Global Ethics Corner: Lustration: Purging Civil Servants in New Democracies

Apr 8, 2011

In transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy, systems must decide who to exclude from public office. What do you do with those who, without being guilty, cannot be called innocent? Is it undemocratic to ban them from holding government positions?

In new democracies, public servants, who were "almost bad" or "mostly good," leave leaders with ugly choices. What happens to those who worked for and with the old order?

In transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy, systems must decide who to exclude from public office. What do you do with those who, "without being guilty, cannot be called innocent"? This process is called lustration.

Lustration helps establish an impartial, reliable, and secure state. Bureaucracies and security services are necessary. However, former public officials may be habituated to abusing power or even interested in reviving the previous regime. Furthermore, they may enjoy little public acceptance, because of irregular recruitment or poor performance. Lustration not only protects the new government from internal enemies, but also increases public confidence in political institutions, making them more transparent and credible.

The critics argue: illiberal means cannot lead to liberal ends. Lustration is ultimately undemocratic: denying groups' access to jobs, violating citizens' rights, and instituting collective punishment. Purging may also disqualify people with needed rare skills. Furthermore, lustration is easily exploited by power-hungry authorities eager to eliminate opponents. At its worst, lustration relies on the old regimes' security files, and allows individuals to settle personal scores.

What do you think? Is lustration the right approach to the past? Does it strengthen democratic processes? Or, does it create divisions that ultimately impede the transition to democracy?

By Mladen Joksic

For more information see:

Williams, K., A. Szczerbiak and B. Fowler (2005) "Explaining Lustration in Central Europe: a 'Post-Communist Politics' Approach," Democratization 12 (1): 22-43.

For further reading:

Meierhenrich, J. (2006) "The Ethics of Lustration," Ethics & International Affairs 20 (1): 99-120.

David, R. (2006) "From Prague to Baghdad: Lustration Systems and their Political Effects," Government and Opposition 41 (3): 347-72.

Duthie, R. (2007) "Introduction" in: Justice as Prevention: Vetting Public Employees in Transitional Societies, A. Mayer-Rieckh and P. de Greiff (eds.), New York: Social Science Research Council.

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

German Federal Archive
Thomas Hedden
Denoel Paris
German Federal Archive
Peter Heinz Junge
Archiwum Kancelarii Prezydenta RP

Heinz Hirndorf

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