Blog by Andrea Huber and Jacqueline Macalesher
(1 April 2012) We arrived here yesterday. Our partners, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), were kind enough to pick us up at the airport of Entebbe. Driving down to Kampala, we were charmed by the greenness of the countryside between the airport of Entebbe and Kampala, but we were also a bit puzzled by the high number of police and military along the road.
Apparently, this international meeting is not only a big event for the Ugandan government and parliament, but also is perceived as a big security issue. We pass by at least a dozen armed police officers on our way to the conference centre, and bags and cars are scanned at the entrance of hotels and the conference centre.
PRI has just received observer status with the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), holding its 126th Assembly in Kampala/ Uganda from 30 March to 5 April. Given the key role of parliamentarians in any legislative process, including criminal justice matters, we are here to promote penal reform amongst the participants.
The IPU is an international organisation of Parliaments, founded in 1889 to uphold worldwide parliamentary dialogue and cooperation amongst parliamentarians in establishing democracy.
Representing an NGO at an inter-governmental organisation meeting for the first time means that one has to settle in with how things work, to which discussions we have access to and to which ones we don’t, whether and where we can speak, and to what extent human rights in general and penal reform in particular have been an issue at the previous gatherings.
We hence started off by getting familiar with the final agenda, checking about our information stand with the organisers, and inquiring about and registering for a statement during the General Debate. We will have 5 minutes to highlight our issue and how it relates to parliamentarians.
On Sunday morning, the Secretary-General of the IPU gives an overview of the representation of women in parliaments and politics in general. Sadly, the percentage of women parliamentarians still is as low as 16.7 percent, and women are mostly allocated the so-called “soft portfolios” like social affairs, women’s affairs and education. Positively, a woman has been elected Chair of this Assembly.
There is also a brief presentation of the IPU’s 2011 activity report and short reference to the IPU having tried to support parliamentarians in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. One can imagine how this is an important and meaningful role for the IPU, and also that it is not an easy task.
During the first day of general debate, delegates raise various issues that parliamentarians come across, most importantly relating to the functioning of parliaments and parliamentary reform, like openness to the public or effective parliamentarian oversight.
Already on Friday, Mali has been suspended from membership of the IPU following the country’s President being overthrown on 22 March, its Constitution and Parliament suspended by the military. Addressing journalists, the IPU’s Secretary-General explains that “the IPU cannot look on as soldiers take law into their hands”, but that negotiations would continue during the Assembly “to assist Mali re-establish its democratic path”.
In the afternoon of Sunday, two emergency proposals are tabled and presented, two of them – in different ways – relating to the situation in Syria. Canada, Egypt, France, the United Arab Emirates and the UK table, as an emergency item, an “IPU initiative for an immediate halt of the bloodshed and human rights violations in Syria and to ensure access to humanitarian aid to the inhabitants in need.” The Syrian delegation speaks out against this proposal, while agreeing with a fact-finding mission to be sent to the country, claiming that “what you are hearing is not what you will see” and that al-Qaida is on the works in the country.
Iran then explained their proposal for an emergency item, which is for the IPU to address the “need to support national reconciliation”, particularly in Syria and Bahrain. The eligibility of this proposal, referring to the whole region, is disputed by the delegation of Saudi-Arabia, referring to rules of procedure according to which emergency items have to relate to a current situation.
This debate ends with Iran withdrawing their proposal, at least in the interim. The emergency resolution is passed on to the Drafting Committee, meeting Monday afternoon.
We will continue reporting from Kampala, and post PRI’s oral statement.
Read more about the Inter-Parliamentary Union