Armed with a five-year strategy to strengthen the influence of national legislatures around the world, the Inter-Parliamentary Union is supporting international gatherings of legislators to discuss their role in fostering democracy, good government and effective development policies beyond the 2015 target date of the Millennium Development Goals. The next meeting, with parliamentarians from Asia, Africa and Latin America, will take place in Johannesburg on Feb. 28.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union, with 162 national legislatures as members and a permanent observer mission at the United Nations, has been focusing on human rights, oversight of government institutions, peace and security and the need to be plugged in to UN work and priorities more usefully. Poor developing countries where corruption and mismanagement saps human progress, as well as new democracies of the Arab Spring increasingly threatened by militant Islamic movements, are on the minds of many parliamentarians.
While much discussion about improving governance has often centered on developing countries and nations in transition – Myanmar is being assisted by the union – challenges to effective democratic politics and functioning legislatures are not limited to such nations. Consider, for example, the damaging stalemates that have resulted from extreme partisanship in the United States Congress. Bitterly partisan legislatures have been more often thought of as a third-world phenomenon, like the Bangladesh Parliament, where the political opposition’s main goal has usually been to block the government from governing, whichever party gets elected.
The US, a founding member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in the late-19thcentury, dropped out in 1999 under fire from Republicans in Congress who demanded a reduction in American dues, part of a general reluctance to support international organizations. But the IPU has always had some supporters on Capitol Hill.
In May 2012, when the UN General Assembly voted to strengthen its relations with the parliamentary union, a lone voice from Washington spoke out in favor of its goals. Rep. Russ Carnahan, a US Congressional delegate in the Assembly and a Democrat from a distinguished Missouri political family, said that “the IPU plays a vital role in bringing parliamentarians from around the globe together to discuss best practices and promote democracy worldwide.”
Carnahan, who cast a US vote for the General Assembly consensus to improve ties to the parliamentary union, added: “The IPU assists new parliaments and advances the role of women, indigenous populations and minorities in governance through its programs and capacity building. And by encouraging dialogue between members it promotes human rights, the rule of law and gender equality.”
Last August, Carnahan, who has had a longtime interest in foreign affairs, was defeated in a primary election after the Republican-controlled Missouri legislature redrew electoral boundaries in the state. Another Washington voice endorsing international engagement was lost.
There are many good reasons for supporting national parliaments around the world. If electoral politics, the most visible hallmark of democracy, are to work, the people elected need to feel that sitting in a national assembly hall is more useful than throwing rocks in the street. Ideally, national legislatures are places to hear every side of an issue and manage compromises that may not please everyone but may be the best possible response to national problems and crises of all kinds.
Many more parliaments are forming committees like those in the US Congress to track and study important national topics. The collection of credible data, so often missing in developing countries and nations in transition, can be collected by these permanent committees as evidence for policy debates. Most important, when legislatures can gain at least some control of national budgets, allocations may more closely reflect national needs. For example, population policies, or more specifically, the reproductive rights and health of women, rarely get discussed at a national level in many countries, even though the status of women is closely linked to the failure or success of development plans.
If elected members of parliaments really do represent their constituencies – an area that needs progress in many countries where seats are handed out by party bosses – a broad national picture of citizens’ requirements can emerge to challenge policies made by powerful presidents and other leaders in their own interests. Again ideally, many sects and factions in troubled countries might have a say.
Numerous UN officials over decades have listened primarily to heads of governments, since the UN is essentially a collection of governments. The Inter-Parliamentary Union hopes to work more directly with the UN to present more nuanced national pictures. The union also aims to instill a stronger sense of cooperation among national legislatures and the sharing of information and lessons learned. But it will not have the world’s oldest democracy in its midst.
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.