Defending the Human Rights of Parliamentarians at the Inter-Parliamentary Union

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) is the global club of national parliaments, so one might ask why Liberal International (LI) has signed up to the organisation as an Observer Member. The clearest reason is to further the work of LI’s highly active Human Rights Committee, which already has recognition and speaking rights at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The IPU has its own human rights committee specifically defending the rights of parliamentarians across the world. Many of its cases involve liberal politicians in places where opposition politics is fraught with danger. A second reason is to develop stronger collective identity and action between liberal politicians from our member parties.

Dhaka was a controversial choice of venue, as Bangladesh has itself seen considerable political strife in recent years and the last election was boycotted by the opposition. Whilst I was there their student leader in Chittagong was picked up by police then found dead hours later. A high profile court case involving the suspension from office of the opposition mayor of Sylhet was dismissed by the High Court, only for new proceedings to be instigated before he had gained access to his office. I met the opposition leader off site to discuss democratic progress.

Many see the IPU as a toothless talking shop and I did detect an approach of not rocking too many boats. National delegations are generally made up of a combination of government and opposition MPs and the protocol is that the government position is supported by the whole delegation. The country reports were as a result self-congratulatory and many beggared belief.

The three major resolutions involving liberal politicians supported Sam Rainsy of Cambodia (currently in exile in France), Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia and Senator Leila de Lima of the Philippines, President Duterte’s strongest most outspoken critic, (both in prison). All three resolutions were passed in the strongest possible terms. Saumura Tioulong (Sam’s wife) told me that the Hun Sen regime was trying to make their opposition party illegal through changes to the law, which was reflected in the wording of the resolution.. The regime has already tried this before resulting in the opposition forces creating a new party which fought the last election. I also met with Izzah Anwar MP, daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, who is due for release next year, unless the regime finds new charges to mount against him. The resolution called for his immediate release to be able to resume his political life.

It was unable to meet with a Filipino Liberal but I had met Philippines Human Rights Commissioner Chito Gascon to discuss the case 2 weeks earlier in Geneva. The Resolution pointed to the case against de Lima being political, criticised the President for interference and resolved to send an IPU observer to the trial proceedings.

The other major resolution involved Venezuela where the Maduro government has succeeded in ignoring the fact that it lost the parliamentary elections by ignoring parliament. He is now planning to get rid of parliament altogether by changing the constitution.

Although I was primarily interested in the Human Rights Resolutions there were a number of plenary debates. The main debate was on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which included several national progress reports. The IPU has a role in ensuring that parliaments deliver on their SDG targets and provide guidance for national parliamentarians on introducing measures in their own parliaments.

The emergency resolution chosen was on famine in Africa. The Ugandan delegate gave a clear and accurate assessment of the causes and remedies of famine in Africa, which has again become an urgent problem.

By networking with parliamentarians from our various sister parties I was able to convey the need for dialogue between our Malaysian and Swiss members over the 1mdb funds. I also met with the Canadian liberals and Boris Mbuku Laka of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, our only member on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians Committee, who is keen to work with Liberal International in the future. We also discussed the failure of Kabila to stand down as President.

I enjoyed the company of party colleague Lord Dholakia of the UK parliamentary delegation. Delegates found it helpful to make contact with their fellow liberal parliamentarians and also to have a Liberal International desk in the plenary. We plan to take a larger team to the next IPU in St Petersburg to build on this promising start.

* Liberal International Human Rights Committee Member Phil Bennion recently represented Liberal International at the IPU in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

* Phil Bennion is the Chair of the Party's Federal International Relations Committee and former MEP for the West Midlands.

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