposal of a politician in Government, ideas and policies can affect the lives of thousands of people and have a long lasting impact. Hence this should be accompanied with the same level of responsibility.
Thus, it is the politician who needs to prove that they had no ability to stop the harm being done. Therefore, the burden of proof falls on the politician.
This may seem an unfair burden to place on politicians but as a comic book character once said "With great power comes great responsibility." (Peter Parker's Uncle Ben in Spiderman)
We cannot allow politicians to craftily weave manipulative lies and try to introduce elements of personal criminal responsibility when they are public persons with the machinery of the State at their call and beckon.
Prof. Andrew Azzopardi
Dean, Faculty for Social Wellbeing
University of Malta
Photos: Public Broadcasting Services Ltd. / WE Media