Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Committee on Human Rights of Parliamentarians—InquiryPublished on 8 March 2016 Hansard and Statements by Senator Joan Fraser (retired)
Hon. Joan Fraser (Deputy Leader of the Senate Liberals):
Honourable senators, a fair number of you know how highly I esteem the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union on many fronts. In particular, today I would like once more to recognize the work that the IPU has done for women parliamentarians around the world and to recognize that Canadian women senators have been prime movers in this area, including our colleague Senator Ataullahjan most recently. That work is precious and not sufficiently appreciated in countries like this one where we tend to think we don’t need help from organizations like the IPU.
But there is another branch of the IPU that is even less understood, known, and that is the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians. That committee, because it does its work in camera, is not as well- known even to those of us who have participated in the IPU because, by definition, it’s meeting in camera and we don’t get to see those meetings. We don’t get to participate in the absolutely harrowing discussions of the work that is needed to defend the human rights of parliamentarians around the world.
We see their reports, but we don’t see the impact the work of that committee has, in particular, in a country like Canada, where we are blessed with strong observance of human rights and of the rights of parliamentarians. It’s not a subject that has the kind of direct impact upon us that it can have in many countries around the world.
That committee does precious, unique work to defend the rights of parliamentarians. When I speak of the rights of parliamentarians, I mean, for example, rights to be free from imprisonment because you insulted the head of state; rights to be free from assassination; and rights to be free from torture. All over the world there are parliamentarians who face those terrible fates and others too numerous to mention.
The IPU does invaluable work to defend them. One of the elements of that committee’s work that I most admire is that it will keep at a case for 10, 12 years, if necessary. It becomes, if you will, a pest to the guilty who are oppressing the parliamentarians of the world.
But what makes it effective, in my view, is that the sometimes very harsh criticisms that it levels against the offending governments — because it’s always governments that are doing the offending, one way or another — are coming from our peers, from us, from fellow parliamentarians. It’s much harder to ignore criticism from your peers than it is to ignore strangers.
In January, for example, the IPU’s Committee on Human Rights of Parliamentarians had before it cases involving the human rights abuses of some 300 MPs in 40 countries. Those abuses involved death, torture, threats, arbitrary arrest and detention, lack of fair trial, violation of freedom of expression, or the unlawful suspension or loss of their parliamentary mandate.
At its meeting in January, that committee undertook to send missions of its members to Cambodia, the Maldives and Venezuela to examine cases of attacks on MPs, legal action taken against the leader of an opposition, the murder of an MP, and cases where opposition MPs have been prevented from taking their parliamentary seats.
The committee is also preparing to undertake missions to Belarus, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Lebanon.
In its annual report to the IPU at its meeting in Geneva in October — a weighty report because there were so many cases to discuss — it reported on decisions involving parliamentarians in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Niger, Colombia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Iraq and Palestine. There were dozens of cases, far too many involving assassination or just ordinary, common murder.
It is hard to do that work. It is very hard. If you speak to members of the committee, they will tell you that it is a soul- searing experience to listen to some of the evidence brought before them. They do it because they know it matters, and the IPU knows it matters. The Secretary General of the IPU, Martin Chungong, who was here in our gallery earlier this afternoon, thinks that the work of that committee is absolutely unique in the world, and I tend to agree with him. He’s trying very hard to give it more visibility and more understanding.
They’ve started doing things like bringing in members of the families of victims to explain, not only to the committee but to the IPU in general, what they are going through. In many of these countries, when a parliamentarian is under attack, so is every member of that parliamentarian’s family. In Iraq there are cases where members of a given parliamentarian’s family are themselves taken off to places of secret detention and tortured just because they’re part of the unpopular opposition member’s family.
And that’s not the only place where these things occur.
Does it matter to have a committee of parliamentarians sit in Geneva and study things or go on missions, and come back and write reports? Well, yes, it does. It matters in part because, as I said, it is more difficult for the offenders to hear criticism from other parliamentarians — their peers — than from other well- meaning bodies. But it also matters a very great deal to the victims.
I would like to read to you, in part, remarks from a delegation from Chad to the IPU in 2014. The delegate said:
In February 2008, Chad was shaken by events you have all heard of. A famous opposition parliamentarian called Yorongar was caught up in this upheaval and had to leave the country. The IPU assured his return to Chad and has since 2008 worked to secure reparation for him for the injustice he has suffered. On 1 May 2013, six members of parliament were . . . charged for their connection to a conspiracy to overthrow the institutions of the Republic.
In that case, I must tell you that, virtually unanimously, the members of the National Assembly of Chad protested against these attacks.
The delegate said:
. . . the IPU had to come to our rescue and the President of the Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians . . . travelled to Chad. . . . since the judge has ordered that the case be dismissed, today we would like to take this opportunity to thank the IPU for being by our side. . . . This is a clear example of international solidarity. . . . dear friends, we really think that the IPU is an instrument for us; it is an organization that is at our side because the protection of human rights is the best shared thing in the world.
Canada has played an important role in that committee for many years, and it is one of the elements of our international activity as parliamentarians of which I think we should be most proud.