PLACE DU PETIT-SACONNEX
1211 GENEVA 19, SWITZERLAND
SEMINAR FOR PARLIAMENTARIANS
Organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union
We are now coming to the end of the IPU Seminar for Parliamentarians of the Southern Africa Sub-Region and I have been called upon to perform the difficult task of presenting a summary of our discussions over the past three days. I am quite aware of the fact that this summary may not be a comprehensive recapitulation of the rich and fruitful debates that have taken place during the Seminar. May I beg to be excused for any omissions of some of the details discussed.
I do not need to recall the reasons why we have been meeting here over the last several days except to say that we are all concerned with the functioning of a modern democratic Parliament in our sub-region, the Southern-Africa sub-region. That discussion has been very timely because all the countries in the region, even though they may have different historical backgrounds and are currently in different stages of constitutional development, are all committed to achieving effective Government through representative democracy. Before I go on to summarize our discussions on the topic of Parliament, let me nevertheless step back for a moment and address the issue of democracy.
In fact, there are several who have felt that democracy needs to be defined and in our discussions we have come back to the issue repeatedly. I think I can now say on behalf of all of us that we do not think that democracy can, or should, be defined beyond affirming that it is a political philosophy, a system of Government, in which the citizens exercise the right to make political decisions through representatives who are chosen by them in free and fair elections and who are responsible to them.
At the same time, I believe it is clear from our debate that we all agree that democracy, in order to function, requires an enabling environment which contains a commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms. It must also be one which is marked by transparency and openness. In this latter regard, we have spent some time discussing the role of the media in a democratic society. While many have expressed concern at what has been labeled as excesses of the media, I think I also speak on behalf of all of us when I say that, at the end of the day, we reaffirm our commitment to the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press.
Coming to the focus of our debate, the functioning of a modern democratic Parliament, when we talk of the role of Parliament, we all know that it has a legislative role, a role to pass the budget, and an oversight role. Given our overriding concern to achieve a democratic parliamentary system, most of our discussions have quite naturally focused on this latter aspect of the work of Parliament, the importance of which was stressed by all participants.
This oversight can be exercised in a number of ways including questions to Ministers, debates on motions of no-confidence, parliamentary standing Committees, Committees of enquiry, and the scrutiny of the Government's financial measures including the budget.
Indeed, participants felt that although one of the primary functions of Parliament is to hold the Executive in check and to expose any abuse of power on its part, the ideal relationship that should exist between the two is one of partnership based on the rule of law, that is respectful of the supreme law of the land: the Constitution. Furthermore, participants were of the opinion that the need to scrutinize Government action should not lead to total blockage of Government business. Both institutions have to work towards the promotion of the interests of the State and the people they represent.
Regarding the specific role of the opposition, it was recognized as a necessary instrument in the process of oversight of Executive action and in the enhancement of the democratic process, it being understood that the opposition acts in a constructive and effective manner. The effectiveness of the opposition depends on divergency of views rather than on ethnic or religious affinity.
Furthermore, for the opposition to be effective, it must be allowed to operate and should not be stifled by the majority in Parliament, for which reasons the Executive needs to display the required political will. Participants noted that while it is the opposition's primary function to criticize the Government, such criticism should be reasonable and be intended to improve on Government performance and not to block Government business unduly. They urged the Government to create conditions propitious for the efficient functioning of the opposition. These conditions include the provision of material and financial resources for the opposition and its involvement in the organization of the business of the House.
Some participants expressed specific concerns over possible domination by majority governing parties in the decision-making process and specifically the fears of Members of governing parties in criticizing Government's action. In this connection, it was felt that the institution of democratic operational methods within political parties that allowed for criticism was a useful complement to the oversight functions of the Parliament. Besides, on matters of principle and conscience, it is not uncommon for Members of Parliament, including those of governing parties, to depart from the official positions of their parties.
Participants also felt that the law initiating process should be the responsibility of both the Parliament and the Executive and that the former should be more active in this process.
The effectiveness of the oversight and law-making functions of Parliament entails that Parliament should be provided with necessary facilities including financial independence. Discussions also dwelt on the need for Parliament to have an autonomous establishment that is free from undue influence from the Executive and is constituted of qualified and motivated staff who should serve Members in an impartial and equitable manner. The importance of clear and fair rules of procedure acceptable to all parties represented in Parliament was also recognized as crucial to the proper operation of a modern Parliament.
As far as possible conflicts between the Legislative and the Executive are concerned, participants stressed the importance of other independent bodies such as the judiciary in the mediation process.
Another key factor for the efficient functioning of Parliament is the role of the Speaker. It was agreed that he or she had a duty to be impartial and flexible when necessary in presiding over proceedings of the House. His or her total divorce from party affiliation was seen to be unrealistic in an African context. Furthermore, questions were raised as to whether a Speaker could effectively combine his or her duties in this capacity with the representation of a constituency. The general response was that this was feasible. It was nevertheless recognized that the Speaker was at a disadvantage when seeking re-election as he or she is unable to participate in debate or ask questions in the House.
A great deal of discussion centered on the representative role of Members of Parliament who are required to be accessible to their constituents without discrimination. In this context, MPs have an important part to play in providing advice and information and educating their constituents on major national and local issues. They also are a useful complement to the institution of Ombudsman or public protector in seeking redress on behalf of their constituents for any grievances against the administration.
In order for the MP to play this role effectively, participants emphasized that it was important to have adequate material and financial resources including office accommodation in constituencies as well as transport and other basic facilities. Indeed, it was stressed by several participants that the material constraints facing Members of Parliament in the African context were inconsistent with the manifold responsibilities that they have to fulfil.
Another important point that was raised in connection with the MP's role in protecting the rights of their constituents was the need for Members of both Government and opposition parties to have equal access to Members of Government and detailed information on important national issues.
This morning we discussed the role of Parliament in the protection of human rights. Here again we came back to the issue of the characteristics of a democratic Parliament. Its members must be chosen in free and fair elections and Parliament must reflect the diversity of all components of society: political trends, both sexes, and ethnic groups and minorities.
We cannot sufficiently underline the need to transform women's existing right to equality and equal treatment into practical realities. Women must be able to be fully represented in political life and take part in the political decision-making process.
In this regard, we discussed particular mechanisms for action by the institution of Parliament as well as by individual parliamentarians, to promote and protect human rights generally, and specifically those of women. Action can be taken through the legislative process, the oversight function, as well as the budgetary process. In this context, plenary sessions and Committees were considered to be important and specific mention was made of parliamentary human rights committees. We were however also reminded that as MPs we have the right and the duty to act individually as protectors of the rights of the citizens.
We also referred to parliamentary guarantees. We discussed for example the question of parliamentary immunities where we highlighted the different systems in force to ensure that members of Parliament enjoy full freedom of expression and related rights in carrying out their work. We also discussed the particular role of Parliament in relation to states of emergency. Here we stressed that it was important for provisions relating to states of emergency to be laid down in constitutional norms, and for these provisions to be sufficiently precise and foresee a clear authorizing and monitoring role of Parliament.
I would not be misinterpreting the sense of our discussions if I said that the present Seminar has been an excellent example of inter-parliamentary co-operation which was one of the topics of our discussions. It is the general feeling that this type of co-operation should be encouraged and that it is important to ensure co-ordination between organizers of such events, as the IPU has done. This Seminar has been useful in allowing us to share our experiences and exchange views on problems which, as we have seen over the past three days, are similar in countries of the Southern Africa sub-region.
As I indicated at the beginning of these summing-up remarks, mine was not intended to be an exhaustive run-down of all the issues that were discussed. That would have been impossible given the short time available to us. However, I understand that the organizers intend to put together a more comprehensive document reflective of the detailed discussions held.
May I at this juncture seize the opportunity to thank the organizers of the Seminar and you personally, Mr. President, for the excellent conditions that were provided and which have contributed to the success of the Seminar. I hope I speak for us all when I urge the IPU to organize many more such enriching encounters.