US ambassador’s remarks on judiciary reform in Bulgaria

US ambassador in Sofia Marcie Ries participated in a conference on judiciary reform, organised by three foreign business chambers in Sofia on May 14. This is Ries’ address, as posted on the website of the US embassy in Sofia:

Madame Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Minister, members of the judiciary, fellow ambassadors, honored guests,

I want to begin by thanking Amcham, Confindustria Bulgaria and CCI for their sponsorship of this event and distinguished members of the Government of Bulgaria and others who have agreed to participate.

There are few things more important than open discussion amongst citizens, and in the presence of the media, of important issues. Today’s discussion of judicial reform is especially timely as the Parliament is about to consider a judicial reform program and constitutional amendments to implement it.

As we look at the world around us, we cannot help but be unsettled by the level of conflict, instability and lawless groups whose activities are causing fear, not just in faraway places, but in our own countries. We see these groups as threatening to us, to our societies and to our way of life, not just because of their activities, but because they are openly rejecting the values we consider to be fundamental.

These values include a faith in democratic governance, freedom, tolerance, but most important for what we are discussing today, in the rule of law.

In our societies we accept that there are rules which all citizens are expected to respect.  For example, we don’t allow murder or theft. And we accept that people who are found by a fair process to have murdered or stolen will be punished, appropriately. We believe that if a dispute arises in the business world, it should be resolved by an impartial body, according to a generally accepted set of rules.

In many respects, the strength of our societies depends upon this system working properly and everyone following the rules. When they do not, or when they start to devise ways to go around them, for their own benefit, or for the benefit of their friends, associates or family – then we have corruption. And when we have corruption, even in small ways, or lack of transparency, and especially if these go unpunished, it undermines confidence in the system as a whole.

From an economic perspective, since we are amongst a business audience, weakness in the rule of law and corruption can have an especially corrosive effect. It limits domestic opportunities for growth, deprives the government of income and directly impacts the quality of life of the citizens.

An ample body of research – and just sheer common sense – suggests that corporations invest in stable countries where the prospects for a return on investment are highest.  Savvy business leaders of Bulgarian and foreign companies alike must be convinced that the business climate is sufficiently favorable to take on the risks that accompany business expansion. Companies need confidence that government rules and regulations and private contracts will be enforced in a fair and predictable manner. Foreign Direct Investment in Bulgaria has gone down in recent years, falling from a high of 9 billion euros in 2007 to just 1.3 billion euro in 2014. This means fewer jobs and fewer opportunities for the Bulgarian people. Of course there are many factors at play here, including the global financial crisis, but we do know from data developed by NGOs and from talking to business people, that the perception that businesses can reliably expect transparency and fairness in the marketplace and in dispute settlement, plays a role in a positive decision to invest.

But there are other effects from corruption that go beyond economic activity. In a world of scarce resources, any diversion of funds can take resources away from priority issues, including healthcare, education, and infrastructure improvements to name just a few. Corruption also saps people’s confidence in the state’s systems and, especially for young people, in their own future.

To quote Martin Luther King Jr., Bulgaria is facing the “fierce urgency of now” on the issue of strengthening the rule of law and combatting corruption. Though Bulgaria has made remarkable progress in many ways since the fall of communism – as exemplified by its EU and NATO accession – it can only achieve the kind of economic growth and integration into the global economy that the population so urgently wants and expects if there is progress on anti-corruption and judicial reform.

I am encouraged by the recently proposed program for judicial reform, and the constitutional amendments that will be necessary to implement it. I hope that these proposals are a signal of readiness to make a real commitment, not only to legislate reforms, but to fully implement them, so that real progress is achieved.

What I am talking about is the achievement of a judicial system that is trusted to be non-political, non-selective, and non-arbitrary, and where justice is done, period. I am also talking about a system in which citizens have confidence that it is used only to punish crime, not to gain financial advantage or to settle political scores.

And while the specific topic today is judicial reform, I want to mention also the general importance of vigorously pursuing corruption in all aspects of public life. Therefore, I encourage ensuring a fully resourced anti-corruption task force that is truly independent from political influence.

I know I am not alone in urging action. Polls show that Bulgarian citizens support speeding up the pace of reforms, with 45 percent seeing corruption as the main hindrance to efforts to improve the status quo. Amongst the judiciary, some of whom are showing their concern by participating in this discussion today, there are voices calling for reform. We have heard magistrates calling for punishment of corrupt court management practices and Supreme Judicial Council members publicly questioning why the Council failed to elect a chair of the Sofia Appellate Court. Bulgarians clearly desire fundamental change that addresses root causes and is implemented with urgency.



The Sofia Globe staff

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