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A vital link in the chain

By Jean-François Berger

As part of its humanitarian diplomacy, the ICRC fosters continuous and close relations with all political players, particularly governments. More broadly, what are the Movement’s ties with the little-known world of parliamentarians? Starting point of our enquiry: the 100th Inter-Parliamentary Conference held in Moscow in September 1998.

In the grandiose setting of the Kremlin, the annual meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) has brought together some 1,200 parliamentarians from 123 countries for one week to discuss a variety of themes and mutual concerns. Hailing from a diverse array of cultural and political backgrounds, these parliamentarians have one thing in common: they have been elected by ballot to represent the interests of their electors. In other words, they have been chosen to draft laws and to oversee government activity in their respective countries. So, what then is the connection with humanitarian action? Clearly, the links are significant and present a tremendous area of cooperation for all the components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.



A humanitarian agenda

“The victims of war are not electors. They don’t have votes and so carry little weight,” observes Spaniard Miguel Angel Martinez, president of the IPU. “That’s why parliamentarians have a moral duty to mobilize in support of humanitarian issues.” Mobilize – the image keeps recurring. But around what priorities and how? A number of possibilities are currently under review.

On the sidelines of the Moscow statutory conference, women parliamentarians have gathered to discuss the situation of women in times of war. Svetlana Goriatcheva, vice-president of the Russian Douma (parliament), believes that: “Women can contribute to stemming violence by taking on more responsibilities, particularly in legislative matters. For a woman is a mother who has the safety of her children at heart. If women’s voices had been heard, maybe there would never have been a war in Chechnya.”

According to Elizabeth Knecht, ICRC delegate in Moscow, “It is important that humanitarian law, which accords the same rights to men and to women, be truly applied at a time when the role and vulnerability of women in war is growing before our eyes.”

For the parliamentarians, this is also the occasion to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by appealing for respect for these same rights. Ahmed Fathi Sorour, president of the Egyptian People’s Assembly, says: “Parliamentarians are front-line players when it comes to the protection of human rights, for they have the mandate to observe the reality of daily life.” Of course, the perception of human rights and their order of priority varies according to the level of economic and social development of the country that a parliamentarian represents.

Another topic of interest: conflict prevention. This is of vital importance when it comes to the really tangible issues. For example, water: the question of access to water, its preservation and management are some of the major themes of mutual concern requiring a joint interactive approach from parliamentarians. According to Moutari Moussa, president of the national assembly in Niger and general secretary of the Union of African Parliaments, “Parliamentarians must deal with development issues, such as water, in a regional context, so that the countries concerned can harmonize their legislation.”

Everyone agrees that adoption by regional consensus favours the settlement of contentious issues. This implies a certain tenacity on the part of parliamentarians, because it is well known that any modification of national legislation requires infinite patience. “The allocation and rational use of water is a central priority in our region. This entails an in-depth dialogue between all our national members before we can reach a formal agreement,” says Francisco Campbell, secretary of the Committee of Central American Parliaments. His words take on particular significance in light of the devastating floods that ravaged Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala last October.

The key role of parliamentarians

Besides the main items on the conference agenda, the parliamentarians seized the opportunity to raise other matters. The question of anti-personnel landmines, for instance, does not figure on the agenda, but continues to marshal energies. The success of the campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines owes much to parliamentarians all over the world and to the effectiveness of the IPU’s coordination. Many parliamentarians defended and promoted the interests of the current and future victims of these vicious weapons within their respective political circles. In this respect, the Canadian delegation is mounting an intensive drive to promote signature and ratification of the Ottawa treaty, led by the fiery Linda Finestone, for whom the battle is far from over: “Parliamentarians have shown that they can carry weight, above all when it comes to ratification, because without their approval, a treaty is just a dead letter.”

Ratification is not all. The next stage consists of incorporating the provisions of a treaty into national legislation. With this in mind, a special committee of the IPU has been set up and charged with promoting respect for humanitarian law and is currently leading a worldwide enquiry at the parliamentary level into the national implementation of humanitarian law. This process is being carried out in close cooperation with the ICRC, in particular its advisory service, which has the mission to support states in their efforts to adapt their national legislation. Often, this is also done in association with the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society and the International Federation.

Pierre Apraxine, the ICRC’s legal delegate for the Commonwealth of Independent States, stresses that “the first steps to be taken towards implementation of humanitarian law in the region are to adapt national legislation to enable the repression of war
crimes, which often means modifying penal codes. To prepare these measures effectively, it is essential to
unite the various players concerned
at the national level by creating implementation committees. Legislation on the emblem is also an issue parliamentarians are taking up.”

His point is re-emphasized by Ludmilla Potravnova, president of the Russian Red Cross and vice-president of the International Federation: “For us, conferences of this kind enable us to meet parliamentarians from all over the world and to draw their attention to the legal aspects of the activities of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, notably with regard to respect for the red cross and red crescent emblem.”

Arnold Luethold of the ICRC’s division of international organizations says that “the parliamentary forum is a good place for dialogue and for drawing attention to new problem areas, such as, for instance, the emergence of private armies that operate in a legal void.” By raising this phenomenon in the IPU’s plenary session, Luethold called on parliamentarians to regulate the activities of private companies that provide armed services. Even if the impact of this type of intervention is hard to gauge, especially in the short term, the message should be repeated regularly so that it is heard and assimilated into the parliamentarians’ humanitarian agenda.

In the words of Anders Johnson, secretary-general of the IPU, “Parliamentarians are the institutional relays of society’s concerns. They provide a milieu in which society can express its aspirations in all their diversity and in which they are channelled and transformed into the collective will. At the same time, both as an institution and through the intervention of each individual member, parliamentarians are the means by which the norms and recommendations voted by international governmental bodies are conveyed back to the people.” This fact constitutes an important element on which today’s humanitarian diplomacy must place an ever-greater reliance.


Point of view

Cornelio Sommaruga ICRC president Cornelio Sommaruga, in what way can parliamentarians prove useful to humanitarian action?

First, as legislators who draft and adopt the norms and treaties intended to protect victims. Secondly, as promoters of humanitarian values in the democratic debate. And finally, as experts well placed to push through the budgets indispensable to humanitarian action.

By what channels do you hope to reach the parliamentary world?

Through existing bodies, such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which is an exceptional forum for conveying humanitarian messages. Alongside, we maintain strong ties with regional assemblies, such as the Council of Europe. Not forgetting bilateral contacts in each country, with strong emphasis on the Foreign Affairs Committees of the national parliaments.

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is the ICRC editor of the Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.

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