They would seem, logically, to be natural partners: delegates in the United Nations General Assembly and members of parliaments in capitals around the world who have the power to monitor and follow up on the assembly’s decisions. But when scores of national legislators from dozens of countries met in New York on Nov. 28 and 29 to take part in a hearing on “strengthening political accountability for a more peaceful and prosperous world,” speakers portrayed a different reality.
A persistent theme that emerged on the first day of discussions, held by the Inter-Parliamentary Union at UN headquarters, was that gaps in communication persisted between the General Assembly and widely scattered parliaments just as national legislatures are assuming increasing importance. These activities include rebuilding political structures in the Arab world, maneuvering through an economic crisis in Europe and cautiously moving toward democracy in Burma, to name a few of the most notable examples.
The meeting in New York attracted 128 parliamentary delegations from 49 countries, plus five members of regional assemblies representing numerous countries in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union, a venerable organization created in 1889 to promote exchanges among national legislators and encourage discussion on matters of global concern, has aimed to work in close coordination with the UN since its founding in 1945.
Why They Should Talk Better
Rapid advances in communications technology should make that task easier now, yet speaker after speaker at the meeting called for more direct contact with the UN, and the General Assembly in particular. They wanted fuller and faster information on decisions taken in New York, so that they could be discussed in a national context among elected politicians, who in many but not all parliamentary systems controlled government spending or at least influenced policies.
Parliaments play very different roles in different political systems. In some cases, they work in the shadows of autocratic presidents or military leaders who do not share power. In British-style parliamentary systems, where prime ministers are drawn from legislative majorities, elected members are expected to adhere to party discipline. Other nations have a mix of shared powers – the United States is the closest example. (The US withdrew from the Inter-Parliamentary Union under pressure from Republicans in the late 1990s during the presidency of Bill Clinton, when the White House was cutting deals with Congress that curtailed American commitments internationally.)
On its side, the General Assembly is an unelected body that represents governments not voters, so there is perhaps no automatic affinity with legislators, who may be opposition figures in democracies.
Still, as IPU members outlined in their comments, steps can be taken without political obstacles; for example, speedy transmission to national parliaments – and where they exist, foreign affairs committees – of General Assembly documents with background material to foster informed discussion. IPU delegates said that legislators should be encouraged to study assembly resolutions, which do not carry the weight of enforceable Security Council decisions, yet could be carried out more often by national governments, which may have voted for them in the assembly but walked away from implementation or decided they were irrelevant nationally.
Governments were urged by IPU members to include legislators in their General Assembly delegation and in important international meetings on global issues and invite their ambassadors to the UN to testify to national parliaments.
Few Women Presidents of the Assembly
Dr. Bahiya Al Jeshi, a parliament member in Bahrain, was one of several women attending the IPU meeting who also demanded that General Assembly delegations include women, whether legislators or other public figures, given that the UN is supposed to be sensitive to gender representation at all times. Decisions made recommending or requiring the participation of women in development and peace-building, among other areas, are too often ignored in national capitals.
A woman from Bahrain, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, was president of the assembly in 2006, one of only three women to hold that position in the UN’s history. The others were from India and Liberia.
Oscar Fernández-Taranco, an assistant secretary-general in the UN department of political affairs and a panelist who spoke to the IPU delegates, said that the UN was taking steps to close some of the gaps parliamentarians described. Officials on political missions, including recent ones to the turbulent Middle East and North Africa, were told to consult with elected legislators as part of their work in the field.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon makes a point of speaking to parliaments, Fernández-Taranco said. He added that the UN political affairs department was working on plans to strengthen links to legislatures, and that he was struck by how important the IPU delegates thought that was.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.