7. An effective parliament (II): Parliament's involvement in international affairs


The previous chapter identified two different though related aspects of parliamentary power – its capacity or capacities and its relational standing to the Executive – and showed how both were important to parliament’s effectiveness in holding the government to account. In this chapter another dimension of power will be added to the equation: its territorial reach.

Historically, parliaments have had scant involvement in international affairs. This was hardly surprising in the days when international affairs were largely confined to one country's relations with others, which were handled by the executive branch of government through frequently secret diplomatic channels. Of course, many parliaments have had an important role to play in ratifying agreements that emerged from such diplomatic efforts, but matters were largely left there, with the exception of a few countries, like the United States of America and Mexico, where the Senate exercises a prominent role in foreign affairs. The advent of the twentieth century brought about change in two important yet very different ways.

First, it was the century that saw the birth of international or multilateral cooperation. Faced with the realisation that nations are interdependent, the international community established a large number of international organisations. It was a trend that gathered great momentum. There are organisations with competence in almost every area of human activity: human and social rights, employment policies, trade liberalisation, financial transactions, environmental standards, and a great many others. These institutions are international negotiating fora where government representatives adopt decisions and treaties. For almost all of these agreements, the vast majority of parliaments were never consulted during the negotiations. They were simply invited to ratify the agreement and adopt and amend laws to implement them.

Second, the twentieth century saw the emergence of regional integration processes for a variety of reasons, not least that the countries concerned aspired to unity to overcome historical divisions and secure regional stability and peace, were convinced that "there is strength in unity", realised that nations inevitably belong to a "community" and were desirous of taking certain decisions collectively to enhance them and construct a harmonised framework for life for their societies. States, therefore, decided to gradually integrate their markets, economies and other components of the State, taking into account the principle of subsidiarity, under which certain questions would be better dealt with at the national rather than the community level. This was invariably accompanied by a transfer of powers over decisions affecting people's lives away from capitals and the oversight exercised by national parliament. This poses weighty problems which, as we shall see, are different from those caused by the emergence of international cooperation.

In the first two sections of this chapter we will examine these two phenomena separately, providing examples of how parliaments can and indeed do exercise their powers to legislate and hold government to account at the global and regional levels.

Their task is not made any easier by the fact that we live today in an increasingly interdependent world. The actions of a variety of external agents, geared both towards governments and citizens, impinge on every country in ways which may affect the lives and well-being of populations in relation to the environment, physical security and the security of information exchanges, public health, migration flows, criminal activity, and tax evasion, to name but a few. This phenomenon, which has greatly accelerated over the last twenty years, only serves to reinforce the interdependence of countries.

It is a commonplace observation nowadays that the State in all its branches has been losing power to global forces and institutions through the process of ‘globalisation’, which restricts the autonomy of governments in a number of ways. For governments seeking to attract international investment and maintain or improve job opportunities for their citizens, global economic forces and international markets limit the room for manoeuvre regarding domestic economic policies.

The implications of these developments for democracy are clear. What is the value of even the most democratic of institutions at the level of the national State if so many of the decisions that matter to the life of a country’s citizens, including their security, are taken beyond its borders, or by international institutions that are not subject to any democratic control or accountability? This gap between the national level where democratic institutions have historically been located, and the global or regional levels where so many decisions are now taken, is a major source of what is termed the international "democracy deficit". It has been well expressed in this paragraph from the report of the United Nations Cardoso Panel (2004):

Concerning democracy, a clear paradox is emerging: while the substance of politics is fast globalising (in the areas of trade, economics, environment, pandemics, terrorism, etc.), the process of politics is not; its principal institutions (elections, political parties and parliaments) remain firmly rooted at the national or local level. The weak influence of traditional democracy in matters of global governance is one reason why citizens in much of the world are urging greater democratic accountability of international organisations.

Parliaments and their members are acutely aware of this and, as the chapter illustrates, are seeking to meet the challenge it poses to them. As part of their efforts, they also engage in global and regional parliamentary cooperation, which we will describe in section three.

Parliamentary involvement in multilateral affairs

As we have seen, the key challenge to parliamentary involvement in international or multilateral affairs is that in almost all countries foreign affairs and international policy have traditionally been regarded as the exclusive domain of the Executive. Today, the distinction between foreign or international and national or domestic has become increasingly blurred. Parliaments must therefore step beyond the traditional Executive prerogative in international affairs, and subject governments to the same degree of oversight as in the domestic policy arena.

What this might involve was clearly outlined in the Declaration of the First Conference of Presiding Officers of Parliaments (2000):

The parliamentary dimension [to international cooperation] must be provided by parliaments themselves first of all at the national level in four distinct but interconnected ways:
  • Influencing their respective countries’ policy on matters dealt with in the United Nations and other international negotiating forums;
  • Keeping themselves informed of the progress and outcome of these negotiations;
  • Deciding on ratification, where the Constitution so foresees, of texts and treaties signed by governments; and
  • Contributing actively to the subsequent implementation process.

The Speakers of Parliaments chose their words carefully, making it very clear that their parliaments neither laid claim to a negotiating mandate, nor sought one. It remains the task of the Executive to negotiate in the international arena. However, parliaments must be able to scrutinise those negotiations by being kept fully informed as they unfold and by having an opportunity to express to the Executive their political views.

In other words, for a parliament to exercise an effective role in international affairs it must:

  • Have a clear legal basis for a parliamentary involvement;
  • Be informed sufficiently in advance of government policies and negotiating positions together with accurate information about the policies and their background;
  • Have the necessary organisation and resources to address the issues, including sufficient expertise among the individual parliamentarians involved through their work in specialised committees;
  • Have an opportunity to put questions to ministers and negotiators, and thus be able to express its political (though not necessarily legally binding) views to the government;
  • Be included as a matter of course in governmental delegations to international organisations.

We will now seek to illustrate these points. We have chosen to do so in four areas - human rights, gender equality, development and trade - it being understood that the examples apply to many other areas.

   Human rights

It is a truism that parliaments and their members are essential actors when it comes to the promotion and protection of human rights: parliamentary activity as a whole - legislating, adopting the budget and overseeing the executive branch - covers the entire spectrum of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights and has thus an immediate impact on the enjoyment by the people of their human rights. Parliaments are the guardians of human rights.

Nevertheless, parliaments are generally not directly involved in the drafting and political decision-making processes underpinning international or regional treaties. But this should not be a foregone conclusion and it is important that parliamentarians avail themselves of the opportunity that exists to inform themselves of the status of negotiations, put written and oral questions to ministers on progress made in negotiations, debate the issue in parliament and in the competent committees, and even accompany the minister to the negotiations and thus get a better idea of the progress made.

As part of their efforts to redress this situation a number of parliaments have set up specific human rights committees or given a human rights mandate to existing parliamentary committees. Today there are 164 parliamentary bodies that have an explicit human rights mandate. An increasing number of parliaments have also created ombudsman institutions which often cooperate with parliamentary human rights bodies. While these different instances work regularly and closely with NGOs, their cooperation with international and regional human rights bodies and the United Nations human rights mechanisms, such as the special rapporteurs, constitutes the exception rather than the rule. The IPU maintains a date base of these parliamentary human rights mechanisms which can be consulted on its website. In addition, it brings together the members of these bodies in an annual meeting, which also serves to promote cooperation with the United Nations human rights machinery.

International treaties, including those in the area of human rights, need to be ratified in order to take effect, an act which generally requires the approval of parliament. A recent handbook jointly published by the IPU and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sets out the steps that parliamentarians can take in the course of a ratification process:

  • Check whether the government has ratified specific human rights treaties;
  • If not, determine whether the government has the intention of doing so; if not, use parliamentary procedures to ascertain the reasons for such inaction and to encourage the government to start the process of signature and ratification without delay;
  • If a signing process is under way, check whether the government intends to make reservations regarding the treaty and if so, ascertain whether these reservations are necessary and compatible with the object and purpose of the treaty; if they are groundless, take action to ensure that the government backtracks; and
  • Check whether any reservations have been made regarding the treaties which are already in force at the national level and whether they are still necessary; if this is not the case, take action to ensure that the reservations are withdrawn. (Human rights: Handbook for parliamentarians, 2005)

Beyond participating in and monitoring treaty negotiations and ensuring their ratification, the challenges for parliaments to ensure their implementation nationally do not differ greatly from those they face in their everyday activities. Taking position on budget allocations, amending laws and adopting new ones, along with scrutinising the Executive are the daily business of parliaments, as we saw in chapter six.

However, parliaments still need to be involved in international work, as the following examples regarding gender equality illustrate.

   Gender equality

Many treaties require States to submit periodic reports on the status of national implementation. This is the case for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and its Optional Protocol. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is the treaty body empowered to monitor enforcement and make comments and recommendations which are then submitted to the State concerned with a view to improving compliance. Until recently, many parliaments were ignorant of this procedure. Not so today.

For example, in South Africa all national reports to this Committee (indeed to all the international monitoring bodies) have to go to parliament for debate, and parliament makes sure that the reports contain a wide variety of views, including those of civil society. To make this happen, parliament holds debates and public hearings, calls in ministers and requests documents and reports from a wide range of departments and citizens' groups. In South Africa, members of parliament are included in national delegations that take part in the proceedings of the CEDAW Committee, thus ensuring that they better understand the subsequent recommendations, and of course Parliament plays an active role in seeing to it that the recommendations are also effected at the national level.

When passing national legislation on the CEDAW Convention, the Netherlands Parliament added a provision to the law that requires the government to report to Parliament every four years on the implementation of the Convention before presenting its report to the Committee in its capacity of State party. The concluding comments of the Committee are also presented to Parliament.

Some Parliaments, such as that of Uruguay, hold a session in parliament to follow-up on the CEDAW Committee's recommendations and call on members of the government to discuss them in parliament.

In Trinidad and Tobago, where there is no parliamentary committee with a specific mandate to address gender equality issues, the reports to the CEDAW Committee are drawn up by the Human Rights Unit within the Ministry of the Attorney-General for the preparation of reports required under international instruments. The Unit is assisted by a Human Rights Committee, which comprises representatives of the 13 government ministries and one representative of parliament. Upon the completion of the report, the Attorney-General tables it before Parliament.

A special sitting on the CEDAW Committee's concluding comments took place at the Swedish Parliament in April 2002. It brought together parliamentarians, NGOs and the Chair of the CEDAW Committee.

Like in the area of human rights, a growing number of parliaments are also establishing special committees or other bodies to address gender equality issues and/or giving a specific gender equality mandate to existing parliamentary committees. The French parliament, for example, has created delegations for the rights of women and equal opportunity for men and women.

The area of gender equality offers yet another example of the international engagement of parliamentarians that is replicated in other areas as well. Every year, the IPU organises a parliamentary meeting at United Nations Headquarters in New York on the occasion of the meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The meeting offers an opportunity for men and women legislators who work on gender equality issues to exchange experiences, debate issues on the United Nations agenda and draw up strategies for national implementation.


The issue of parliamentary involvement is particularly pressing in relation to the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These constitute an ambitious programme to which the international community has committed itself, the aim of which is to achieve a wide range of goals by 2015: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development, with targets for aid, trade and debt relief.

Addressing development issues in parliament requires parliamentarians to be familiar with human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights suggested in 2001 that countries adopt a rights-based approach to development. Draft Guidelines were developed and are available to parliaments to help in preparing development strategies and fighting to eradicate poverty (Draft guidelines: A human rights approach to poverty reduction strategies, 2002 <http://www.unhchr.ch/development/povertyfinal.html>).

This approach has the merit of departing from the notion of development as charity and defining its objectives in terms of legally enforceable rights.

A key mechanism for the achievement of the MDGs in the seventy or so poorest countries is the programme for national poverty reduction which goes under the name of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). These are the framework documents negotiated between governments and the World Bank and IMF which provide the basis for debt relief and concessionary financing. As a UNDP-NDI handbook on the PRSPs notes:

The PRSP is often the largest and most comprehensive economic policy plan that any single government or parliament will need to manage. Because it is so comprehensive and typically requires the passage of enabling legislation and relevant appropriations, a fruitful PRSP process revolves around the smooth exchange of information between the executive and legislative branches. (Legislative-executive communication on poverty reduction strategies, 2004)

However, even though the process involves international decisions with enormous impact on domestic policy, parliaments have been left on the sidelines so far. Although the World Bank has insisted from the outset that the PRSPs should be ‘country owned’, the in-country consultations and the negotiations with the international financial institutions have so far largely bypassed parliaments, as the World Bank has itself acknowledged. Parliamentary involvement has typically been limited to formal ratification of the PRSPs, and to monitoring the financial aspects of their implementation through the budget process. Even here, budgetary scrutiny of donor funds is often taken over by the donors themselves.

In response to concerns about the limited role of parliaments in the first phase of the PRSP programme, the World Bank has published its Parliamentarians Guide to the World Bank (revised edition 2005). In actual fact, there are some examples of more extensive involvement:

  • In Mauritania, parliamentarians were members of the PRSP working groups and the committee monitoring the PRSP process. Parliamentarians held a debate with NGOs and other civil society and development partners before approving the PRSP.
  • In Honduras and Nicaragua, individual members of parliament played important and active roles during the consultation process for the PRSP.
  • In Niger, the National Assembly was involved from the beginning of the PRSP process. Members participated in thematic groups covering the key areas of development concern. The final PRSP document was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers and was submitted for discussion to the National Assembly. (p.48)

The examples provided above suggest that two forms of greater parliamentary involvement in the PRSP process have proved workable in practice:

  • Involvement of parliamentarians in the development of the country’s policy through a special parliamentary committee and participation by sectoral working groups; and
  • Monitoring implementation on the ground not merely for its financial soundness but especially for its effectiveness in delivering poverty reduction.

The difficulties confronting parliaments in maintaining oversight on poverty reduction strategies are also well recognised by the UNDP, which is responsible for overall coordination and monitoring of the MDGs. Among many of its initiatives the publication with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) of three handbooks on strengthening parliamentary involvement in reducing poverty is noteworthy. The handbooks list a number of useful strategies for briefing parliamentarians and identify the types of information they need and possible sources for obtaining it, how they can use the PRSP process itself to empower parliaments and the need to factor in sufficient time into the process to allow for genuine legislative debate on key issues. The latter is particularly important since the executive and legislative branches work on different time scales.

The accompanying diagramme from the UNDP handbook identifies the typical areas where parliamentary interventions may have an impact.

Figure 7.1: Synchronising legislative-executive coordination with specific points in the PRSP cycle

Figure 7.1: Synchronising legislative-executive coordination with specific points in the PRSP cycle

Source: United Nations Development Programme, National Democratic Institute (2004). Legislative-executive communication on poverty reduction strategies <http://www.undp.org/governance/docs/parl_other/handbooks/en/legexcomm.pdf>

The Millennium Development Goals require governments in the developed world to honour their commitments on aid and to make sure that the value of the aid given is not offset many times over by the negative effects of unfair trade regimes and the requirements of debt repayment, which is currently the case. This puts a particular responsibility on parliaments in developed countries to keep pressure on their governments to fulfil their aid commitments, and to ensure that it is being used effectively; and, in addition, not to separate oversight of aid policy from a wider consideration of trade policy and international finance.

A number of parliamentary submissions for this Guide report that increasing attention is being given to oversight of aid policy. In Japan, for example, the House of Councillors has decided to dispatch parliamentary missions on a regular basis to countries where Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) is being received. The aim of the missions is "to determine whether Japan’s ODA is effectively reaching the people who really need it and whether the budget is being used efficiently, and to evaluate the Government’s ODA policy". In the fiscal year 2004 missions were sent to China and the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil, each lasting about ten days. The resulting reports are circulated widely, within and without parliament.

The Swedish Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee has developed an integrated policy for global development, which seeks to improve the coordination of government policies in areas such as trade, agriculture, the environment, security and migration, so that they contribute to a just and sustainable global development. The Committee also requires the government to report regularly on its priorities in relation to the World Bank, IMF and the regional development banks.

Another example of an attempt to develop a more integrated policy across this sector is the establishment by the Belgian Parliament of a special Committee on Globalization, which holds hearings on different subjects with experts and representatives from civil society, and seeks to influence government policy through resolutions adopted in plenary session. Among the subjects the Committee has dealt with since it was established in 2003 have been the Tobin tax, global governance, institutional problems of the World Trade Organization (WTO) , agricultural issues in WTO negotiations, the problems of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and Trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) in the WTO, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), access to water for all, fair trade and tax havens.

Following these hearings, bills have been drafted in the Belgian Parliament on a Tobin-style tax on international financial transactions, and another that would require the government to submit an annual report outlining the steps taken to fulfil the Millennium Development Goals, and the activities undertaken by Belgium’s representatives at the IMF, World Bank and UNDP.


Despite its name, WTO is rapidly becoming more than a mere trade organisation. Its decisions now extend far beyond the traditional domain of tariffs and trade in goods, and reach deep into domestic affairs affecting areas as diverse as intellectual property, services, banking, telecommunications and government procurement. WTO has a growing impact on national health, education, employment, food safety, environment, as well as the management of natural resource such as forests, fisheries and water.

Unlike most other international treaties, WTO agreements not only bind nations with regard to the definition of common objectives, but their implementation is enforced through an effective dispute settlement mechanism. This has direct economic consequences for entire nations, as well as the private sector.

The ongoing expansion of WTO into new areas has broad implications for legislatures which perceive it as a challenge and react by protecting their ability to regulate in accordance with the delicate balance of power struck in each country's constitution. The effects of this process differ from one national system to another but are basically of two kinds: regulatory effects (when the legislator's ability to pass laws is fenced off by new rules at the international level) and constitutional effects (transfer of power from legislators to the Executive). For more information, see the discussion paper by Matthew Stillwell, Managing Attorney of the Center for International Environmental Law, "Why legislators should care about the WTO".

In many cases, WTO decisions promote international trade by defining the sort of laws that legislators can and cannot enact, and by establishing the standards they must meet. As a result, parliaments find themselves in a situation where thay are obliged to approve implementing legislations without having the possibility to ensure that they correspond to national objectives and popular aspirations. The tension between WTO decisions and national laws is intensified when governments use the dispute settlement system to challenge each other's national laws.

This is one particular area where parliamentary oversight of the negotiating process takes on particular importance and many parliaments have now taken steps to keep themselves informed of the progress of negotiations and seek to engage their government on the policies it should pursue. As a complement to these efforts they have also joined the IPU and the European Parliament in an annual Parliamentary Conference on the WTO where they are able to monitor WTO activities, maintain dialogue with governmental negotiators and facilitate information exchange and capacity building of national parliaments in matters of international trade.

Further online reading about parliamentary involvement in international affairs:

Chutikul, K (2003). Options for a parliamentary dimension of the WTO. Discussion paper presented to the Parliamentary Conference on the WTO. Inter-Parliamentary Union <http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/trade03/2c.pdf>

Committee for a democratic UN <http://www.uno-komitee.de/>

Hubli, S., & Mandaville, A. (2004). Parliaments and the PRSP process. World Bank Institute <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/WBI/Resources/wbi37231HubliMandavilleweb.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2005). Parliamentary involvement in international affairs <http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/sp-conf05/involvement-rpt.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (2003). The Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and its Optional protocol. Handbook for parliamentarians <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/cedaw_en.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2005). Human rights: Handbook for parliamentarians <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/hr_guide_en.pdf>

United Nations Development Programme, National Democratic Institute (2004). Strengthening parliament involvement in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Process and the Millennium Development Goals <http://www.undp.org/governance/docs/parl_other/Parl%20-%20Guides%20-%20parlthandbooks.htm>

Parliamentary involvement in regional integration processes

Several regions in the world are moving in the direction of integration. While the phenomenon started in Europe, similar moves are being made in Africa, Latin America and, more recently, in Asia and the Arab world. While they are clearly at very different stages, they do share some common features.

As we noted in the introduction to this chapter, for a variety of reasons which differ from one region to another, States have decided to integrate gradually their markets, economies and other sectors of the State. By definition this means relinquishing, if only very partially, some sovereignty to a common regional structure. This is fundamentally different from the cooperation that takes place between States at the global level, where States have not agreed to relinquish any of their authority and, in principle, participate on equal terms.

Common to the regional integration processes is the establishment of a governance structure that takes its inspiration from the national State. Hence, some form of executive and parliament are set up for this new regional entity. These regional parliaments exist alongside the national parliaments and complement each other much in the same way as do the two chambers of a bicameral parliament in a federal State; one represents the community views and interests, the other the national views and interests.

In this section we shall consider the situation in the European Union (EU) since it is the most advanced regional integration process in existence in the world today and we shall focus on the challenges that regional integration poses to the national parliaments.

Many of the European parliaments making submissions to this Guide described the issue of oversight of their government’s EU policy as a major challenge. Their accounts of attempts to address it will hopefully have a wider interest, as they exemplify a pattern that may become increasingly common where parliaments surrender legislative competence to supranational institutions in order to tackle common regional or global problems. The issue for national parliaments, therefore, is how to monitor and influence the positions taken by their own ministerial representatives in these institutions. The issue is well defined in a submission from the Polish Senate:

Involving the national parliament in the mechanism of deciding the government position presented subsequently to the EU is a way of overcoming the European Union's deficit of democratic legitimacy . To put it briefly, that deficit is associated with the overall legitimacy of an Executive representing a Member State in the EU and the ensuing marginalization of the role of representative bodies. ……Consequently, the transfer of entitlements from the national parliament to the Union necessitates a certain compensation, and that is precisely what the reinforcement of parliamentary competencies in cooperating with the national government on European decisions is supposed to ensure.

How this cooperation is ensured varies considerably among the Union's Members. Many parliaments address this through the mechanism of a European Affairs Committee, which is entitled to receive all relevant EU documents in advance of negotiating positions to be taken by ministers in the Council of Ministers. Yet the Polish Senate notes that "most national legislatures are not granted the competency to formulate their position in an imperative manner that would bind the national government". This conclusion perhaps understates the extent of parliamentary influence that is exercised in practice, as a number of our submissions show. So, for example, the submission from the German Parliament states that "the Federal Government must provide the Bundestag with an opportunity to state its position, which it must take as the basis of its negotiating position in the Council". And here is the procedure adopted by the European Affairs Committee (EAC) of the Danish Parliament in its weekly meetings:

The most important items on the agenda of the European Affairs Committee are the meetings to be held by the Council of Ministers the following week. Discussion of a specific Council meeting by the European Affairs Committee usually involves the minister in question attending a meeting and making an oral presentation on the mandate for negotiation. Then there follows a round in which the party spokespersons put questions to the minister and make known the party’s response to some of the proposals. Once the minister has replied there may be one or more rounds of discussions, during which the minister can clarify or modify his mandate for negotiation. The minister may also change the mandate for negotiation in deference to the party spokespersons and in order to ensure that a majority is not against it……

The Committee does not reject the government’s mandate very often. But this does not mean that the Committee does not have much influence on the government’s EU policy. Firstly, it is not uncommon for the government to change or modify its original mandate for negotiation during the discussions of the Committee. Secondly, the Danish civil servants who take part in the negotiations at an early stage – frequently before the European Commission makes its proposal – allow for the fact that the government will have to have the result approved by the European Affairs Committee at some stage.

The Danish submission notes that an important factor in the exercise of parliamentary influence is early notice of the European Commission’s proposals to the Council of Ministers, and of the government’s attitude towards them. A recent innovation is the requirement that the government indicate its general attitude to any Commission proposal in the basic memorandum to be presented to the EAC no later than four weeks after a proposal is tabled by the Commission.

This point about early notice is also emphasised in the submission from the Finnish Parliament, which tries to ensure that its own opinion on EU business is issued early enough to be known to the civil servants who attend the Council’s working groups.

As a rule, items before the ministers at the EU Council have been decided by Member States’ representatives in the civil servants’ working groups preparing the Council, leaving only a few contentious details for the ministers. It follows that hearing ministers is not sufficient to preserve the Eduskunta’s influence……The Finnish system is based on the idea that national parliaments only have real influence when they participate in policy formulation from the start. Influence that is projected only on the eve of a Council meeting would be largely illusory.

Some parliaments have resorted to establishing offices in Brussels at the European Commission's headquarters. This is the case of the French Parliament, for example. Among other things, such offices are helpful in ensuring that parliament gets early notice of developments in Brussels. They also provide a more direct means of portraying the views of the parliament to the central European institutions.

The Finnish Parliament makes a distinction between "proposals for acts, treaties and other measures" to be decided upon in the European Council that would fall within the purview of the Parliament of Finland were it not a member of the EU, and other business. For the former, the procedure is more thorough, involving the relevant sectoral committees which provide informed opinions to the Grand Committee. The Slovenian Parliament makes a similar distinction. With regard to those matters which would have come under Parliament’s jurisdiction "if Slovenia had not transferred the exercise of part of its sovereignty rights to EU institutions", the procedure is regulated by an Act on cooperation between the National Assembly and the Government in EU affairs. This Act gives the Assembly the right to adopt a position on forthcoming EU business, which the government is required to take into account in its negotiating position. The government is also required to provide the National Assembly with an impact assessment of any proposals for European legislative acts before the Council of Ministers, which details their implications for the budget, economy and environment, to name but a few. Similar impact assessments are made under the procedure for dealing with European legislative acts by the French Parliament.

The submission from Latvia explains that the development of a negotiating position on legislative proposals before the European Council is a joint responsibility of the government and the Seima. The relevant ministry ‘has to agree on the national position with the Seima European Affairs Committee’. That Committee, however, only has enough qualified staff to deal with the most important issues, and has the same concern noted above about securing early information of legislative proposals coming from the European Commission. The submission notes two additional mechanisms for strengthening parliamentary involvement. One is the right of representatives from the EAC to have observer status at the EU Council of Senior Officials. The other is closer cooperation with the Latvian Members of the European Parliament, through the office of two permanent representatives of the Seima in the European Parliament. This cooperation is also a feature of the Hungarian National Assembly, where Hungarian Members of the European Parliament are entitled to attend and speak in plenary sessions where the agenda includes European matters.

Before concluding this section a word should be said about the Pan-African Parliament, a key political institution within the recently formed African Union. The submission for the present study from the South African Parliament itemises some of the challenges which have to be overcome if this parliamentary assembly is to be effective, beginning with the cessation of regional conflict:

Regional conflict and boundary disputes waste resources, distract the country and region from development, destroy physical and social infrastructure and contribute to social and cultural disintegration. The cessation of regional conflict is the first imperative for regional parliamentary dialogue.

The existence of ineffective national parliaments and weak parliamentary structures creates difficulties when they are required to operate at a regional and continental level. The strengthening of parliaments at a national level would provide the platform for continental parliamentary cooperation.

The overlapping membership of regional organizations can lead to duplication and may contribute to conflicting foreign policies.

The cost implications of regional integration and parliamentary cooperation must be considered, especially for poor regions. Similarly the cost of not promoting regional cooperation should also be measured.

Political concerns about the potential loss of sovereignty to supranational bodies need to be addressed.

"All of the above," it concludes, "has implications for South Africa, as the failure to overcome these challenges can only undermine its domestic efforts at nation-building."

Further online reading about parliamentary oversight of national representatives in the EU Council of Ministers:

Travers, D (2002). European Affairs Committees. The influence of national parliaments on European Policies. European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation <http://www.ecprd.org/ecprd/getfile.do?id=5087>

Parliamentary cooperation

In many ways the IPU is the precursor to international or multilateral cooperation. The organisation was founded in 1889 at a time when there was not yet any political forum for representatives of States where they could meet to address common problems. The idea thus emerged to establish a permanent meeting place for leading politicians of the day to promote peace and security through dialogue.

While the IPU is therefore the precursor to organisations for inter-parliamentary cooperation, it did not remain alone for very long. Other mechanisms for inter-parliamentary cooperation soon emerged, first in Europe and then in other parts of the world as did various forms of parliamentary cooperation, both at the global and regional levels. In this section we will consider three types of parliamentary cooperation: parliamentary diplomacy, inter-parliamentary cooperation, and technical cooperation.

   Parliamentary diplomacy

A diplomat is an envoy of the executive branch and represents the positions of the State. Members of parliament, however, are politicians who hold political beliefs which may or may not coincide with their respective country's official position on any given issue. This allows parliamentarians a margin of flexibility that is denied to the diplomat. They tend to bring a moral dimension to international politics that transcends narrow definitions of the national interest, particularly in their principled support for democracy and human rights. Time and again we have seen that this flexibility allows parliamentarians to debate more openly with their counterparts from other countries and to advance innovative solutions to what may seem to be intractable problems.

Herein lie the origins of the term "parliamentary diplomacy". Far from being a precise term, it now encapsulates all forms of cooperation between parliamentarians. For the purposes of this study, however, we will use it in its original meaning.

Parliamentary diplomacy became a powerful instrument during the Cold War period. While governments were engaging the so called "Helsinki process" - a mechanism for dialogue on cooperation and security in Europe - parliamentarians were conducting a parallel process within the IPU. This process served as a testing ground and a means of harnessing the resources of East-West dialogue and, through parliamentary diplomacy, broke the impasse on many occasions when government negotiators were unable to progress. It also gave birth to a similar effort at parliamentary diplomacy in the Mediterranean region, also spearheaded by the IPU in the early 1990s.

Often, parliamentary diplomacy is used to promote political dialogue during conflicts in neighbouring countries and within their region. In the IPU study Parliamentary Involvement in International Affairs (2005), examples of such initiatives are given from many regions of the world:

  • At the invitation of the IPU, the Speakers of the countries neighbouring Iraq met in Amman in May 2004 to discuss how to assist in supporting democracy in Iraq and in bringing stability to the region;
  • The National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian Majlis has held talks with its counterparts in different parliaments on the crises in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine;
  • The Speaker of the House of Representatives of Morocco hosted a meeting of the Speakers of Parliaments of the Mediterranean countries in the wake of the 2001 terrorist bombings to formulate a parliamentary response;
  • The Speakers of the Parliaments of Cape Verde and Mozambique undertook a mission to Guinea-Bissau on behalf of the Speakers of the Parliaments of the Portuguese-speaking countries, and helped establish a political dialogue there in early 2003;
  • The Speakers of the Parliaments of the three Caucasian States – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – met at the invitation of the President of the French Senate to discuss the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region;
  • The Parliaments of Mali and Sierra Leone decided to institutionalize encounters between parliamentarians of the subregion (including parliamentarians from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea); three meetings have taken place so far;
  • The Parliament of Pakistan notes that exchanges of delegations with the Parliament of India had the beneficial effect of reducing tension between the two countries;
  • The Speakers of the Parliaments of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Mali recently met with the Speaker of the Parliament of Cote d’Ivoire – first in Cotonou and later in Abidjan – and helped to establish a political dialogue in that country;
  • The Speakers of the Parliaments of the Member Countries of the Southern African Development Community have visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a part of efforts to promote peace and stability in the region;
  • The British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, which, in addition to representatives from the Parliaments of the United Kingdom and of Ireland, consists of representatives from the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Tynwald of the Isle of Man and the Assemblies of the States of Guernsey and Jersey, has provided support to the peace process in Northern Ireland;
  • The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has recently developed initiatives addressing the conflicts in Chechnya, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabak;
  • The Italian Chamber of Deputies has a separate Committee for Parliamentary Diplomacy, which is "responsible for harmonizing the international activities of permanent committees and parliamentary delegations to international assemblies as well as the activities of bilateral cooperation groups and other organs of the Chamber."

Of course, parliamentary diplomacy need not be conducted exclusively between parliamentarians. It can also entail members of parliament visiting a country for meetings with authorities and entities to consult in solving conflicts and problems. Thus, for example, Members of the South African Parliament have shared their experience in conflict situations and reconciliation in several countries in the Middle East region.

   Inter-parliamentary cooperation

The multiplication of inter-parliamentary exchanges in one form or the other over the past decade has been extraordinary. A provisional attempt to map them has been made by Stelios Stavridis in a working paper of November 2002, Parliamentary diplomacy: some preliminary findings <http://www.fscpo.unict.it/EuroMed/jmwp48.htm> and by the IPU, which keeps a record of formal and informal structures for inter-parliamentary cooperation. In view of the dynamic expansion of parliamentary diplomacy, only a few examples will be treated here, more to illustrate their variety rather than attempt to be exhaustive.

All parliaments engage in bilateral cooperation of some kind. Most parliaments have developed bilateral friendship groups which promote cooperation between the parliaments and countries concerned. There are literally thousands of these friendship groups in existence today.

To these should be added an ever growing number of informal networks of parliamentarians who meet to work on specific issues. Some address development and population issues, others deal with disarmament issues, while others still discuss the issue of small arms, etc. Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA) addresses a cluster of issues and has recently managed a successful campaign to mobilise support for the International Criminal Court.

There are also many formal parliamentary structures. One of the first was the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, a parliamentary forum that brings together the parliaments in the countries of the Commonwealth. Its French-speaking counterpart is the Francophone Parliamentary Assembly.

There is a host of regional and subregional parliamentary assemblies. The IPU report Parliamentary Involvement in International Affairs notes that the survey responses from parliaments "clearly indicate an intensification of parliamentary participation in regional inter-parliamentary structures. Throughout the world the trend is clearly discernable: more and more parliaments dedicate time and resources to regional parliamentary cooperation."

One problem also noted is the duplication and overlapping between different regional parliamentary organisations. An Andean legislature, for example, could be a member of the Andean Pact Parliament, of the Latin American Parliament and of the Inter-American Parliamentary Assembly. A parliament of the Maghreb, for example, could be a member of the Consultative Council of the Maghreb Union, the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union, the African Parliamentary Union, the Francophone Parliamentary Assembly and the Pan-African Parliament. The report notes that "most parliaments indicate the priority they give to working with certain parliamentary organizations", though few have taken steps to coordinate their inter-parliamentary relations as, for example, the Italian Chamber of Deputies has.

One common feature of regional inter-parliamentary assemblies is the aim to foster greater integration and legislative coordination between member countries.

A specific example of a regional parliamentary initiative to help promote democracy is provided by an IPU working group member from the ASEAN region, Loretta Rosales:

A recent breakthrough in the ASEAN region is the coming together of like-minded members of ASEAN Parliaments towards the unconditional release of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the full restoration of democratic rule in Burma. Equipped by our individual legislative resolutions on the matter, MPs from Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia and exiled MPs from Burma met in Kuala Lumpur in 2004 to forge unity in convincing our governments to reject Burma’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2006, unless compliance to its commitment to restore democratic rule and release political prisoners headed by Suu Kyi is undertaken. The regular meetings of the ASEAN Inter-parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) and our continued dialogues with our respective Ministers, ASEAN Ministerial meetings and individual Heads of State have helped in a major way to press Burma’s final decision to withdraw her chairmanship of the ASEAN Ministerial Conference.

   Technical assistance

Technical assistance is best described as the action of institutions or persons to help build capacities in a parliament, especially parliaments in developing countries and emerging democracies, in order to enable them to perform their functions more effectively. Technical assistance was born of the realisation that fledgling parliaments often found themselves lacking resources, both human and material, required for them to fulfil their constitutional mandates in an effective way. Technical assistance is thus a conjugation of financial and material resources and expertise from the more established democracies and developed countries of the North in support of parliaments in the emerging democracies and developing countries of the South. However, in recent years, South-South cooperation has also grown significantly in this field.

Technical assistance can be of several types. These include development of infrastructure, institutional development through improved procedures and modernisation of parliamentary processes, building awareness through exchanges of experience and information between members of parliament from different countries, capacity-building and professional development involving training for members and staff of parliament, and legislative development in which parliaments receive assistance with the content of new legislation or reform of existing legislation.

Technical assistance typically covers a wide variety of areas, such as standing orders and rules of procedure, committee systems, legislation, the representational function of parliament, oversight, administration, and library, documentation, research and archives services. Gender and human rights are cross-cutting issues which feature prominently in training programmes and advisory services. For its part, infrastructural support covers public address systems and audio-visual recording and broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings, printing, transportation and refurbishment of premises. Technical assistance is delivered in the form of advisory services, seminars and workshops, study tours, attachments and other in-service training programmes, as well as meetings and conferences. Increasingly, information and communication technologies are taking centre stage in technical assistance programmes.

At the multilateral level, the IPU played a pioneering role when it initiated its technical cooperation programme in the early 1970s, at a time when donor agencies considered working with parliaments to strengthen their capacities to be an intrusion in a national political institution and, therefore, too sensitive. Since those early days, this area of activity has grown considerably and provides today a major focus for IPU's work to promote democracy.

A growing number of institutions joined in these efforts in the early 1990s. These include the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), the Francophone Parliamentary Assembly (APF) and networks of parliamentarians such as the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa (AWEPA). A host of non-parliamentary agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United States Agency for International Development, the European Commission, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank Institute as well as the US-based NGOs the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute are now also involved in far-reaching technical assistance programmes. A list of institutions that provide technical assistance to parliaments can be found in the annex to this Guide.

Technical assistance at the bilateral level actually preceded multilateral technical assistance. Indeed, many parliaments of former colonial countries initiated assistance to the new parliaments of their ex-colonies. These often included attachments in the donor parliament as well as exchanges between staffers and Members of the respective parliaments.

The Indian Parliament also developed, several years ago, a programme of assistance to a number of parliaments, especially in the Commonwealth. This programme still functions today, and covers areas such as legislative drafting. In addition to delivering training programmes to Indian State legislators and staff, it organises attachments and study visits for members and staff of foreign parliaments.

Like its multilateral counterpart, technical assistance at the bilateral level has developed considerably in recent years. In addition to providing a pool of expertise for the programmes run by the multilateral agencies, the long-established parliaments, generally those in the North, have developed full-fledged technical assistance programmes in support of parliamentary institutions of the South. The Italian Chamber of Deputies, for example, indicates that it gives high priority, in its international activities, to programmes of assistance to parliaments in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, South-Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. These programmes cover constitutional reform or reorganising the technical-administrative machinery supporting parliaments.

Both Houses of the French Parliament have also developed extensive programmes of assistance to parliaments, not only in the former French colonies, but also to other parliaments such those in Cambodia, Romania and Georgia. In many cases, these programmes are funded by the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme. The Swedish Parliament, with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), has been and is currently involved in a project to develop information and documentation systems in support of the lawmaking and oversight functions of the Vietnamese National Assembly. The Swedish Parliament has also implemented a similar project to assist the fledgling Parliament of Timor Leste.

In the United States, in 2005 the House of Representatives set up a Democracy Assistance Commission (HDAC), to enable House Members, their staff and Congressional support agencies to direct assistance to their parliamentary counterparts in newly democratising countries. Because the constitutional separation of powers prohibits the legislative branch from administering a foreign aid programme, the HDAC concentrates on providing technical assistance on a member-to-member or staff-to-staff basis. The scheme is supporting assistance to up to five countries across different regions in 2006, selected after on-site assessment visits. In addition, the authorising resolution enables the HDAC to recommend to USAID that material assistance be provided to a parliament when it identifies a need.

The preliminary report of a working group set up by the Conference of the Speakers of the EU Parliaments to survey assistance to parliaments of new and emerging democracies indicates that the sum of 511,000 Euros was allocated in June 2005 by the German Federal Government to provide assistance to four parliaments in the form of financial support for the procurement of office equipment, and the supply of specialist texts for parliamentary libraries. The same report refers to the project the German Bundestag is implementing in partnership with the University of Berlin and which brings some 100 young people from 21 countries to Berlin to undergo training in parliamentary work in the office of a German Member of Parliament.

   Concluding remarks

As we have seen, there is a democracy gap in international relations that needs to be filled by involving parliaments in global and regional affairs in a more effective way.

At the global level, parliaments must work with intergovernmental organisations or negotiating fora in which States, acting on an equal footing, reach agreements that must be implemented in each member State. At the regional level, parliaments have to adapt to the new circumstances resulting from the transfer of some of the State's sovereignty to a new regional entity, which is not the case at the global level.

Yet, different though they are, the actions parliamentarians have to undertake to bridge the democracy gap in both scenarios are surprisingly similar. They have to be firmly rooted in their own parliament and taken at the national level. In both instances, meticulous oversight of governments is called for. There needs to be a clear legal basis for parliamentary involvement. Parliaments need to be informed sufficiently in advance of government policies and negotiating positions and receive accurate information about the policies and their background. They need to have adequate organisation and resources to address the issues, including sufficient expertise among the parliamentarians involved, through a specialised committee or committees. There must be an opportunity to put questions to ministers and negotiators in the light of which parliamentarians must be able to express their political (though not necessarily legally binding) views to the government. Finally, members of parliament should also be included as a matter of course in governmental delegations to international organisations.

These efforts at the national level need to be complemented by international involvement, for example through the kind of international and regional parliamentary cooperation we have outlined in section three of this chapter.

With regard to international affairs, this approach has been validated by two recent global conferences of Speakers of parliaments, which both expressed the view that the best way of bridging the democracy gap at the international level is by using existing parliamentary organisations and assemblies which have been legitimised by democratic election at the national level and not creating any new structures. And the appropriate coordinating instrument within international organisations for these bodies is the IPU, as the world organisation of parliaments. In particular, following the granting to the IPU of permanent observer status at the United Nations in 2002, the Speakers consider it the most appropriate body to provide a strong and democratic parliamentary component to the United Nations.

An additional merit of the IPU approach is that it provides a clear way of advancing the dual strategy for overcoming the democracy deficit in international policy: through more effective parliamentary oversight at the national level, on the one hand, and through involvement in existing international parliamentary organisations and assemblies, on the other. It will be parliamentarians with clear domestic democratic legitimacy who will be involved at both levels. Those involved will typically have expertise and an abiding interest in the issues at stake because they handle the same issues in the parliamentary committees at home.

This approach was most recently endorsed in the Declaration of the Second Conference of Speakers of Parliaments held in New York in September 2005:

  • We reaffirm the Declaration of the First Conference of Speakers of Parliaments (2000) in which we called on all parliaments and their world organization – the Inter-Parliamentary Union – to provide a parliamentary dimension to international cooperation……We emphasize that parliaments must be active in international affairs not only through inter-parliamentary cooperation and parliamentary diplomacy, but also by contributing to and monitoring international negotiations, overseeing the enforcement of what is adopted by governments, and ensuring national compliance with international norms and the rule of law. Similarly, parliaments must be more vigilant in scrutinizing the activities of international organizations and providing input into their deliberations.
  • We therefore welcome the current debate on how best to establish more meaningful and structured interaction between the United Nations and national parliaments. We reaffirm the recommendations relating to this subject that were contained in our Declaration of the year 2000, and assert that much of this interaction must be firmly rooted in the daily work of our national parliaments. At the international level, we propose to work ever more closely with the IPU, which we consider to be a unique global parliamentary counterpart of the United Nations.
  • To this end, we encourage the IPU to ensure that national parliaments are better informed on the activities of the United Nations. Moreover, we invite the IPU to avail itself more frequently of the expertise of members of standing and select committees of national parliaments in dealing with specific issues requiring international cooperation. We also encourage the IPU to develop further parliamentary hearings and specialized meetings at the United Nations, and to cooperate more closely with official regional parliamentary assemblies and organizations, with a view to enhancing coherence and efficiency in global and interregional parliamentary cooperation.

Lastly, as already seen in previous chapters of this Guide, the effectiveness of a parliament depends on the availability of human and material resources, including information. These are often lacking in the emerging democracies and the deficit has to be filled through international cooperation at both the multilateral and bilateral levels.


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