Mark discussing the importance of the Inter-Parliamentary Union

November 22, 2007 2:30 PM
By Mark Hunter

It is a particular pleasure for me to have the opportunity of participating in the debate, not just because you are a near constituency neighbour of mine, but because of your own long-standing and personal interest in the matters that we are discussing.

I also pay tribute to and congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who made a very comprehensive and detailed contribution to the debate. She went through a number of the highlights of the work of the British group, which she has chaired so diligently, of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Many other Members present are members of the IPU and I look forward to their contributions on that excellent organisation and the work that it has undertaken over the past 12 months in particular.

The role of the IPU is vital for three key reasons. First, we obviously live in an increasingly interdependent world where many issues can and probably should only be tackled supra-nationally or internationally. In that environment, connecting national Parliaments to allow them to co-ordinate their work and share ideas is particularly important. The IPU facilitates inter-parliamentary efforts in many policy areas, including international peace and security and sustainable development, about which we have heard much already.

The IPU is particularly well known, however, for its work on human rights. I shall give a couple of examples that I think are worth noting in the context of this debate. This year, the IPU reported on the justice system in Panama. It also teamed up with UNICEF to publish a report on violence against children. As an organisation, the IPU is uniquely placed to investigate and demand action on human rights abuses. It will often have at its disposal the support not only of representatives from the national Parliament of the country in question, but the experience and expertise of elected representatives from all over the world, some of whom will have dealt with similar problems in their own countries.

The IPU's work is not confined to human rights, however. I especially congratulate the IPU on the work of its advisory group on HIV/AIDS and its efforts to co-ordinate the world's legislatures in the fight against the AIDS pandemic. I understand that the group will be taking part in the first global parliamentary meeting on HIV/AIDS in the Philippines at the end of this month. I sincerely hope that the joint discussions taking place there will allow the representatives to share best practice and work together in this most vital of areas.

The second vital role of the IPU is to fill what many have termed the democratic deficit. The introduction of supranational organisations such as the UN, the EU, the World Trade Organisation and the World Health Organisation means that the decisions most relevant to individuals are often taken at a level where there is little direct democratic accountability. National Parliaments' involvement in international issues through the IPU allows the people's directly elected representatives access and influence on crucial matters. I was extremely pleased that this year's parliamentary hearing at the UN is the first to be organised as a joint event with the IPU, and that the IPU plans to set up a special committee on UN affairs, albeit on a trial basis. That shows how closely the two organisations can and should work together.

Parliaments must have a key role in the UN and must co-ordinate with it if international problems are to be resolved satisfactorily. One of the biggest challenges facing the world today is that many international issues such as development, human rights and climate change can be dealt with only by using co-ordinated strategies. Many Governments, agencies and organisations of all kinds are doing their best individually to tackle such problems, which is of course extremely laudable and should be encouraged, but every organisation must consider how it can interact with others in the same field and whether they can be stronger and have more influence by co-operating, while avoiding reinventing the wheel.

I am pleased to see developed co-operation between the IPU and the UN on a range of projects and issues, and would very much like to see the IPU working more formally with other organisations, such as the EU. The EU has a vital role to play in development, international peace and security and human rights, and it can only benefit from a closer working relationship with the IPU. Will the Minister tell us how often he or the Government meet with representatives of the IPU, and whether he is aware of any programme of interaction between the IPU and the EU?

The IPU also has a role to play in spreading and improving democracy throughout the world by sharing best practice between national Parliaments, encouraging burgeoning democracies and promoting human rights. By being a focal point of worldwide parliamentary dialogue, the IPU allows national Parliaments the opportunity to promote democracy throughout the world without imposing it. For example, the British group has taken part in 16 inward and outward delegations so far in 2007, as the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley described. Through such visits, parliamentarians can spread their influence-in the form of best practice on scrutiny, procedures, good governance and election oversight-as well as engaging in discussions on how best to interact and work with citizens and civil society.

I know from my own experience of meeting fellow parliamentarians from emerging democracies that such contact is incredibly important. Not only do they appreciate advice and support from Members of this House, they are grateful for encouragement, especially as for many the road to democracy is fraught with trouble and, in some cases, great individual danger. As we know, Iraq is struggling to establish itself as a democracy. Will the Minister inform the Chamber whether he has met IPU representatives to discuss how we might seek to improve democracy and human rights in Iraq?

I am not saying that our own system is perfect; far from it. Britain has much to learn from our partners in the IPU, especially in matters of representation of women and ethnic minorities to make our voting system truly representative. It is a sad fact that fewer than 20 per cent. of the seats in the House of Commons are held by women. Frankly, it is a pretty dismal record that reflects badly on all of us. We could certainly learn a lot from Parliaments around the world about promoting gender equality. I notice from my research for today's debate that the female composition of the lower chamber in Parliaments as far apart as Rwanda and Sweden is nearly 50 per cent. Has the Minister had any discussions with the IPU about the issue or used its vast stock of knowledge and experience to improve the representation of women in this place?

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) referred to the continued absence of the United States of America from the IPU. I am astonished that despite the fact that the IPU boasts 146 member Parliaments and seven associate member nations, the USA is not currently one of them. It is extremely disappointing. The US's reason, if that is what it is, appears to be that it has simply allowed its subscription to lapse. I am afraid I am probably not the only person in this House to think that that tells us a lot about the Bush Administration's views on foreign policy issues. Has the Minister discussed the matter with any representative of the US Government or had the chance to point out what a great help the US might be to newly established democracies around the world?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but it is incumbent on the current Government, if they believe that there is a wrong, to put it right. How to do so is fairly obvious. What I actually said was that it says a lot about the Bush Administration's views on foreign policy; I did not use the words that the hon. Gentleman used.

One of the matters on which the IPU spends considerable time is safeguarding fellow parliamentarians' human rights. Parliamentarians have a mandate to represent the people of their countries, but to do so effectively they need to be able to do their job without persecution or threat of imprisonment or violence. Without such freedom, democracy cannot function: representatives are unable to speak out, hold Governments accountable for their actions or raise many of the issues that their constituents might wish them to. Ensuring free speech for politicians is a vital first step in embedding democracy and human rights in a country. It is shocking how many cases of human rights abuses against elected representatives still occur. I congratulate the IPU on its continued and excellent work on that issue. I understand that during its July session alone, the IPU's committee on the human rights of parliamentarians examined public cases concerning 198 legislators in 18 countries-a shocking figure.

This year the IPU has continued its excellent campaign in Burma, calling for the release of elected MPs jailed by the country's ruling military junta. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have worked with the IPU on that issue during this difficult time for Burma, and whether there is any sign that the situation there is improving?

Finally, as a Liberal politician I believe strongly in the need to talk to our neighbours and to establish dialogue with them, even when we disagree, as it is the best way for conflicts to be resolved. It is to the IPU's great credit that it gives national Parliaments the opportunity to do so. By encouraging us to talk and work together on a variety of issues, by improving the democratic nature of international politics, and by encouraging democracy across the globe, the IPU plays a vital role in today's changing world. I congratulate it, and I hope that it will be able to continue its good work long into the future.

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