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The Inter-Parliamentary Union traces its origins back to a time when very few international organizations were based on a treaty concluded between States. The founders of the organization drafted Statutes and Rules which they agreed to apply and uphold. The first Statutes were adopted in 1894; the latest amendments were passed in 2009.
Over time, the Organization's membership grew from a few members of parliament to groups of parliamentarians in each country and, eventually, to the national parliaments themselves. Today, over 150 countries are represented in the IPU through their parliaments.
The Statutes define the IPU as the international organization of the parliaments of sovereign States and some States recognize the IPU as an international organization. This is the case of Switzerland, where the IPU has its headquarters, and of the United States, where it also has an office. However, other States do not recognize the IPU as an international organization.
The IPU does not conform to traditional legal doctrine according to which the term "international organization" has come to be defined by reference to a particular method of creation. Under this formal approach, international organizations are necessarily based upon multilateral treaties and the law of treaties forms part of the law of international organizations.
The IPU clearly has a legal personality that allows it to act on the international plane. It concludes agreements with parliaments to organize conferences. It receives grants and implements projects under formal agreements to which it is a party. It has been given Observer status at the United Nations, through a General Assembly resolution in which UN Member States classify the IPU as an organization that has an "inter-State" character. However, the IPU is not based on an international convention and as long as this situation persists, the IPU will always remain in an ambivalent situation: a recognized actor on the international scene without the status of an international organization.
It is proposed to change this by inviting States to conclude an international convention that has the effect of conferring the formal legal status of an international organization upon the IPU. In so doing, the IPU emulates the practice of other major organizations created at the same time which have since "re-created" themselves on the basis of an international convention. In the case of the IPU, there are substantial political reasons for this proposal*.
Since its inception, the IPU facilitates inter-parliamentary cooperation and acts as a forum for parliamentary diplomacy. Its interlocutors are parliaments and parliamentarians. They are the Members, they help organize IPU's activities and they participate in them. Governments have not traditionally been major counterparts of the IPU.
Over the last several decades, the IPU has developed a unique mandate and expertise in relation to democracy and the rule of law. The IPU is a parliamentary organization and it knows and understands parliaments. It is a centre of excellence for parliamentary practice. It develops standards for parliaments, assists them in assessing their performance and develops programmes to make them more representative, accessible, transparent, accountable and effective. It defends the human rights of parliamentarians. It helps women gain access to parliament. It builds capacity in parliament to more effectively legislate and hold government to account in a broad range of areas, particularly in relation to economic and social development.
In all of these activities, the IPU is increasingly working at the country level and in close contact with States represented by their governments. Many of these activities can only be carried out successfully through the cooperation of governments and often with their financial support. Governments are also increasingly involved – directly and through international organizations – in facilitating and even organizing inter-parliamentary cooperation and building capacity in parliaments.
More recently, the IPU has extended its democracy activities to the international level and started to promote and facilitate the participation of parliaments in international affairs. The reasons are many and varied. Globalization has brought about profound changes. Domestic and global challenges are interdependent. It is increasingly difficult to function as a national parliament without paying close attention to international affairs and multilateral negotiations. Inversely, international cooperation can only be successful if it can count upon the political and legislative support of parliaments. So much so that today it is largely accepted that international cooperation requires a parliamentary dimension.
The IPU is at the origin of this concept. It is a leading proponent of a greater parliamentary presence in international cooperation. It helps parliaments identify the steps that they and States need to take to bring greater democracy to international relations and it assists them in their implementation.
Greater progress requires close cooperation with and support from governments since international cooperation is organized by States acting through their governments. To this end, the IPU needs to be more clearly acknowledged as an international organization with all the prerogatives to engage fully with States and other international organizations.
The IPU’s vision includes working as the global parliamentary counterpart to the United Nations. It is committed to helping parliaments integrate UN processes in their daily activities and ensuring that a parliamentary dimension is provided to the work of the United Nations. It requires a strategic partnership between the UN and the IPU which, in turn, presupposes that the IPU itself is clearly recognized as a full-fledged international organization.
In short, concluding an international convention on the IPU will demonstrate States’ commitment to work together - through their parliaments - to promote democracy at the national and international level. It will give political and diplomatic support to the IPU and will strengthen its ability to promote democracy. It will place the IPU on a more equal footing with other major international organizations and will facilitate its cooperation with these organizations. It will make it possible for the IPU to operate with the necessary guarantees in all countries.
There is today widespread international recognition of the importance of having democratic parliaments in all countries that can assume fully their constitutional role at the national level and provide a parliamentary dimension to international cooperation. However, there is a clear need for much greater focus and attention to achieve progress. The conclusion of an international convention would offer an unequalled opportunity for the international community - represented by governments and by parliaments - to work together through the IPU in pursuit of this objective.
* There are of course also some practical reasons. For example, in some countries, the national legislation does not permit the government to guarantee to issue visas to all delegates attending a meeting organized by the IPU because the IPU is not an international organization based on a treaty. A convention for the IPU can remedy this problem by spelling out the privileges and immunities of delegates attending IPU meetings.