On 07/05/2021, the Palestinian Council of Ministers issued Resolution No. (03) of 2021, regarding the cancellation of Article (22) of Cabinet Resolution No. (04) of 2020 approving the Code of Conduct and Ethics for the Public Service. The article guarantees freedom of expression for workers in public office. It also regulates their exercise of that right. This decision was published on page (41) of the Palestinian Gazette No. (181) dated 27/07/2021. Article (03) of it stated that it is effective from the date of its issuance; that is, on 07/05/2021, and not from the date of its publication, as required by the principle of knowledge of the legal rule.
The Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) believes that this decision contradicts the Palestinian Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of expression in Article (19) of it, which is the constitution that transcends all other legislation and decisions, including codes of conduct, as the emphasis on freedom of expression according to a provision in the Code of Conduct and Ethics in Public Service for the year 2020, which is a document that is binding for public officials, and that who violates it will be subject to disciplinary accountability. This text is repealed by a subsequent decision; It refers to the government’s tendencies to restrict the freedom of expression of public officials, and subject them to disciplinary accountability accordingly. This is especially in the presence of other provisions in the Code in force, which impose other restrictions on the freedom of employees to express their opinions freely.
The Council of Ministers approved the Code of Conduct in 2020. It also obligated public officials to sign a pledge to abide by the code despite the passage of more than a year since its issuance, in light of the continued disruption of the Public Service Workers’ Union, which was dissolved on 11/11/2014, without consultation with the relevant human rights organizations. This recent decision also comes in light of a situation in which respect and protection of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories have declined to unprecedented levels. It also coincided with the dismissal of Dr. Ehab Bseiso, from his position as Director of the National Library and from the membership of its board of directors, which apparently came for reasons related to expressing his opinion about the killing of activist and political opponent Nizar Banat on Facebook. Public officials are harassed and pressured for expressing their opinions on social media.
The new decision is not the only one that prevents or imposes unjustified restrictions on the right of public officials to express their opinions freely. It has become clear to us, through our review of all provisions of the Code of Conduct, even before the abolition of the aforementioned Article 22, that it stipulates other restrictions on the freedom of expression. Employees’ expression and their personal freedom, such as Article (20) of the Code, which prohibits the employee when using the Internet or social media from viewing images or downloading texts that undermine the prestige of the State of Palestine and its institutions or any of the legal persons. It is also not clear how “re-sending anything” would harm public values and morals, religious beliefs, or national symbols.
ICHR believes that the Cabinet’s decision to cancel the text that guarantees employees right to expression, and its previous decision to approve the Code of Conduct in 2020, including provisions restricting freedom of expression and the personal freedoms of public officials, is a violation of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Palestinian Basic Law. It is not permissible to impose any restrictions on them, except by virtue of a law, and to protect the rights of others or to protect a clear and precisely defined public interest.
Also, there is a need to ensure that these restrictions do not completely disrupt the exercise of rights and freedoms or make their exercise cumbersome. It also violates the international agreements to which the State of Palestine acceded in 2014.
The exercise, respect, and protection of freedom of expression by employees in the public office, and the employees’ respect and protection of the right of citizens to criticize their performance and public performance is very important to achieving sustainable development, to which the State of Palestine has declared its commitment, as it is necessary to improve and develop public performance, which will reflect positively on the citizens’ receipt of public service.
ICHR demands reviewing all provisions of the Code of Conduct and Ethics of the Public Service, in partnership, with the public officials, in the first place, and relevant civil society institutions in order to ensure their consistency with the provisions of the Palestinian Basic Law and the international human rights conventions, to which the State of Palestine has acceded. We also call on the Palestinian Council of Ministers to cancel Resolution No. (03) of 2021, regarding the abolition of Article (22) of Cabinet Resolution No. (04) of 2020 approving the Code of Conduct and Ethics for the Public Service.