Parliaments urged to look beyond own borders

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressing the inaugural meeting of the IPU assembly in Bern Keystone

Global and Swiss leaders have called on parliamentarians to take a more active role internationally at a time of big challenges and a loss of trust.

This content was published on October 19, 2011 minutes

The comments were made at the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) 125th general assembly of global politicians, which comes to an end Wednesday in the Swiss capital, Bern.

“Since the dawn of the Arab Spring, young people around the world have taken to the streets, demanding greater opportunities to participate in economic and political life,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his opening speech to the assembly.

“Their future is our future. Let us listen to them, lest the coming decades be marked by an instability and alienation that undermine our prospects for peace, security and prosperity for all.”

Ban called on the representatives of the 130 parliaments to push governments to deal more urgently with the global challenges of a growing world population, which will reach seven billion by the end of this month: poverty, hunger, climate change and the international economic crisis.

“But the biggest challenge is not a deficit of resources; it is a deficit of trust. People are losing faith in governments and institutions to do the right thing,” declared Ban in what was first-ever speech made by a UN Secretary General in front of the IPU.

“The United Nations Charter begins with the words, ‘We the Peoples.’ That is why, wherever I go, I seek out parliamentarians. You represent the peoples’ voice … the peoples’ hopes … the peoples’ will,” he added.

Rebuilding trust

Ban stressed that the IPU had an important role to play in rebuilding this trust and in supporting peace and cooperation.

These have been key tenets for what is now the world’s oldest political institution. It was founded 1889  with the objective of resolving conflicts in multilateral negotiations and supporting the spread of democracy.

During the period 1901-1913, six Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded to leading IPU personalities. But its efforts were subsequently shaken by arrival of totalitarian regimes in Europe and the outbreak of the First and Second World Wars.

In 1954, also in Bern, members debated a proposal to create a world parliament. This was not possible during the Cold War, but has nevertheless since gained a certain resonance with the spread of democracy and the perceived failure of governments and international bodies such as the G20 to react to global challenges.

Calmy-Rey’s support

Support for a stronger international role played by parliaments also came from the Swiss President and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

In her welcoming speech to 1,300 delegates, Calmy-Rey said that there was a multiplication of decision-making bodies both on a continental and international scale.

“I am convinced that the legislative bodies should actively take part in governance which is being put into place to strengthen the democratic ideal on a global scale,” she said.

Calmy-Rey said she could see two avenues: that national parliaments could be more frequently included in national delegations to international conferences and negotiations, and the idea that parliament “could leave its national borders to develop itself on an international, or even supranational scale”.

Here she pointed to the Council of Europe, and the European parliament, which has continued to strengthen its powers.

“The ideal of the separation of powers should not be confined to state borders,” said Calmy-Rey.

IPU recognition

Although not a decision-making body, the IPU does enjoy a certain international recognition, especially by the UN.

“In recent years we have managed to strengthen collaboration with the UN, in which countries are represented by governments rather than parliaments. Our aim is to become a sort of parliamentary aspect within the UN. The first stages have already been achieved,” said Doris Stump, head of the Swiss IPU delegation.

Many countries have taken on board IPU demands. “The IPU can’t force member countries to adopt its resolutions but they can be transmitted and supported by their parliaments which take part in the work. In addition, if no progress is seen in important areas, such as women’s rights, a country can lose its IPU voting rights,” Stump said.

In Bern, IPU members are debating for three days – the final day being October 19 – issues such as human rights, gender equality and healthcare access as well as hot topics like the Arab Spring and the financial crisis.

Inter-Parliamentary Union

The IPU is the world organisation of parliaments and aims to foster dialogue to promote peace and the establishment of representative democracy.

Set up in 1889 by a British and a French parliamentarian, the IPU is the oldest world organisation.

It now has 157 member countries.

The 125th assembly of the IPU in the Swiss capital, Bern, brings together representatives from about 130 parliaments around the world. It is being held from October 17-19.

Guests at the kick-off on the evening of October 16 included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the host of gathering, Swiss President and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey .

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Swiss and IPU

Its headquarters were in Bern from 1892 before it moved, via Brussels and Oslo, to Geneva in 1921.

The first general secretary of the IPU was a Swiss, Albert Gobat, from 1892-1909. In 1902 Gobat received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The 125th assembly is the 17th time that the meeting has been held in Switzerland. Since 2003, Geneva has hosted a yearly autumn session of the IPU.

The Swiss delegation, headed by centre-left Social Democrat Doris Stump, is made up of five parliamentarians from the House of Representatives and three from the Senate.

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