The Malta Independent 3 August 2021, Tuesday

Rule of Law: Times have changed, now we must change – President George Vella

Rachel Attard Sunday, 7 April 2019, 11:00 Last update: about 3 years ago

Newly-appointed President George Vella, who will spearhead the forthcoming Constitutional Convention, believes that, although some of the laws Malta is having its arm twisted to change have actually been in the statute books for decades: “Times have changed and now is the time to make the necessary changes.”

In a wide-ranging interview in the wake of his appointment as the 10th President of the Republic earlier this week, President Vella says he firmly believes that: “The defects pointed out by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission need to be addressed so that people will feel there is justice, the rule of law and institutions that function.”

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“But”, he adds, “One thing with which I disagree is people attacking the independence and competence of our law courts when a case is not decided in their favour.”

When it comes to reforming the country’s laws and its basic rule of law, President Vella also gives considerable weight to analyses of the state of affairs by people such as European Court of Human Rights Judge Emeritus Giovanni Bonello and the Dean of the Law Faculty Kevin Aquilina, both of whom have taken the state of the judicial system to task recently in this newspaper.

President Vella says: “I am convinced that these people all mean well and we should carefully evaluate their advice. Although I am not an expert in Constitutional Law, I am glad to see that the government has agreed to implement the recommendations that the Venice Commission is proposing.”

As far as reforming the Constitution, which is expected to be completed during President Vella’s five-year tenure, the President is adopting a holistic approach.

He says: “I will ensure that the recommendations with regard to constitutional changes will have the input of everyone – from legal and constitutional experts to civil society, NGOs and individual citizens.

“Once these various bodies and individuals have expressed their views, I will ensure that the Convention comes up with a number of recommendations, which then will go to Parliament, possibly after the Constitutional Convention.”

 

When did the Prime Minister ask you to become Malta’s 10th President?

Let me put all my cards on the table. I was adamant that if, one day, I would be asked to become President, I would refuse. I was 100 per cent sure of my decision because I considered that my political career and the political chapter of my life, was closed.

It all started a few months after the 2017 election. Every so often, the Prime Minister used to send me messages asking me to consider the role. The pressure increased and the PM also started sending certain people to convince me to take the role.  As time went by, I started getting bored with not doing anything. Don’t forget that I have spent my entire life working, and finding yourself doing nothing is not a nice feeling. Let me be clear, I did not accept this role because I had nothing to do – far from it.

The Saturday before the Prime Minister made the announcement, I was still unsure but, after weighing all my options and listening to the opinions of my family, I accepted.

I made my concerns clear to the Prime Minister.  He fully understood my difficulties, and then, on 5 March he announced my nomination.

 

What were these conditions that you made to the Prime Minister?

My main request was that I wished to be the one chairing the committee on the reform of the Constitution. I told the Prime Minister I would not comfortable accepting becoming President were I not to be the person chairing the steering committee for constitutional change. For me it did not make sense if the President, who is the guardian of the Constitution, would not be the person chairing this committee.

Also, since I have such a good relationship with President Emeritus Coleiro Preca, I did not want to get involved in the discussion on who would chair the convention.

 

What do you want to see implemented to the change in the Constitution?

I would like to ensure that the recommendations with regard to constitutional change have the input of everyone – from legal and constitutional experts to civil society, NGOs, individuals, etc. Once these various bodies and individuals express their views, I will see to it that the convention comes up with a number of recommendations, which then will go to Parliament, possibly after a Constitutional Convention.

I am not an expert on constitutional law but I’m glad to see that the government has agreed to implement the recommendations that the Venice Commission is proposing. Some of the laws that the Commission is suggesting be changed have been in place for decades. Times have changed and now is the time to make the necessary changes.

I believe that the defects pointed out by the Venice Commission need to be addressed so that people will feel there is justice, the rule of law and institutions that function. One thing with which I disagree is when people attack the independence and competence of our courts when a case is not decided in their favour.

Also, one must give weight to what Judge Emeritus Giovanni Bonello and the Dean of the Law Faculty Kevin Aquilina said regarding our courts and the practices used. I am convinced that these people all mean well and we should give serious consideration to their advice. 

 

Your predecessor, President Emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, said on Indepth that one of the things the Constitution should include is that the President has the right to return to Parliament a  Law that it has passed. Do you agree with her?

I believe that, once a decision has been taken in Parliament, that decision should not be ignored. The President is part of Parliament, not above it, so I believe that if a vote has been taken, and the majority has voted in favour, then that vote should be accepted. However, the President, who is the moral compass of society, is able to meet with MPs and discuss certain matters with them, during the a Parliamentary debate.

One of the best examples is when Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca signed the Embryo Protection Act. I think that she explained her position very well. However, I feel that if a President personally believes that some legislation is morally unacceptable, then the only option is is to resign.

 

You have said several times that you are against abortion. If you were faced with the passing of such a law during your term in office, would you sign it?

If such a law is passed through Parliament after a debate and a vote and I was asked to sign it, I will have a strong moral objection and my only option would be to pack my things and leave. This is another issue I discussed before accepting my nomination: I will never sign such a law, I will not have it on my conscience.

 

In an interview you gave to this newspaper, you said that you have reservations on the issue of surrogacy. Would you sign a law enabling this, if surrogacy was passed through Parliament?

I was against the freezing of embryos and I am very worried that we already have 16 frozen embryos. I am concerned that, by the end of the year, we will have around 40 embryos in deep freeze, in suspended animation. 

I ask: ‘What is their destiny, their fate; what is to become of them?” And this is just the first step. There are those who are pushing for an agenda of selection, so now we will start selecting whether it’s a boy or a girl, if I want a blonde or brunette child. From embryo freezing we could be proceeding to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. These are not just a mass of cells but nascent human beings.

I believe in IVF because it helps a lot of couples and is an important scientific discovery, but we should be guided by morals and ethics. Surrogacy has been shelved for the time-being and I do not want to re-start the debate now. Morally, I do not find anything wrong with a woman carrying the baby of another woman because she has no womb, or there is some other valid health reasons. But one must consider what the psychological effect on that child would be when he or she finds out that his or her natural mother is not the same woman who carried him or her for nine months.  Another concern is when a homosexual couple says it has have the same rights as a heterosexual couple.  In this case, two males would need to adopt an ova and ‘rent’ a womb. There should be a serious discussion on this issue and, as a society, we should not rush over such delicate matters.

 

What values will you be talking about during your Presidency?

National unity. For me, national unity is not a finite objective but a never-ending and deepening degree of tolerance, acceptance and comprehension. I want to see more mutual respect in Parliament between MPs. A lack of unity comes as a result of insinuations, accusations and the irresponsible casting of doubts.

I would also like to see pensioners being given the dignity that they deserve. And I dream of showing absolute respect towards the environment, education and health. This should be a national conjoined effort.

 

You spent 40 years as a politician and now, as President, you are expected to be impartial and somewhat silent. How are you going to achieve this?

My Presidency will be a ‘silent and impartial one’. The office carries moral authority and can serve as a moral guide towards the achievement of our country’s national unity. Let me be clear: silent does not mean I will remain quiet but, at the same time, I will not be trying to attract the limelight on myself.

I want to be the mirror that reflects what the public is saying. I will pass on the message to the right channels and make sure that it has been understood. For sure, I will not renounce the social principles in which I have always believed.

Also, my background and networking ability, which I managed to gain when I was Foreign Affairs Minister, will also help me in my new role. We need to keep in mind that Africa is an emerging continent and in the next 20 years it will achieve an important role in the world and will be presenting a number of challenges to the Western World.

Let us not shy away from speaking out against the lack of controls on the manufacture, sale and transportation of weapons, armaments and ammunition that are creating havoc, misery and humanitarian crises around the world. The

same applies to the trafficking in narcotics and humans by criminal organisations.

 

Were your wife and family supportive when you told them that you were going to accept this role? And will you be living at San Anton Palace?

My wife was always supported my decisions and gave me her backing. My family also encouraged me to accept this role and were happy with whatever decision I took.

We do not plan to stay at San Anton Palace all the time. We will definitely use it for state functions, and on other occasions, but we do not intend to abandon our home for five years.

 

Will we see George Vella participate in the Fun Run and other marathons such as l-Istrina?

Why not! I exercise for half-an-hour every day on my treadmill and I will try my best to take part in the next Fun Run.

My biggest challenge is going to be l-Istrina and will be expected to start meeting patients. I am a very emotional person – even though I have a medical background – especially when it comes to sick children. I have realised that the older I grew, the more emotional I have become.

 

What will be your legacy after your term expires in five years’ time?

I pray to God that I will live through the coming five years and then I will let the public judge my performance as President.

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