Mongolian Conflict of Interest Legislation Represents Real Progress

March 7, 2013, 2:50 p.m.


Mongolia has traditionally been known for its nomads, wide-open steppes and colorful imperial history.  Today, however, the country is  becoming renowned for two attributes: its resource riches and its democratic transition. While these aspects  are generally positive in themselves, their combination has arguably contributed to increased corruption in the country. Although corruption is an entrenched fact of life in Mongolia, and the public is increasingly cynical about the motivations of the country’s parties and politicians, a small group of advocates and members of parliament have come together to address this complex issue.

Mongolia’s mineral wealth is truly vast, and its extraction, though still nascent, has already begun to pay dividends.  The country is thought to hold as much as $1 trillion worth of untapped resources, including the world’s largest intact coal deposit and one of the planet’s vastest copper-gold reserves, due to start production in mid-2013. These riches are reflected in Mongolia’s recent economic performance: by many measures it has been the fastest growing economy in the world for the past two years.

Mongolia’s apparently enduring transition to democracy was unforeseen, and in stark contrast to its neighbors and many other comparable states emerging from Soviet influence. This homegrown and largely peaceful democratic transition has garnered international attention. Mongolia currently serves in the presidency of the intergovernmental Community of Democracies and former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called the country “an inspiration and model” for the transformation from “a one-party Communist dictatorship into a pluralistic, democratic political system” during her visit in July 2012.

While democracy and wealth, taken separately are undoubtedly beneficial  the interplay between the two is less straightforward.  History has shown that the promise of huge new resource revenues can lead to an erosion of democratic and human rights norms. This has manifested in Mongolia most blatantly in the form of widespread corruption.

Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in Mongolia

Corruption is often manifested in the form of conflicts of interest on the part of public servants and politicians. Instances of conflicts of interest common in Mongolia include using information gained while working in the public service for private gain; nepotism in appointments or awarding contracts; individuals working for regulatory bodies or industries in which they have financial interests; and the embezzlement of state-owned property.

In 2010 a Member of Mongolia’s parliament, the State Great Khural, decided to do something to address this corruption by introducing strengthened Conflict of Interest (COI) legislation. Currently the Minister of Justice, but at the time a member of the opposition without many official resources, Member of Parliament (MP) Kh. Temuujin pulled together a draft.

Women for Social Progress (WSP), a non-governmental organization established soon after Mongolia’s democratic transition, understood the value of Temuujin’s efforts. They also recognized a major shortcoming in the drafting process: its failure to consult key stakeholders. Consultation is an essential element of any law-making process as it helps ensure legislation’s efficacy in meeting constituents’ needs. In Mongolia there is growing recognition of the importance of consultation and, as the parliament matures, it strives to become more consultative.

Together with the Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF), WSP worked to remedy this problem by organizing a series of public forums, consultations with civil society groups, and working lunches with MPs and parliamentary staff.

Before finalizing the legislation, WSP also coordinated advocacy efforts to have the legislation discussed and passed in parliament.  Legislation can take months or years to pass through the State Great Khural, so it was a significant achievement when the COI law was passed on January 19, 2012, and entered into force on May 1, 2012.

The inclusive drafting process not only strengthened the legislation, but also familiarized stakeholders with COI and other public service ethics concerns.  The process also gave more groups a stake in the legislation’s success, resulting in COI legislation that is robust, supported by civil society, and thoroughly understood in the State Great Khural.

The COI Law

The Law aims to prevent and regulate conflicts between official and private interests among public office-holders and members of the public service. If implemented properly, the law should ensure government activities and decisions are in the public interest. Additionally, it aims to restore and maintain public trust in government officials and the parliament.

The law also contains election-related provisions . It mandates that candidates for all elections – parliamentary, presidential and local – submit a COI statement to the General Election Committee (GEC). If a candidate is elected, the COI statement is resubmitted and the GEC forwards it to the Independent Authority Against Corruption (IAAC). Established in 2006, the IAAC is an independent government body with  investigatory powers.

To ensure the law functions in reality and not only on paper, WSP produced a manual and trained representatives of each public service department, as well as parliamentary staff and representatives of the media and civil society. The training was delivered in cooperation with officers from the IAAC.

WSP also conducted a public awareness campaign so that Mongolian citizens would be aware of the new law, and what to do should they become aware of a breach. Televised conversations were held and newspaper articles published discussing these pertinent issues.

Conclusion: COI Legislation and the Political Process

While it remains too early to make a definitive assessment of the law’s efficacy, there have been some preliminary results. The IAAC and the Ministry of Justice have identified some articles that have eluded implementation and are working on updating the law later this year to address these issues.  More positively, 99.8 percent of the public service workforce submitted COI statements for 2012 by the 15 February 2013 deadline. COI statements are comprehensive documents in which civil servants declare items including shares, company ownerships, memberships, assets, sources of income, inheritances, property, debts and gifts received. Previously, public servants had avoided submitting such statements for fear of reprisals from relevant authorities. They are now more confident of their rights and responsibilities under the law.

There have also been some tentative signs that Mongolia’s overall corruption situation may be improving. Mongolia was ranked the world’s 94th least corrupt country in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), compared to 120th in 2011. This is a significant increase although it is subject to the caveat that the CPI methodology changed between 2011 and 2012, making year-on-year comparisons problematic.  It should also be remembered that the CPI seeks to measure public perception of corruption rather than corruption itself. Some have suggested this increase may be due to an increased public awareness of government efforts to combat corruption, including through the Conflict of Interest Law.

Corruption in Mongolia is a complicated issue that no single action can hope to address. Nonetheless, robust COI legislation that is understood by public officials and the general public is now in place and provides a strong foundation for this effort.

Amy Dowler is a Project Officer with Women for Social Progress.  She has a Master of Arts (International Relations) from the Australian National University.  Amy blogs on music and politics at http://worldpoliticsblues.wordpress.com/.

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