A committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union met in mid-January, as a busy year of elections globally was beginning, to confront the human-rights violations and sometimes lethal abuse suffered by 262 members of national legislatures in countries that often call themselves democracies.
From Jan. 13 to 17, the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s committee on the human rights of parliamentarians reviewed long-running cases that remain unresolved and studied new incidents involving assassination, arbitrary arrest and infringement of freedom of expression and assembly.
During the closed-door meeting, the IPU announced at the end of the session, the committee heard from a former Eritrean defense minister, Mesfin Hagos, who was able to evade arrest after joining 14 other politicians in an open letter in 2001 to President Isaias Afewerki asking for constitutional democracy. Eleven of his colleagues were imprisoned that year and their fate is not known. It was one of the worst cases to come before the IPU. Hagos asked the union to press for accounting from the government, since there have been reports that only two of the imprisoned members of parliament are still alive.
During the recent session, the IPU human-rights committee took on new cases of alleged abuse in Colombia, Iraq, Oman and Yemen and adopted decisions on 145 existing cases in 21 other countries, including Sri Lanka and Lebanon, where assassinations or attempted assassinations have occurred.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union, with 163 member legislatures and 10 associate members, works closely with the United Nations, where it has observer status. It was founded in 1889 by British and French legislators, with the United States as one of its first members. The US Congress no longer belongs to the union, having quit in 1999 during the Clinton administration under pressure from Congressional Republicans.
Ahead of the session in mid-January, the union said in a summary of its current agenda that Africa had the highest number of issues, with 19 cases involving 113 members of legislatures. Asia had 94 cases before the committee; the Western Hemisphere, 53; and Europe, 16. At least 200 of the legislators facing human-rights mistreatment were from parties opposed to governments, the IPU reported, though 53 members are from majority parties.
The National Democratic Institute, a nonpartisan organization in Washington that often sends monitors to observe voting in foreign countries, lists more than 40 presidential, legislative or general (combined) elections planned for 2014, plus two votes on new constitutions or panels that will write them, this year in Egypt (which just passed a constitution this month, but the vote was boycotted by Islamist groups) and in Libya. Some of these elections are expected to have profound effects on political developments and the health of numerous democracies, some of which are still new. Elections are no longer widely seen as proof of democratic development.
In Bangladesh, an election held on Jan. 5 was boycotted by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose leader was effectively kept under house arrest by security forces and a ruling party mob in advance of the vote. The US was among those nations refusing to monitor the election, which it considered flawed even before it took place.
Bangladeshi politics have been in turmoil for months, leaving a number of people dead or injured, with voting taking place against a backdrop of controversial trials and death sentences for people allegedly involved in violence in the 1971 war of independence, among them political supporters of the opposition. The tribunal trying them, created by the ruling party, has been internationally criticized as not meeting global standards.
Next door in India, a national multistage election due to be held at the end of April and early May could result in a seismic shift in political power, the most significant in decades. Both the long-dominant Congress Party, now leading a wobbly coalition government, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, led by a Hindu nationalist widely believed to have been involved in anti-Muslim attacks, are being undercut by the unexpected surge of a new party, which captured the Delhi state (capital district) government in recent voting.
The new party — called Aam Aadmi, or Common Man — is led by a formerly unknown ex-civil servant, Arvind Kejirwal, who has struck a hugely responsive chord among Indians for his crusade against corruption and misgovernment. In India, one-third of elected members of the national parliament have criminal records, according to an Indian civic organization, the Association for Democratic Reform.
Narendra Modi, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, had his US visa withdrawn after 1,000 to 2,000 Muslims died in a pogrom in his state in 2002; and the Congress Party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has yet to field a dynamic new leader for this tough campaign, relying on the youngest of the clan, Rahul Gandhi, to do the job. So far, he has failed to impress voters.
Thailand is scheduled to hold an election in early February, as huge protests and violent clashes have been erupting in the streets, threatening the country’s big economic gains and potentially opening the way for another military coup.
In Afghanistan, an election may take place as early as April, with a still-unpredictable outcome that could complicate plans for the withdrawal of American troops and future aid for the country.
Elections in other countries where significant tensions could arise and political changes could result will also take place in Algeria, Brazil, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria and South Africa.
Over the years, there have been grave disappointments in some countries that once seemed hopeful in development terms. Eritrea was one of the bright spots, until it began to slide into increasing authoritarianism and repression. Some Persian Gulf countries also seem to be reducing even relative freedoms as the Middle East and North Africa continue to undergo political turmoil if not civil wars.
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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.