Organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union
Budapest (Hungary), 19 - 22 May 1993


1. The year 1993 should be a milestone for the entire international community as regards the promotion and protection of human rights. It was thus a judicious decision of the Inter-Parliamentary Union to organize a world-wide Symposium on "Parliament: Guardian of Human Rights" in advance of the IInd World Conference on Human Rights, to be held in Vienna from 14 to 25 June.

2. The Hungarian Parliament was proud to welcome to the Chamber of the National Assembly 150 MPs from 58 countries, including many Presidents, Vice-Presidents and active members of parliamentary human rights committees to exchange their ideas on an equal footing with representatives of international organizations and national bodies dealing with human rights issues, and with experts.

3. Nine Keynote Speakers and experts masterfully launched the debates. They had produced written reports in advance which provided welcome food for thought for all participants. Special tribute must be paid to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and to the United Nations Centre for Human Rights for their helpful contributions to the Symposium which greatly enriched the debates.

4. These exchanges gave rise to a real and thorough dialogue, leading to a fruitful reflection which may be expected to have beneficial effects not only in the short term but also over a longer period.

5. The Symposium focused essentially on the principles and means which are available to parliaments and MPs so that they can promote human rights and effectively prevent any abuses in this field. It set out to define how parliament could be more effective in its role as guardian of human rights and thereby encourage more resolute parliamentary action on human rights issues.

6. It did this while always keeping in mind the wars and conflicts in several parts of the world, and all the pressing problems and specific instances of violations of civil and political rights and of economic, social and cultural rights which are a daily concern and challenge for MPs and on which their electors expect them to provide a strong and effective lead.

7. The Symposium could not remain silent in the face of the massive human rights abuses occurring in certain crisis situations, such as in the Middle East and in the former Yugoslavia.


8. The Symposium proudly recalled the historic role of parliaments in founding and codifying human rights. It was indeed parliaments which conceived the bill of rights and habeas corpus in England, and the Declaration of Rights of the State of Virginia and the later amendments to the United States Constitution. And it was the first assembly of the people in France which drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.


9. The Symposium affirmed that parliament must possess certain basic characteristics if it is to be the real guardian of human rights.

10. Its members must be chosen by the sovereign people in free and fair elections by universal and equal suffrage, in accordance with the principles set forth in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The principle of respect for the outcome of the poll was stressed in this context.

11. Part of parliament's authority derives from its capacity to reflect faithfully the diversity of all components of society: political trends, sexes, races, ethnic groups, minorities, etc. The great majority of speakers stressed that a system enabling the election of a pluralist assembly constitutes a guarantee to that effect; some, however, pointed out that the single-party system made possible adequate representation of all components of society.

Representation of women

12. In keeping with the concept advocated by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Symposium drew attention to the fact that democracy can only have real meaning insofar as women take part in all decision-making bodies, particularly in parliament, on a basis of strict equality with men both legally and in practice. To that end, some participants stressed the value of such mechanisms as quotas or reserved seats, while recognizing that the introduction of such provisions, which are obviously discriminatory, could have unwanted effects and stressing that measures of that kind should be temporary and specific.

Representation of minorities

13. The Symposium dwelt at some length on ways to ensure adequate representation of minorities in parliament.

14. There is obviously no universal solution to very diverse situations ranging from homogeneous nations having a single national ethnic or religious minority, to those which are a constellation of groups with no one predominating element.

15. Various solutions were put forward. Some proclaimed that minorities must first and foremost be represented through the politico-institutional system common to the entire nation. Either because minorities may be geographically dispersed - a situation that hampers their representation within constituency boundaries - or because they lack political cohesiveness, other speakers were in favour of special politico-institutional measures: election of their representative(s) by the communities themselves regardless of the territorial division into constituencies, establishment of quotas, appointments, reserved seats. Moreover, it was stressed that in some countries, particularly in Africa, where the great number of ethnic groups does not facilitate national cohesiveness, the recognition of political parties on ethnic lines would be harmful.

16. The delegates unanimously recognized that the representation of minorities in parliament goes hand in hand with respect for their right to take part in local decision-making bodies but also with recognition and free exercise of their own culture and language, and access by their members to education, with no discrimination whatsoever.

17. The Symposium also stressed that the representatives of minorities in parliament must act and be considered as the representatives of the entire nation.

18. Several means through which parliament can ensure the protection of minorities were mentioned: setting up a specialized parliamentary body; making it a requirement for the Executive to report periodically to parliament on the implementation of the recommendations of the national body responsible for minority issues; appointing an independent commissioner for indigenous peoples who is also required to report to parliament.

19. 1993 being the International Year of Indigenous Peoples, several delegations underlined the importance of significant action on the historical injustices done to indigenous peoples being taken at the IInd World Conference on Human Rights.

20. In the context of the discussion on minorities, some delegations urged that the issue of equality for lesbians and gay men, including an end to criminal sanctions on adult homosexual activities, be addressed at the World Conference. One delegation opposed this suggestion .

Place of the opposition

21. Several speakers stressed that the opposition must have its place in parliament and that, if parliament is to function as a representative institution, it is necessary to ensure balances in parliamentary practice so that the opposition can freely perform its role.

22. Some delegates in particular pointed out that the opposition must have access to leadership posts, such as Presidents of Committees, and that it must be able to influence the agenda of the assembly.


Role of parliament and its members in human rights matters

23. The Symposium made a point of stressing that parliamentary activity as a whole, which covers the entire spectrum of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, aims at guaranteeing human rights and fundamental freedoms.

24. Parliament's primary role is not only to enshrine these rights adequately in national law with a view to averting any backsliding but also to ensure that the standard it approves is given substance in the corresponding practical measures. In carrying out its function of monitoring the government, it can also impose sanctions up to the point of a vote of no confidence. Lastly, it is the authority which adopts the national budget and can steer funds towards sectors of primary impact as regards the enjoyment of human rights.

25. In their capacity as representatives of the people and intermediaries between them and the State, to the extent that they enjoy the freedom of expression essential to their parliamentary functions, MPs are key actors in the promotion and protection of human rights and in building a society imbued with the values of democracy and human rights. They can, in particular, denounce before parliament and public opinion any abuses they notice or which are pointed out by members of the electorate. The example of Italy where MPs can at any time inspect the conditions of detention in prisons was put forward as an example that deserved to be followed.

26. The Symposium stressed parliament's oversight role in relation to action by government. Especially by means of interpellations and oral and written questions, MPs can monitor respect for human rights and were encouraged to make greater use of those procedures to that end.

27. Many speakers also stressed the responsibility of parliaments and their members to ensure that the educational system promotes human rights awareness throughout society. More specifically, this concern must extend to offering courses to familiarize members of the police and security forces with respect for human rights principles.

28. In this connection, the participants signaled their strong disapproval of the practice of torture which is unfortunately widespread. Parliamentarians were asked to give a personal undertaking to work energetically for the eradication of this practice and, in particular, to take action so that the International Convention against Torture is ratified as rapidly as possible by all States that have not yet done so and so that its provisions may be strictly applied. An appeal was made for regular contributions to the United Nations Fund for Torture Victims and for the International Council for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims to receive the support it merits.

29. It was suggested that parliaments should urge governments to initiate a national review, to be carried out by an independent commission or other body, of the extent of national implementation of international human rights standards, particularly those set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Parliamentary committees as mechanisms for the promotion and defense of human rights

30. Among the main mechanisms enabling parliament to set up standards to guarantee human rights, the Symposium mentioned the work of parliamentary committees, and more especially those specifically mandated to monitor human rights.

31. The Symposium noted with interest that, according to the survey carried out by the Inter-Parliamentary Union as regards the existence and activities of parliamentary human rights committees, nearly half of national parliaments have such a specialized body.

32. Statements by the many Presidents and members of those committees attending the Symposium showed that those bodies are concerned with ensuring respect for human rights at the national level, or at the international level, or sometimes at both. Their activities often include dealing with complaints from individuals or groups who feel that their rights have been violated, and carrying out inquiries.

33. Most speakers declared that human rights issues could only be dealt with effectively by the specialized committees if the latter worked in close co-operation with other parliamentary committees, such as those dealing with justice, foreign affairs, social affairs, etc. Several participants stressed that the activities of parliamentary human rights committees could be effectively supported by close contacts with non-governmental organizations and that they could furthermore be usefully backed up by the media. Some speakers mentioned that they should maintain constant contacts with the authorities responsible for law enforcement.

34. Some participants deplored the difficulties which committees can encounter in operating efficiently. As bodies which reflect the balance of power in parliament, committees can indeed be more inclined to support government policy than to exert an effective control over its action as regards human rights. They can also have serious difficulties in obtaining information that is indispensable to them if they are to work in full knowledge of the facts.

Interaction between parliament and other national institutions

35. Several delegates referred to the importance of the institution of ombudsman, who is often appointed by parliament. The experience of certain countries which have several ombudsmen, each one having a very well defined field of activity such as the protection of the rights of children or under-privileged sectors of society, was discussed at length and suggested as a useful option. The Symposium pointed out that the existence of this readily accessible institution was particularly valuable in countries undergoing a process of transition towards democracy and accordingly advocated its introduction.

36. Some participants from countries having a governmental human rights committee stressed that such a body could usefully contribute to creating or developing human rights awareness and that interaction between that institution and parliament and its members was highly desirable and beneficial. MPs can in fact be members of such committees, either on an institutional basis or in their personal capacity.

37. The Symposium highlighted that non-governmental institutions such as trade unions, private associations and human rights organizations constitute an invaluable source of information and expertise for MPs who, in many countries, lack the resources and assistance needed if they are to be effective in monitoring the policy and practice of the government in the field of human rights.

Means of improving parliamentary activity in the field of human rights at the national level

38. All participants recognized that parliamentary activity, be it institutional or individual, could and should be oriented more deliberately towards consideration of human rights. In this respect, the Symposium mentioned more especially the need to strengthen the human and material resources available to parliaments and their members. In most countries, and particularly those going through a phase of transition towards democracy, such constraints represent a major obstacle to effective parliamentary action. Several MPs pointed out that, for want of a sufficient number of skilled personnel and research and information services equipped to respond to the diversity of parliamentary activities, legislative work inevitably depended on the governmental administration.


39. The action of national parliaments in the human rights field assumes its full scope and significance when seen in conjunction with the entire process of the elaboration and implementation of international instruments in this domain. As the Symposium recalled, the international community has at its disposal, through the United Nations Charter of 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the cornerstones of the edification at the national level of a rule of law guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of everyone.

40. Since then, the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and UNESCO have worked out a number of international covenants and conventions on specific subjects, qualified as international norms, which, when ratified by States, become binding legal instruments. This is an area in which national parliaments have a decisive role to play.

41. However, parliament can intervene long before the ratification stage. Several speakers in fact deplored that parliaments are not generally involved in the preparation and negotiation of international instruments. It is indeed very rare for them to take the initiative of presenting draft texts in international bodies. As recommended by a resolution of the Inter-Parliamentary Council, parliaments could, together with their country's governmental representatives, be involved in the elaboration of new instruments within international deliberative bodies.

42. Similarly, it was deplored that parliaments are not informed whether the government intends to sign instruments adopted in international bodies and have them ratified. It is a fact that the conclusion of international agreements is the prerogative of governments which are hardly likely to let it slip from their control. However, there is no reason why MPs - who have general powers of oversight as regards government action - should be excluded from that procedure. They could in particular intervene to ask why the government has not signed the standard in question. In the same vein, they can put questions to the Executive if it does not honour the undertaking given by a previous government by signing the convention.

43. The ratification phase alone may take some time, possibly up to several years without the parliament being invited by the government to debate the question of adhering to the international standard. Such delays can be due to the volume of work entailed in ensuring that the standard is compatible with existing legislation. During the Symposium, some speakers stressed that MPs must vigilantly exercise their right to question the government as to why a particular international instrument was not ratified or to bring about a revision of the reservations expressed at the time of ratification. If the obstacles were of a legislative nature, parliament would be well placed to surmount them.

44. It was also mentioned that, with respect to the conventions adopted by the ILO General Conference, governments, regardless of their position on the matter at the time of the vote, have an obligation to submit the text of the instrument to parliament during the following year so that it may take a decision on the matter. It could be conjectured that the same practice be followed for any other international instrument.

45. The Symposium strongly appealed for wider ratification of international instruments on human rights by parliaments. They could, for example, press for the ratification of the two United Nations International Covenants of 1966, to which some sixty UN members are still not parties, and some 24 specific conventions of the UN, ILO, UNESCO and the Geneva Conventions of 1948 for which the number of ratifications vary widely. It was, however, pointed out that ratification is an act which must not be taken lightly since it involves evident and immediate responsibilities of an important nature for the country concerned.

46. The implementation of an international standard requires that it be incorporated into the national legislation. In the case of such basic principles as fundamental human rights and freedoms - for example, the right to life and not to be tortured - it was felt highly desirable for these rights to be enshrined in the Constitution rather than in ordinary law. This measure offers a guarantee that these principles are less likely to be derogated from. For the same reason, it was recommended that an explicit reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the rights which it enshrines should be included in the Constitution.

47. Parliaments should also ratify the devolution of competence to the UN Committees empowered by certain treaties to receive and examine complaints from individuals or groups who consider that their rights have been violated.

48. At this point of the discussion, many speakers deplored the gap between the texts and their translation into reality. As the Symposium very broadly stressed, experience has shown that in too many instances instruments relating to human rights are unfortunately not applied, and this gives parliament an even greater responsibility for monitoring their implementation. It was pointed out that parliaments should be more diligent in seeing to it that the Executive submits to the international treaty bodies the requisite reports, including references to the work and observations of MPs. If parliaments are not consulted when these reports are drawn up, they should receive them for information, as well as the opinions, decisions or recommendations of the committees to which they were submitted.

49. It is obvious that parliaments, including parliamentary human rights committees if any, should exchange information with national, governmental or non-governmental committees on the follow-up to the application of norms.

50. It was pointed out during the Symposium that the mechanisms used by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as regards the preparation and monitoring of standards, including missions of inquiry involving the participation of MPs, could serve as points of reference in other regional contexts, or even at the world level.

51. Certain participants also pointed out that parliament should see to it that independent mechanisms are instituted to monitor respect for human rights.

52. In addition, the Symposium stressed that parliament should use all the means at its disposal to guarantee the integrity and independence of the Judiciary.


53. True to the provisions of Article 1 of the Statutes of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Symposium clearly emphasized the universal nature of human rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even if some participants asserted the primacy of their cultural or religious aspects.

54. Moreover, the indivisible nature of civil and political rights and of economic, social and cultural rights was stressed.

55. A great number of delegates stated that misery is the worst violation of human rights. Many, especially those from countries undergoing a period of transition towards democracy, referred to the serious implications for the enjoyment of human rights resulting from the powerful economic and political constraints to which they were subjected. Emphasis was placed on the indissoluble links between respect for human rights, democracy and development.

56. Taking up a principle endorsed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, many participants strongly averred that questions of human rights and fundamental freedoms are matters of legitimate international concern since respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They stressed that the international community can, and rightly so, be concerned about respect for the international undertakings given by those States which have ratified international human rights instruments.

57. Other speakers, however, declared their attachment to strict respect for national sovereignty.

58. The great majority of speakers stressed the fact that international action as regards human rights should be based on the universal standards constantly invoked and on a non-selective basis. Any action or lack of action inspired by political or economic considerations was strongly criticised.

59 In this context, many speakers advocated the appointment of a United Nations Special High Commissioner for Human Rights who would be fully independent and ensure the implementation and respect of international human rights standards. Some other speakers disagreed with this suggestion.

60. As regards the action that parliaments can carry out at the international level to defend human rights, several recommendations based on the experience of certain countries were mentioned. It was asserted that informal groups of MPs for human rights, such as that existing within the Australian Parliament, can back up and support the action of institutions such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International and bring pressure to bear effectively on foreign governments to obtain the release of prisoners of conscience or guarantee that they receive a fair trial and to put a stop to torture and the death penalty.

61. The Symposium received very detailed information on the work of the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians and many participants expressed their appreciation for its action which deserves to be supported.

62. It was stressed that inter-parliamentary assistance on a multi- or bilateral basis is a very valuable means to guarantee the enjoyment of human rights in countries going through a period of profound political and institutional change. This type of action was encouraged.

63. Several speakers mentioned that, by providing help to the electoral process in certain countries, including sending observers, parliaments usefully help citizens in those countries to exercise their right to take part in the management of public affairs.

64. Lastly, several participants referred in their statements to Security Council resolution 808/92 concerning the creation of an international tribunal to try persons responsible for war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. This measure was mentioned as a first step towards the establishment of a permanent international war crimes tribunal which could be set up by Security Council resolution on the basis of Chapter VII of the UN Charter.


Parliamentary immunities

65. The Symposium insisted that, if parliament is to be an effective guardian of human rights, its members must have full freedom of expression in carrying out their functions. It made a point of stressing that this right must be guaranteed through parliamentary immunities. There were, however, differences of opinion on the scope of such immunities.

66. Some participants from an Anglo-Saxon background considered that the general provisions of law applicable to all citizens are usually sufficient to ensure the protection of everyone, including MPs. The great majority, however, were in favour of the principle of immunity from civil and criminal proceedings. They linked this concept to two fundamental considerations. On the one hand, immunity is not impunity since it can be lifted; immunity should be seen as a procedure which shelters an MP from unduly hasty and arbitrary proceedings. On the other hand, immunity is less an individual protection for MPs than a guarantee for the institution of parliament itself and for the electorate.

67. Drawing on the experience and "jurisprudence" of the Union's Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians, many speakers pointed out that the lifting of an MP's immunity must be performed in compliance with a procedure containing all guarantees against arbitrariness.

68. The discussions revealed that, whatever their nature and scope, parliamentary immunities should be enshrined in the national constitution or in fundamental laws.

Parliament in states of emergency

69. The Symposium stressed that states of emergency, which are provided for in most juridical systems and the major international human rights instruments, must not open the door to arbitrary measures.

70. It made reference to a series of principles making it possible to avert serious human rights violations of the kinds recorded in several of the 80 countries which proclaimed a state of emergency at some time between 1985 and 1992.

71. It stressed the importance of parliament being able to perform its role as regards both the proclamation and lifting of a state of emergency, as regards the identification of rights which may be derogated from during the state of emergency and as regards the monitoring of the activities of authorities invested with exceptional powers, notably the security forces and police.

72. Many participants pointed out that states of emergency must be defined in provisions having the status of constitutional norms so that this legal institution is sheltered from opportunist legislative reforms, and they stressed the importance of provisions prohibiting the dissolution or even the suspension of parliament while such states are in force. Parliament is in fact too often the first victim of the declaration of a state of emergency, either by being purely and simply abolished or by having its legislative powers drastically reduced.

73. While some participants underlined that the devolution of certain powers by parliament to the Executive was part and parcel of a state of emergency, several others maintained that parliament should retain its full legislative powers. The same speakers stressed the importance of MPs continuing to enjoy their parliamentary immunities during states of emergency, considering that it is in such particular situations that the representatives of the people must, more than ever, be in a position to defend the rights of their electors and be particularly vigilant in that respect.

74. The participants stressed that a state of emergency should be declared strictly to meet an exceptionally critical situation, such as is foreseen in the national provisions for the emergency. Some pointed out that parliament and its members must always be very attentive to the early-warning signs which could lead to the declaration of a state of emergency. In this context, there were numerous references to the need to attack the root causes of structural imbalances, and especially poverty, which too often pave the way for authoritarian regimes. Reference was also made to transparency of political activities as a means of averting crises, as well as to the importance of a proper information exchange between politicians and the security forces.

75. The Symposium pointed out that a state of emergency must be of strictly limited duration, as the Inter-Parliamentary Council has repeatedly stressed. Some speakers referred to the importance of parliament making absolutely certain that the exceptional powers granted to certain authorities under a state of emergency duly stopped being used as from the date when the emergency was lifted.

76. Several speakers highlighted the need for the entire population to be properly notified of the state of emergency and stressed that informing the international community about such a proclamation was a strong guarantee for that population; it is in fact an obligation for States parties to certain treaties to give such notification. A representative from Latin America pointed out that the lack of notification of states of emergency had been a factor in the international community being unaware of the extent of human rights violations in many countries of the region during the period they spent under military dictatorship.

77. Several speakers also stated that the measures adopted must be in proportion with the scope of the crisis itself and that a certain number of rights must at all times be exempt from any derogation. Reference was made in particular to the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

78. Certain speakers referred to the question of the scope of powers of detention devolved on the Executive during states of emergency and cited the fact that a detainee must be placed under the authority of the Judiciary as a guarantee working in his/her favour.

79. Many speakers expressed their repudiation of the practice of torture, the risk of which is especially great when a state of emergency is declared and sweeping powers have been devolved to the police and security forces.


80. The IInd World Conference on Human Rights, to be organized by the United Nations in Vienna from 14 to 25 June 1993, was uppermost in the minds of participants throughout the work of the Symposium. On several occasions during the debates, the participants strongly expressed the hopes that they and those whom they represent place in the Conference. They stressed the particular responsibility of MPs to make sure that those hopes are not dashed and that this extremely important meeting should be an occasion not only for the international community to renew its commitments in the field of human rights but also for significant progress to be made in that domain.

81. The participants also hoped that the role and action of parliaments for the promotion and defense of human rights, which were defined and analysed during the Symposium, and their specific suggestions would be duly taken into account in the work of the Conference; it entrusted those among them or their colleagues who will participate in that meeting to ensure that this is done. With that in view, the Symposium was pleased to note that it can count on the co-operation of the Secretariat of the World Conference so that the results of its work will be made available to national delegations in Vienna.


82. The great majority of participants considered that the Inter-Parliamentary Union and its members should redouble their commitment and action for the promotion and defense of human rights. Several practical measures were recommended to that end:

(a) The governing bodies of the Inter-Parliamentary Union should consider setting up a permanent mechanism to inform parliaments about existing international instruments in the human rights field open to ratification and encourage their ratification and follow-up at the national level;

(b) The Inter-Parliamentary Union should make use of various means, including the periodic publication of its World Directory of Parliamentary Human Rights Bodies, to foster contacts and exchanges between such bodies;

(c) The work of the Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians should be better followed up and be given stronger support. It was suggested in that connection firstly that the resolutions adopted by the Inter-Parliamentary Council concerning cases on which the Committee submits public reports should be even more broadly disseminated and, in particular, should be brought to the notice of the bodies for the defence of human rights existing in various parliaments, and secondly that the National Groups should "adopt" MPs whose situation is being studied by the Committee.

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83. In conclusion - and this appears to be an essential in-put from the Symposium to the World Conference in Vienna - national parliaments can and must play a growing role in promoting and giving substance to human rights; they must do this in accordance with their own specific means and in a way that is both independent of, and complementary with, the action of the Executive and Judiciary in each country.

84. By combining these three forces and through the pressure of public opinion and the cumulative weight of international bodies and standards, MPs may each gradually come to appreciate how apposite is Montesquieu's maxim: "Something is not just because it is law, but must be law because it is just."

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