OPINION: Why we need a Structured Parliamentary Diplomacy for Africa

OPINION: Why we need a Structured Parliamentary Diplomacy for Africa

By Joel Okwemba

Foreign Policy is Public Policy. Foreign policy has hitherto been a prerogative of the Executive arm of government despite the globalized nature and complex interactions in the 21st century that demand creative solutions in maintaining peace and stability.

The Executive through Parliamentary bodies and committees allows the policies to be scrutinized in an effort to create harmony within government agencies. Constitutions in democratic states now demand that the State cannot engage in Wars without the approval of Parliamentary bodies. This remains the foremost engagement on International Relations for most parliaments to date.

However, opportunities are abounding when it comes to: how Parliaments interact with Foreign Policy questions; how Parliaments engage with the State on these questions; how to create form and structure on Parliamentary Diplomacy; and in the development of academic and theoretical literature on the Parliamentary Diplomacy theory in Africa.

Parliamentary Diplomacy also referred to as Parlomacy, creates opportunities that are alternatives and complimentary to traditional diplomatic approaches that rely on the Westphalian State-Centric Model. In a world where sophisticated technology has determined the nature of interactions amongst peoples, the diplomatic options should consequently evolve to meet this level for globalization.

Reflections on the Evolution of Parliamentary Diplomacy

Ancient history dating back during the Roman Empire, depicts an instance of parliamentary diplomacy, where the Roman Senate – though on behalf of the Roman Generals sued for peace and sanctioned war with Philip V of Macedon after the failure of the Treaty of Phoenicia (205 BC).

However, the recollection of Parliament as formed today traces to The Magna Carta, signed on the 12th June 1215 (AD) by King John “Lackland” of England and a coalition of rebel barons written by the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton.

The barons displeased with the rule of the King, demanded accountability, freedom and rights that cut across political, economic, social and cultural spheres of existence.

Even though the process of acceptance by the King was not immediate, the barons’ efforts would show that the population had been enlightened and willing to demand and defend human dignity by peaceful means. Among the 63 rules agreed included aspects of International Trade, Treatment of Prisoners of Wars.

Since then, developments in the relations between the Rulers and the Governed has metamorphosized to have greater representation of the public in law making through modern parliament and to the election of the ruling class by the population through the secret ballot, challenges notwithstanding.

The role of Parliaments having extended to enhancement of global relations and stability, both positively and negatively, is now accepted as an important move in the democratization of diplomacy.

A report sponsored by the International Parliamentary Union (Beetham, 2006) distinguishes types of parliamentary cooperation as: technical parliamentary cooperation, inter-parliamentary cooperation and parliamentary diplomacy.

This further put emphasis that parliamentary diplomacy is not just limited to parliamentary cooperation and is more institutionalized currently in parts of the world. It also precisely states that:

“A diplomat is an envoy of the executive branch and represents the positions of the state. Members of Parliament, however, are politicians who hold political beliefs which may or may not coincide with their respective country’s official position on any given issue. This allows parliamentarians a margin of flexibility that is denied to the diplomat.

They tend to bring a moral dimension to international politics that transcends narrow definitions of the national interest, particularly in their principled support for democracy and human rights. Time and again we have seen that this flexibility allows parliamentarians to debate more openly with their counterparts from other countries and to advance innovative solutions to what may seem to be intractable problems.”

The spirit of parliamentary diplomacy undoubtedly takes the role of ‘Moral Tribunes’ on Foreign Affairs, the conscience of international politics, that takes a rather long-term approach by: building trust and understanding amongst peoples through dialogues; sharing of experiences and expertise in key areas such as youth unemployment, conflict resolution, election monitoring, cultural dialogue, migration, economic issues; as well as bringing balance between values and interests, usually having to take positions that could be lesser of the two evils .

Senator Gabriel Elorriaga of Spain has enumerated instances of parliamentary diplomacy as: The activities of multilateral international parliamentary organizations; Bi-lateral parliamentary groups and in particular the so-called ‘friendship groups’; International agreements between parliaments; The activities of parliamentary foreign affairs committees; Plenary sessions dealing with foreign policy questions; Parliamentary participation in elections monitoring processes.

The strength of parliamentary diplomacy is perceived when distinguishable from the executive diplomacy, noting that this can also considered a weakness owing to its sporadic manner which is deficient of continuity.

The Low Hanging Fruits for Africa

In view of the ambitions of the 21st Century Africans for a robust Pan-African Agenda and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, the opportunities that can be harnessed include: Strengthening the independence of African Parliaments to not only compliment but also offer alternatives to executive diplomacy; Structuring the form of parliamentary diplomacy in Africa through a consistency in activities, reporting and follow-ups; and Enhancing research by Academia and Think Tanks on parliamentary diplomacy especially in the African Continent.

The writer, Joel Okwemba, is the Managing Director – Centre for International and Security Affairs (info@cisa-global.org)