The protection and upholding of human rights is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the state. In the case of Owen Bonnici, the state has done its token duty. It has provided a way for those whose rights have been breached to seek and obtain a remedy, under constitutional guarantees.
The former justice and now education minister was last Thursday found guilty by a constitutional court of breaching the right to freedom of expression when he persistently ordered the dismantling of the makeshift memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia, a symbol of the call for justice over her assassination. The judge’s ruling demonstrated his independence from government.
We were told the institutions are working and that the government has decided not to appeal. Duty done! Or so it would have the country believe.
But to end the matter there, as Robert Abela and Bonnici are keen to do, would be to deny the gravity of the judgment. The decision not to appeal it, in line with the new prime minister’s instruction that the memorial is not to be tampered with, is an implicit recognition of guilt.
The government, constitutionally and by international treaty bound to respect human rights, now harbours a minister who has been convicted of violating those same rights and who shows no compunction for having done so. He has justified his regular order for the memorial to be destroyed by citing the intention to prevent “division” – the very effect the court has accused him of fomenting.
His position as both a minister and member of parliament are clearly untenable. In a normal democracy, the minister would have stepped down, and if not, he would have been dismissed.
His continued presence in both the executive and the House of Representatives, which enacts the laws that protect human rights, would project an image, both locally and internationally, of a government and a parliament that do not value human rights highly enough and do not take their obligations to protect them sufficiently seriously. And if he’s done it once, the unrepentant minister could do it again.
However, there is one other big problem. Bonnici was not acting alone. The decision on the memorial was “collegial”, he said. That means it had his former boss’s nod. In the same way Abela has ordered the memorial not to be touched, Bonnici’s decision bore the stamp of the prime minister at the time, Joseph Muscat.
Muscat is just as responsible – although not officially pronounced guilty by a court of law – for the unrelenting, purposeful, single-minded trampling on the freedom of expression of many activists.
He cannot remain silent and allow his former justice minister to take all the flak. One would hardly expect gentlemanly behaviour from an ex-prime minister mired in a legacy of corrupt governance, but to allow his once close colleague to flounder alone shows him up as utterly dishonourable.
Robert Abela has from day one sent mixed messages about his commitment to raising the standards of governance and ethical behaviour of government members. Most notably, he was constrained to perform a U-turn on Konrad Mizzi’s appointments. Now another contradiction: his order to keep the memorial intact versus his decision to do nothing about the people who breached human rights by ordering a memorial to a slain journalist to be destroyed countless times.
Has Abela not learnt the most valuable lesson to come out of the Muscat administration? That to ignore wrongdoing, as Muscat did in the retention of Mizzi and Keith Schembri early on, is an invitation to be haunted by it in future?
Abela must not turn a blind eye all over again. He has Malta’s reputation to preserve not his colleagues’ political career.
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