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Romanian watchdogs’ activities in June 2013

The Constitution should be made by and for the people

The Romanian civil society contributed to the development of the constitutional review process, by using both its expert functions and its alerting capacities. Within their activity, NGOs have practiced their rights to public information, freedom of thought and expression and good administration, by proposing amendments for the Fundamental Act and by drawing the public attention on the fact that some of the procedures were not transparent and opened to the public.

The governing coalition announced the amendment of the Constitution even before the Parliamentary elections (December 2012) and started the activity in the spring of 2013. The Parliament has decided to set-up an independent Constitutional Forum that had the main objective of organizing debates in order to formulate proposals for the review the Constitution. Starting with March 2013 up to the end of May 2013, the Forum that was lead by Mr. Cristian Pîrvulescu, President of Pro Democracy Association organized a series of local, academic and sectoral debates with the civil society in Romania. The proposals have been included in the Final report of the Constitutional Forum that has been forwarded to the Parliamentary Commission*. The expertise of Pro Democracy has been built in 2003, when the NGO organized the first Constitutional Forum in Romania and contributed to the process of constitutional review, in the moment when Romania was preparing to join the European Union.

A significant number of NGOs and academics took part to the debates and formulated reviewing proposals on topics such as justice, institutional set-up, human rights and freedom of media. In the same time, the NGOs have proved to be dissatisfied with the lack of transparency in the work of the Parliamentary Commission, as no media and external participants were allowed to the works of the body. The communication with the public has been widely criticized. Almost thirty NGOs have sent in March a letter to Mr. Crin Antonescu, the President of the Senate and of the Parliamentary Commission in order to ask for more transparency. In June, the press was allowed to take part to the debates and in some cases even other participants

The Constitution Forum has published a press release in order to present its activity. In June, the representatives of the entity have taken part to the work of the Commission. The statistics show that a number of 34 amendments initiated by the Forum have been approved and 39 have been entirely or partially taken up by members of the Parliamentary Commission. They refer mostly to rights and obligations in the justice system, rules that allow the public administration to become more transparent, clearing up the role of the Ombudsman and the National Bank, extension of guaranties for the freedom of press or the introduction of the referendum based on a citizens’ initiative.

On the other side, in June, a significant number of NGOs have protested against changes that have been introduced in the Constitution, that harm human rights, such as rejecting the inclusion of extensive references to non-discrimination in the Constitution (see article 21 in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union). Debates about the role of the Church in the development of the state (see article 10) and the role of the family (see article 9) have tensed up the relations between the Parliament and the civil society, as the MPs have recognized the role of the Church in the development of the state, although Romania is a laic state. On the other side, the MPs have included references to the family that conclude that it can be founded only by a man and a woman, although the international trends seem to be legalizing gay marriages.

Logo of the Expert Forum.On 6th of June, ten NGOs continued to exert pressure on the Parliament and threatened  to promote a campaign of negative voting at the referendum. They protested against the non-transparent manner the members of the Parliament use to vote the constitutional amendments, with serious consequences over the citizens’ rights and the quality of the Constitution.

Moreover, Expert Forum has drawn the alert signal by releasing a policy paper on the dangers of the Constitutional revision. EFOR has translated to the general public the dangers that are hidden in the new Constitution and are not explained properly by the government. Apart from the short time dedicated to debates – almost two weeks – in terms of content the changes are substantial: the balance of powers is tilted, the Parliament gets superpowers at the expense of the Constitutional Court and the High Court of Cassation and Justice; the rift between prosecutors and judges deepens and the President remains with decorative functions. In terms of process, we can identify other major flaws: the team who drafted the text does not include any law professor or specialists in constitutionalism; opinions of experts were largely ignored; there were no true public debates within the Romanian society on the amendments drafted by the Review Commission; the Venice Commission has been symbolically involved in the exercise, at the beginning of the process when there was no text to comment on. Furthermore, EFOR has also publicly criticized (repeatedly) the modification of the law of the referendum through which the validation and approval thresholds have been set from 50%+1 to 30% and 25% of the voters on the electoral lists. 

Expertise has also been used by Freedom House, a well known Romanian organization in order to organize a series of workshops for magistrates and public officials. 

FH organized two workshops for the public administration on frauds regarding the national and European funds. The agenda included topics such as conflicts of interests, public procurement and fraud regarding the procurement procedures. The training is addressed to magistrates, public officials and servants and was organized by trainers coming from both public institutions and civil society. Another workshop organized by the same organization regarded competition policies and addressed prosecutors and magistrates.

Photo from the Freedom House workshop.

Photo from one of the Freedom House’ workshops.

Informed citizens are active citizens

The expertise of four organizations has been put together in order to organize a School for Democracy for active young citizens.

Asociația Pro Democrația, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, British Council and Expert Forum organized between 24th and 28th June 2013 a School for Democracy aiming to develop skills for a number of 30 young students and allow them to get accustomed to the mechanisms that permit them to become active citizens that can support the development of their communities. The NGOs have therefore endorsed the provisions of article 14 – right to education – of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and explained to the participants fundamental rights such as good administration (article 41), access to documents (42) or petition (44).

The event was dedicated to active students between 18 and 26 years from more than 10 Romanian cities and Republic of Moldova. The summer schools included topics such as the fundamental principles of democracy, governance and public policies, public participation, decisional transparency and access to public information, watch-dog instruments as well as project writing. The sessions were conducted by good governance and anticorruption well known experts. In the second of the event, participants were taught how to write and implement civic projects and they will be supported by the partners to implement such initiatives.

                                        Photo from the School for Democracy.Photo from the School for Democracy.

Photos from the School for Democracy.

Transparency is the best way to ensure good governance

As already mentioned before, the rights to good governance and access to public information are mentioned in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union as citizens’ rights. The Center for Legal Resources in order to alert the public opinion and authorities and to promote a change in the public system with the help of citizens – has released a corruption reporting instrument for smart phones that allow citizens to perform these rights. The role of InfoCoruptie is to permit users to report corruption, get informed about anticorruption and to develop anticorruption communities. It also permits to access anticorruption hotlines from multiple institutions and allows writing petitions.

Layout of the InfoCoruptie.The application comes as a package with the website www.guvernmaibun.ro and a series of regional debates about the involvement of civil society in the implementation of the National Anticorruption Strategy, organized all over the country in May and June.

It is useful to mention that some NGOs have participated in May and June to the evaluation of the National Anticorruption Strategy. The Ministry of Justice has collaborated with the civil society – and used their expertise in different sectors from anticorruption, to transparency or financial skills – in order to monitor the implementation of the plan specified in the Strategy. The evaluation will continue in the following months within the public administration, including ministries, 800 municipalities and five county councils. The teams verify conflicts of interests, wealth and access to public information and have already visited institutions such as the Ministry of Interior or the Fight against Fraud Department. Reports will results from the monitoring visits.

Change and transparency can be obtained through the use of open data consider the Soros Foundation. The organization reminded again to the public the importance of open data and the public transparency through the event „Moving forward. Open data discussions for an Open Romania”, organized on 18th June, in Bucharest, with the support of the British Embassy. The efforts are relevant if we consider that the right to access to documents and good administration are guaranteed by the European Charter.

The event brought at the same table representatives of the ministries and the business environment, non-governmental activists and international experts in order to talk about the upgrade of the government through open data. The Government took the responsibility of organizing workshops with each ministry in order to decide what sets of data must be put at the public’s disposal for reutilizing. Although some steps have been done and the government started a collaboration with the civil society, there are still issues regarding the legal framework, the old mentality of the public administration, lack of internal procedures for publishing the information, lack of knowledge or the lack of funds for implementing the developments assumed through the Open Government Partnership, of which Romania is part.

Journalists and programmers will make the Bucharest Municipality more transparent. The Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with the Resource Centre for Public Participation and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has launched a project  through which journalists and programmers are encouraged to monitor the activity of the Bucharest Municipality and General Council. The investigations must aim to cover the decision making mechanism: if the decision reflect the priorities and needs of the citizens, if the decision making procedure is transparent, what are the public consultation mechanisms and so on. Moreover, the programmers are encouraged to open to the public information regarding the two institutions in an interactive manner and to develop application that could increase transparency in their activity.

Governance for the people is not optional

In June, NGOs have monitored the activity of the public institutions at the local and central level. In the first case, the Center for Legal Resources alerted the public opinion and the central authorities about the abuses on institutionalized young persons with mental disabilities in the 2nd District.

The Center for Legal Resources has drawn the attention over the breach of human rights – and therefore of international treaties, including the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union, articles 1 and 4 – at “Gheorghe Ștefan” Center, where 54 young residents with mental disabilities have been abused by the personnel. The Romanian NGO has been supported by two international prestigious organizations, Mental Disability Advocacy Center (Hungary) și Interights (UK) in the attempt to bring to the attention of the public the fact that “the Romanian authorities are acting unlawfully and violating the human rights of people with disabilities”.

The Romanian National Television had broadcast a footage filmed in May 2013 and in December 2011/January 2012 that showed that the residents were tied up to their beds. A former employee confirmed that they were physically and verbally abused by staff, and being force-fed by nurses.
The Romanian government has banned outsiders from entering the institution and the General Directorate of Social Work and Child Protection of Local Council of the 2nd District has accused the human rights NGOs of “damaging the reputation of Romania’s institutions.” Since November 2012, CLR has also been banned for visiting the institution. Under these conditions, it might be considered that the government has violated the principles of good governance and administration.

Protester in front of the institution on 6 June 2013 in Bucharest.

At the beginning of the month, 6th of June, CLR organized a protest outside the institution attended by 75 participants, but the people were fined by the authorities. At the end of May, a letter has been sent to the Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, but no official action has been taken.

CLR has also initiated an on-line petition signed by more than 2000 persons in order to ask to the prime minister for an investigation of the supposed torture cases and to ensure the access to decent public services for disabled people.

At the central level, the Institute for Public Policies, a Romanian think tank that has expertise on monitoring the public administration and budgets, protests against the governmental funding of localities unable to sustain the minimum administrative expenses. The current situation – also continuously remarked by other NGOs such as EFOR – violates the right to good administration, mentioned in article 41 of the Charter, as public funds are wasted and sustain bankrupt municipalities.

The Institute for Public Policies alerted the Government and public opinion  over that fact that a few tens of localities in the North-Eastern part of Romania do not cover more than 25% of the administrative expenses and they are heavily financed by the state budget.

Although they do not collect taxes – the average in the rural areas is less than 30% – a significant percentage of the administrations spend much more than the funds they own. IPP has requested the Government to stop the financing from the state budget until they will decide for a solution that would solve the problem (for example, administrative unification). The organization also criticized the political and administrative Romanian system that cultivates a financial dependence of the localities in relation to the central leadership. No Government has taken a decision that would increase the efficiency of the public costs by giving up the transfers through non-transparent channels to localities that proved not to have the capacity of providing with the minimum financial needs of functioning.


* You can read more about the Constitutional Forum on its official website [RO only], http://forumconstitutional2013.ro/. The final report can be read here. The report of the Parliamentary Commission can be read here.


                                                                                                                                                          

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This text is a result of a research prepared within the project “Powerful Watchdogs” supported by a grant from Switzerland through the Swiss Contribution to the enlarged European Union. The report aims to show the up-to-date information regarding activity of watchdog organizations in a given country. The author refers to the classification on watchdog functions, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the international concepts of the transparent governance

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