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World of Parliaments

Parliaments building peace

by Mr. Anders B. Johnsson IPU Secretary General

Mr. Anders B. JohnssonIt was a sunny afternoon in May 1993 when I visited the Cambodian Parliament for the first time. I wanted to see the place that would soon be hosting the Assembly which the Cambodian people were electing to draft a new constitution. This was the final step in a long process designed to end a particularly violent and divisive conflict. Cambodia was desperately in need of peace and development and, more than anything, of reconciliation.

I was not expecting what I saw as I stepped through the door.

There was a large hall, sparsely furnished with desks and chairs badly in need of repair. The roof was leaking into small pools of mosquito-infested stagnant water. There was no functioning toilet. No equipment. No air conditioning. No microphones. No stationery. In fact, apart from the splendid façade, the place was hard to distinguish from a run-down school in some outlying district.

In those days, the business of building peace in Cambodia was spearheaded by the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC). As I was soon to discover, although the international community was investing US$ 1.5 in UNTAC, no funds had been set aside for the parliament. In fact, nobody had given a moment’s thought to what the parliament and its 120 members would need to fulfill the task for which they were being elected.

In the weeks and months that followed, the IPU provided initial support to the Cambodian Assembly. It helped repair the building, mend the roof, install new windows and paint the walls. It purchased a sound system, several air conditioners and basic furniture. It provided essential in-service training for the staff. It helped set up a library and documentation centre for the parliament and gave legal and technical advice to the Constitutional Assembly.

The moral of this story is that strong parliamentary institutions do not appear overnight as if by magic. They need nurturing, and they need support and long-term commitment. They need the solidarity of their peers in other countries who have experience and expertise to offer, and they need fi nancial support.

In the case of IPU’s early assistance to Cambodia, much of the expertise was provided by the parliaments of Australia, Canada, India, Namibia and the Philippines, with financial support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

What does the IPU do?

The IPU’s mission is clear. Through its global membership, the IPU is ideally placed to provide the kind of parliamentary knowledge and expertise that is relevant to the needs of other parliaments. The IPU can mobilize that support. The IPU is also sensitive to the workings of the parliamentary institution. Parliaments are not governments. They have their own dynamics that demand their own response.

The IPU is also a global voice for parliaments. Far too often, as in the Cambodian example, the international community forgets that parliament is central to democracy and needs support. It is important to organize free and fair elections, but it is equally if not more important to provide support to the elected institution, so that it can function effectively and fulfill the hopes and expectations vested in it.

Accordingly, when the United Nations asked the IPU in 2005 to work with its new Peacebuilding Commission, the IPU responded willingly. The objective of the exercise was to help ensure that parliaments are included in peace-building operations.

Building peace and stability requires reconciliation and they need strong institutions. In all respects, the prime mover must be the country itself. It requires widespread involvement and, most definitely, the participation of parliament.

During these first years, the UN Peacebuilding Commission has concentrated on Burundi and Sierra Leone. The IPU has supported the parliaments in both countries, and continues to do so today through a jointly developed support programme that responds to the needs of each party.

Some early lessons

The National Assembly of CambodiaThe work in both of these countries, as in many others where the IPU is providing support to the national parliament, teaches us many valuable lessons. Support to parliament needs to be institutional. It has to be designed in partnership with parliament and have institutional political support. All political factions in parliament must be consulted and involved.

Facilitating inclusiveness in parliament is essential when pursuing peace and reconciliation. It makes little sense to elect a parliament that represents the different strata and components of society, and then deprive some MPs of the chance to play a meaningful role in its work. The political opposition in parliament has its own rights that need to be safeguarded and its own responsibilities to fulfill.

What is covered by the term “inclusiveness” may differ from one country to another. In some countries, it involves different forms of minorities. Increasingly, it also means youth and persons with disabilities.

In all countries, however, it must mean including women in decision-making. They represent at least half of the population and they have their own perspective and contribution to offer. Countries are ill-served if they do not include them in their parliaments.

Parliaments always need to pay attention to human rights. Reconciliation means addressing past injustices. Aside from the often contentious issue of how to deal with violations of human rights, parliaments can do much to help establish the truth, provide recognition and compensation to victims, and put in place legislation and institutions - checks and balances - to prevent fresh outbreaks of conflict.

Similarly, parliament itself is dependent on respect for human rights. Without freedom of speech and expression, parliamentary work quickly becomes a mockery. Every parliament has an interest in having functional mechanisms to protect its members from abuse. An attack on one of its members is in fact an attack on the institution itself.

Representing people in parliament is a privilege given to few. More than that, however, it is a public service. Members of parliament are leaders and role models. Codes of ethics increasingly serve to make sure that members of parliament are held to the highest standards of probity.

It is true that countries emerging from conflict need a stable executive, but this should not come at the expense of a functional parliament. Without exception, governments need to be held to account and that is one of parliament’s most important responsibilities. It is essential for parliament to develop mechanisms to assume that responsibility in an effective manner.

In fact, many parliaments need to examine their workings as an institution. And many of them are. The toolkit which the IPU has developed for parliaments to assess their performance and identify areas for improvement is being used in a growing number of parliaments to determine what they can do to be more representative, accessible, transparent, accountable and effective.

Much of the work in legislative strengthening programmes is focused on providing support to the members of parliament. Equally essential is support for the institution, capacity building for parliamentary staff, honing parliamentary services and improving the working environment. It can be very dispiriting - indeed disempowering - for members of parliament to have no office space, no committee meeting rooms, no venue for dialogue with constituents, no resources for research, and no transportation.

An expanding agenda

As in the case of Cambodia, the list of needs is almost limitless. The reason for this is plain to see. Every one of the countries receiving assistance has suffered the ravages of war and strife. They are all developing countries and most of them have never had good parliamentary institutions.

It is all too easy to claim that it is more important to feed people and provide health, education and other services than to invest in parliament. But this is a meaningless choice since both are essential; failing to invest in parliament ends up undermining the foundations of democratic development in the country.

Recently, IPU President Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab spoke at the UN General Assembly on the work of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. A fully representative parliament that has the requisite powers to legislate and hold government to account is, in many ways, the best antidote to conflict, he stated.

As a melting pot of the diverse components of society, parliament has a determining role in the process of national reconciliation, political tolerance and peace building in the aftermath of conflict. It is precisely in parliament that the competing and sometimes conflicting interests in society are debated and that agreements on public policy and national priorities are forged.

Despite evident progress over the past couple of decades, many parliaments in developing countries and particularly those in post-conflict countries continue to face daunting challenges. They have far too little capacity and resources to function effectively and promote democracy.

Parliaments need sustained and practical support for their long-term development into more credible institutions; institutions that can help build consensus and serve as a platform for open and candid debate; institutions that can also contribute to healing the scars of conflict and averting the danger of a return to instability and discord.

The real challenge

The 122nd IPU Assembly in Bangkok is being held under the guiding theme of parliament at the heart of political reconciliation and good governance. It offers a fine opportunity to learn from the experience of parliaments such as those in Burundi, Cambodia and Sierra Leone.

How far have they come in achieving political reconciliation and good governance? What lessons have they learned? What are the major challenges they face today and what can other parliaments and the IPU do to assist them?

Glaring inequalities, extreme poverty and weak institutions are often at the root of modern conflicts. It is a truism that building peace requires a parliament that represents all sectors of society, is open and accessible to the people and accountable to them, works in full transparency, and is effective in legislating and holding government to account.

The real challenge is turning what is so self-evident into a reality for the people of Cambodia, Burundi, Sierra Leone and countless other countries.

Mr. Anders B. Johnsson re-elected IPU Secretary General

On 21 October, the IPU re-elected the current Secretary General, Anders B. Johnsson, for a new four-year term, from 2010 to 2014. This will be the fourth mandate for Mr. Johnsson, who was first elected Secretary General in 1998. Over the past ten years, Mr. Johnsson has helped develop the Organization and its activities to promote peace, democracy and development, particularly in developing countries and countries emerging from conflict. During this period, the IPU has also developed a strong parliamentary interface with the United Nations and has brought more stringent parliamentary scrutiny to the workings of the multilateral bodies, in particular of the United Nations. Mr. Johnsson has dedicated his entire professional life to international cooperation. He worked for many years with the United Nations before joining the IPU in the 1990s.

Towards lasting peace in Africa

IPU seminar on reconciliation in Uganda.Reconstruction with a view to lasting peace is the aim of all countries that have suffered the horrors of conflict. Realizing that goal requires an inclusive strategy of national reconciliation that involves all stakeholders in society, the aim being to avoid triggering a new conflict.

Parliament, as an institution that represents all components of society, is the place where all important decisions are taken. It is well-placed, therefore, to play the pivotal role of merging new energies to drive forward the process of national reconciliation with a view to achieving equitable and lasting peace. In 2008, the IPU launched a project for English-speaking post-conflict African countries based on the premise that parliament should be the driving force behind any strategy to achieve the peaceful coexistence of different communities.

The purpose of the project is to equip parliamentarians with the expertise and know-how they need to make a significant contribution to that process.

National seminars were organized in Kenya (17-19 November 2008), Sierra Leone (29-30 April 2009), Rwanda (13-14 July 2009) and Uganda (26-28 October 2009). They aimed to take stock of the status of implementation of existing national reconciliation mechanisms and explore the possibility of a parliamentary contribution. The initiative, which sought to underscore the determining role of parliamentarians in this area, was well received by the legislators.

The seminar participants recommended reforming their respective parliaments with a view to enhancing their performance in the area of national reconciliation, by inter alia involving the opposition in parliamentary activities, promoting partnership among men and women MPs within parliament and involving parliament in promoting and ensuring respect for civil, political and socio-economic rights. They also recommended other institutional, administrative and political reforms, notably partnership between parliament and civil society, parliamentary activities aimed at making youth more responsible and promoting a culture of ethics.

Recommendations tailored to national specificities

Given the specificity of conflicts and countries, the participants drew up a list of tailored recommendations.

As the conflict in Kenya had taken the form of ethnic clashes, it was suggested that care should be taken to ensure that political parties were driven by national interests rather than regional or ethnic interests. The IPU will provide support so that the parliamentarians can be directly involved as a united front in promoting a message of reconciliation and tolerance in their constituencies.

In Sierra Leone, the main concerns expressed centered on fighting corruption and drawing up a code of ethics and a charter of rights and duties of the opposition.

Regarding Rwanda, the focus was placed on popularizing laws on national reconciliation and human rights and sensitizing and mobilizing the population.

Lastly, in Uganda, the participants felt that it was necessary to organize a national conference on reconciliation, integrate demobilized child soldiers into school programmes, proclaim a national day of peace and appoint a second Vice-President from the opposition.

All of these recommendations have been incorporated into plans of action, some of which are already being implemented, while others will be shortly. The IPU provides direct assistance in implementing several of these recommendations.