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International Parliamentary Body Criticizes Treatment of Opposition in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, the government has lifted the immunity of nearly 100 members of parliament who are boycotting the assembly to protest what they call voting irregularities. Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, the opposition is divided over whether to participate in the election for a newly created Senate – a body critics say was created to support the ruling party.

Anders Johnsson is the secretary-general of the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, which works to promote representative democracy around the world and dialogue among the world’s lawmakers. Its membership includes more than 141 parliaments and legislative organizations from around the world, including two dozen from sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr. Johnsson told Voice of America reporter William Eagle that he’s surprised by the Ethiopian government’s decision to lift immunity from opposition members. He says the move restricts the ability of legislators to debate and formulate national policy on behalf of the electorate. Without the “human right” of parliamentarians to dissent or enjoy freedom of assembly, Mr. Johnsson says, it’s unlikely there will be human rights for average person. He adds that a member of parliament should only be taken to court if a crime has been committed. As for the opposition boycott of parliament, the IPU secretary general says it’s not unusual – nor should it be considered illegal – for parliamentarians to use boycotts as a form of protest.

As for the controversy over the establishment of an upper chamber to Zimbabwe’s legislature, Mr. Johnsson says that’s up to the Zimbabwean people to decide. He says it’s also up to the opposition to decide how it should react to the proposal to establish a Senate.

However, Mr. Johnsson says a committee of the IPU is working with the parliament of Zimbabwe and of other Sub-Saharan countries to monitor – and defend -- the human rights of parliamentarians. African legislatures can also ask the IPU for an audit that would observe their operations and make recommendations for improving efficiency and its role with regard to the executive branch of government.

Mr. Johnsson says the IPU encourages the opposition and ruling party delegates to talk – without accusing one another of treason or conspiracy. He says that Africa has made great strides toward democratizing since the end of the Cold War. He says it took his own country, Sweden, over a century of political and economic progress to develop a stable parliamentary system. He says many sub-Saharan countries, including Benin, have already enjoyed a prerequisite of political pluralism: the alternation of power between the opposition and ruling party.