PLACE DU PETIT-SACONNEX
1211 GENEVA 19, SWITZERLAND
FINAL REPORT OF THE SEMINAR
Organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union
I have the challenging task of summing up our work to you in the space of a few minutes. Considering the breadth of the topics discussed and the rich and fruitful debates which have taken place over the past four days, it will be impossible for me to make an exhaustive presentation of all the points of view expressed here, and I therefore ask for your understanding.
First, I would like to refer to some leading ideas which have emerged from our debates.
The first point to make is that the participants greatly appreciated the initiative taken by the Inter-Parliamentary Union to organize this Seminar which has enabled us to compare our different experiences and to embark on a process of collective learning. We all leave the Seminar better aware of our roles, rights and responsibilities and we can look to the future of parliamentary democracy in the sub-region with optimism.
Moreover, the Seminar highlighted the fact that democracy, and more especially parliamentary democracy, is certainly more advanced in Africa than is generally thought. On the strength of some practical experience already, the participants were able to exchange their respective views and tackle the different themes from a practical standpoint, without being limited to abstract principles having little to do with African reality.
We took note that modernity is nobody's private preserve and that it was no good thinking in terms of imitations. The problem for African Parliaments is above all a question of having modern means at their disposal. Those means have their price, and the key is to make the very most of the possibilities by making realistic choices.
It also came out that, in the so-called advanced democracies and in the emerging democracies alike, there is no one particular solution to the problems facing Parliaments. Unrelenting efforts must be made in Parliaments and a constant battle waged to foster democracy and ensure that its roots grow deep so that the decisions taken by the public authorities are in the interest of the people and so that government is accountable to the people for its actions through representatives freely chosen by the people in free and fair elections.
On this point, the question of the representative nature of parliaments was discussed at length. The participants stressed how important it is for all sectors of society, particularly women and the various ethnic components, to be involved in the decision-making process. In that context, they took note with interest of the steps being taken in many African countries to set up a second Chamber which would often lead to a better integration of the local communities or traditional authorities. Moreover, such a second Chamber would act as a think-tank and thus increase the value of decisions taken by parliament.
Furthermore, we all shared the view that democracy is the outcome of an attitude and that everything must be done to promote a real culture of democracy in our societies, both among the political leaders and the entire population. As parliamentarians we have a special responsibility; our behaviour must place us at the forefront of our societies. The example we show and our action will contribute to their democratic education and, in turn, the emergence of societies in which a culture of democracy is better rooted will make our task easier and facilitate the working of a multiparty parliament.
I will now try to sum up the main features of our work on subjects which were often interwoven in such a way that certain questions came up again and again.
In the first part of our Seminar, we took up the leading principles which underlie the working of the institutions of the modern State, and particularly the fundamental relations existing between the Parliament and the Executive. Montesquieu's statement that "power alone counters power" enabled us to understand that confrontation between the Executive and Parliament is inevitable; but at the same time the smooth working of a sound democratic system requires that some form of co-operation be established between these two powers. In any event, everything must be done so that such confrontation does not bring institutions to a standstill or opens the door to a solution of force but can be resolved through the vote of the electorate.
This co-operation between the two powers is helped by the 'political solidarity pact' which links the parliamentary majority to the Government and by a certain distribution of roles as reflected in the two essential functions of Parliament, namely, legislating on the one hand, and oversight of Government action on the other.
As regards the legislative function, the rules of the game lay down that Government proposes and Parliament disposes. There is really no need to worry about this primacy of Government which means that the great majority of legislation stems from Government initiative. This is because Government is better equipped technically and in terms of human and material resources to prepare bills. On the other hand, it is important for Parliament to be able to intervene decisively on the content of the texts so that the laws adopted are qualitatively good and are commensurate with realities.
The right of Parliament to dispose of legislation is both strong and essential. The strength of Parliament comes from public debates, over which it has a monopoly, and from its capacity to influence the substance of the texts brought before it my introducing amendments; such amendments must stem from both the majority and the opposition. Parliament's contribution is essential since its members, through their knowledge of local conditions and their contact with the population, are able to adapt bills so that the laws adopted correspond to the reality experienced by the citizens. This is important if the law is to be really accepted, thus making its application easier.
The exercise of Parliament's oversight function is certainly the touchstone of democracy in that the democratic nature of a political system is basically conditioned by the oversight means available to Parliament. The opposition should not have the monopoly of oversight; but we have also seen how necessary it is in Africa for the opposition not to be accused of impeding the management of public affairs when it exercises that function. Government should not automatically be suspicious of every attempt by Parliament to exercise that control. And on their part, MPs should refrain from using that tool to call the government into question systematically. In the final analysis, when used wisely, the various forms of oversight help to promote a balance of power between the Executive and the Legislature, thus bringing about a better working of the democratic system.
We discussed at length the various ways in which Parliament can oversee the action of Government and the application of laws, including the management of the budget voted by Parliament and the conditions for contracting debts which involve the responsibility of future generations. And in the light of our mutual experiences, we looked into the different mechanisms available, particularly the various forms of questions to Government and the setting up of commissions of enquiry of various kinds, with a view to making those mechanisms more effective.
The requirement of a majority decision to establish a commission of inquiry seemed to us a serious impediment since in fact it places the opposition at the mercy of the majority. The participants pointed to the complexity of some of these means and the rather onerous nature of parliamentary commissions of inquiry, which sometimes restricts Parliament's ability to take action.
During the past four days we saw how important it is for Parliament to be properly informed, both when dealing with legislation and when overseeing Government action. The debate on this question brought to light the evident lack of the means required by political groups or individual MPs to gather the information necessary for parliamentary work. The explanations and statistics provided by the European experts brought us face to face with the considerable gap in this area between African Parliaments and those of developed countries, even if the latter feel that they still do not have all the means needed for their work. The participants pointed out that our countries have a pool of unemployed young university graduates who could help MPs to prepare the basic files they need, if only some basic additional resources could be mobilized for that purpose.
Several of us stressed that information must be a two-way process and that Parliament, just as much as Government, had a duty to be transparent. Further efforts should be made to ensure that Parliament's work is better known nationally, particularly since Parliament stands to gain from having its work appreciated and understood by the people who, if such is not the case, may be led to doubt the reasons for its existence. While noting with satisfaction the emergence of a free press, many participants remarked that much remains to be done for parliamentary work to be better covered by the media.
The outstanding feature of political life in Africa in recent years has been the emergence of multiparty politics. The existence of the opposition is now a constant element in each of our countries, although pluralism and its expression occur in various forms. Nobody challenged the importance of this interplay of differing opinions. Pluralism seems to be an irreversible feature, and efforts must be devoted to the future management of this phenomenon so that it works to the maximum benefit of our countries.
The debates on relations between the opposition and the majority were extremely lively and revealed the diversity of the situation and ways of perceiving it, as well as some frustration and hope. This led us to think that it was important to codify this confrontation between the majority and the opposition so that, however vigorous it is, it should never imperil the very foundations of democracy but should, on the contrary, foster the good governance of the country. And this gave rise to the suggestion that we need to establish a real status for the opposition offering it the conditions required for its normal working in the parliamentary setting.
For the institution of Parliament itself to function, it must have a solid and well organized body of staff. It is of capital importance for MPs to be able to count on an efficient Secretariat. Priority in organizing a parliamentary secretariat must go to the legislative and procedural committee services and to the documentation service. This body of civil servants should enjoy an unequivocal status guaranteeing them both stability and impartiality.
In this field, we saw again how important financial means are and how the precarious nature of our national economies complicated the issue. The debates showed that after first striking a new balance between the public powers of the Executive and the Legislature, the time had come to tackle the question of a new balance in the sharing of resources. Whatever our efforts and however much our ambitions will have to be tempered by reality, it will be difficult to establish multiparty parliamentary democracy without external assistance, both financial and material. We are therefore pleased to note the intentions of UNDP, as expressed by its representative, to do everything possible to develop the institutional capacity of our countries and we hope to be able to mobilize, through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the support of those countries which have followed with interest the profound changes that have taken place in our continent.
We debated at length the question of relations between the MP and the citizen. Here it became clear that, over and above experiences common to all States, African MPs have additional obligations on account of the cultural particularities of our countries. We noted with interest some solutions which have been found, particularly in one country represented here where each MP is given an allocation to finance a project in his or her constituency. We all agreed on the need to find ways to ensure that our citizens do not expect too much from their MPs on the purely social and personal level and to give them a better understanding of the real functions of MPs.
We also held an interesting exchange on the role of Parliaments and MPs as guardians of human rights. We were able to assess our responsibilities for defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, both in our countries and in the world at large. The debate highlighted how important it is for MPs themselves to enjoy guarantees enabling them to protect their fellow citizens. Respect for immunities and ensuring security of the parliamentary mandate seem to us essential in this respect.
While reaffirming Parliament's role as a guardian of human rights, we were able to exchange views on the contribution we can make to the promotion and protection of human rights in our countries either through specialized bodies or through non-governmental organizations whose action we must facilitate and support. The participants advocated the creation in each of our countries of a parliamentary body for human rights, and they stressed the need for existing bodies to be strengthened and the need for co-operation and exchanges between them with a view to increasing the effectiveness of their action. For this, we count on the support of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
As a woman, I am pleased to stress the appeal made for redoubled efforts to improve the status of women in general and to promote their access to political decision-making spheres; this is an ineluctable phenomenon and we must work for its rapid and full achievement.
Since our age is characterized by the growing interdependence of countries and by the acceleration of international relations thanks to the outstanding progress in communications, we could not conclude our work without also devoting some attention to inter-parliamentary relations and co-operation, now known as parliamentary diplomacy.
We were thus able to note that national decisions must take account of what is happening elsewhere in the world and that parliamentary action cannot remain within the confines of the national context but must henceforth extend to the international domain. It therefore appeared necessary to add a parliamentary dimension to intergovernmental action. In this respect, organizations such as the Union of African Parliaments at the regional level and the Inter-Parliamentary Union at the world level seem well suited to channeling and harmonizing the efforts of Parliaments.
Lastly, we encouraged the Inter-Parliamentary Union to hold more events like this Seminar. We also felt that it should consider organizing other meetings on specific aspects of parliamentary work and should also bring together English-speaking, French-speaking and Portuguese-speaking MPs so that we can compare our parliamentary systems which are different since they are inherited from the colonial past of our countries.
I would like to end by thanking all the participants for their contribution to the successful outcome of this meeting through their statements and also for the sincerity with which they all expressed the wealth of their political diversity. In conclusion, I wish to thank my colleagues for having done me the honour of making me their spokesperson at the end of our work.