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Seminar on “How to Assemble Parliamentary Assemblies”

On 27-28 November 2018 the Center for UN Constitutional Research (CUNCR) in collaboration with Democracy Without Borders (DWB) hosted an international expert seminar in Brussels entitled “How to Assemble Parliamentary Assemblies: Bringing International Parliamentary Institutions to the Next Level”.

More than 50 participants from a wide variety of parliamentary and academic institutions as well as non-governmental organizations attended to explore the successes and challenges that have been experienced by international parliamentary institutions (IPIs) across the world. As Shahr-yar Sharei, Executive Director of CUNCR, pointed out, one of the key questions was “how to give the people a stronger voice through regional and global representation.”

Over 100 international parliamentary institutions exist

The growing importance and prevalence of IPIs is perhaps the least acknowledged development in international affairs in the past decades. According to Andrea Cofelice, a leading researcher in this area, there are now more than one hundred such institutions. Whilst they are generally independent networks or consultative bodies concerned with oversight, deliberation and coordination, the European Parliament is furthest along the road to becoming a full legislative parliament.

Regional examples

Isra Sunthornvut, Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), described the goal of AIPA as being to harmonise laws in the region, and gave a frank account of limited success, for two reasons. First, he pointed out that ASEAN has a diverse population with no common emotional feeling of belonging together. According to him, AIPA is unknown to its people and governments, and even the ASEAN secretariat shows little interest. Second, in ASEAN decisions require unanimity amongst ten member nations with very different cultures, religions and forms of government, a requirement that often is not easy to achieve.

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The seminar included five sessions held at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the European Parliament. Pictures: © CUNCR

Sunthornvut’s approach to making AIPA more relevant is to find issues on which all could easily agree – he suggested child protection, and ridding the oceans of plastic debris. Asked whether AIPA could be formalised into an ASEAN Parliament following the example of the European Parliament, he said that this will not be on the agenda for a long time.

Draft model laws for the African continent

Haidara Aïchata Cissé, Vice-President of the Pan-African Parliament (PAP), pointed out that PAP currently is an advisory body with the aim to acquire legislative powers. According to the Malabo Protocol adopted by the African Union, PAP would be able to propose draft model laws. 28 of the 55 member states need to ratify, so far 12 have done so. In addition, she explained that a key role is ensuring UN intervention in conflict zones is effective, as the UN tends to come in from abroad and be detached from the local situation. Another role is addressing migration and human trafficking, both external and internal. Furthermore, PAP has an oversight role in seeing that commitments of the African Union are taken forward, as many worthy initiatives within states are not implemented.

The Secretary-General of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM), Sergio Piazzi, explained the role PAM plays in a challenging region, in particular with a view of Syria and the Balkans, where it is often the case that neither national governments nor the UN are diplomatically welcome, and PAM can serve as a vital channel of communication. PAM developed out of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), has close ties to the UN, and is well resourced and funded.

A Latin-American court against organized crime

Fernando Iglesias, a member of the Chamber of Deputies of Argentina, described a number of factors that hinder regional integration in Latin-America, such as lack of political will, no catalyst, and fear of domination by Brazil, by far the largest Latin-American economy. He pointed out that the Latin-American Parliament (Parlatino) and the parliamentary body of the Mercosur trade block (Parlasur) by now have a poor reputation and have proven to be ineffective. At this point he believes that these and other parliamentary institutions in the region cannot play an important role. Instead, he suggested that the fight against crime and the extreme homicide rate unites Latin-America, which is why Fernando Iglesias has been successfully promoting a Latin-American Criminal Court Against Transnational Organized Crime (COPLA) for the past five years.

Inter-Parliamentary Institutions and global governance

Professor Niels Blokker of Leiden University suggested that international organisations need to move from their original function of facilitating and streamlining to addressing the downsides of globalization such as lack of fairness and inclusivity. With reference to nationalist populism he said that “we actually need more and not fewer international organizations” to manage global issues better, but they should be “less intergovernmental and more inclusive”, a point underlining the need for providing a parliamentary dimension.

International organizations need to be more inclusive

Anda Filip, Director for Member Parliaments at the IPU, gave an account of the IPU as the oldest IPI in existence, being established in 1889. The core mission is promotion of parliamentary democracy, strengthening national parliaments and bridging the democracy gap in international institutions. Filip emphasized that improving parliament’s oversight role should be done at the national level vis-à-vis national governments.

Andreas Bummel, Executive Director of DWB and Secretary-General of the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA), presented a UNPA as an additional and complementary way to “bring the voice of the people” into the UN. Following the model of the European Parliament he said that a UNPA should become “a common assembly of all entities in the UN system and beyond.”

Complementary approaches to democratising global governance

In the discussion it was stressed that national governments are jealous of their power and thus are reluctant to promote democracy at the United Nations as a means to strengthen the world organization.

Furthermore, national parliamentarians often are not very interested in UN affairs as it does not help get them re-elected. It was pointed out that one way to overcome both of these difficulties would be to create a world parliament, but this solution, whilst agreed as a long-term goal by Filip, is not promoted by the IPU, as most of its members see the approach through national parliaments as more realistic than steps towards a world parliament.

Niels Blokker observed that there is agreement on the need for a “vox populi” at the international level, and that in his view the IPU’s “bottom up” approach and the UNPA campaign’s “top down” approach are complementary.


Common challenges of IPIs identified at the seminar included lack of interest from the people, media and parliamentarians, lack of resources and capacity, lack of impact and fragmentation. It was suggested that the best way to address these challenges was for IPIs to focus on specific areas of common concern.

How much time do we have?

The seminar concluded with a look to the future. Andreas Bummel made the point that “taking back control”, in an era of issues that can only be addressed at the global level like climate change, necessitates the creation of global democracy – as democracy is how citizens control government and public affairs. Niels Blokker observed, however, that now might not be the best time to create a new institution – which prompted Bummel to ask, “How much time do we have?”

Image: Part of the seminar was held in the European Parliament in Brussels. In the picture flags in front of the parliament’s building. Credit: Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

John Vlasto
John is an Associate of Democracy Without Borders in the UK
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