As it celebrates its 125th anniversary, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) says it will continue to push for greater democracy, gender equality and human rights for parliamentarians around the world. In an interview with VOA, IPU Secretary-General, Anders Johnsson reflected on the evolution of his organization as he prepares to step down after 16 years in office.
The IPU was still adapting to changes brought about by the end of the Cold War when Anders Johnsson was elected secretary-general in 1998. At that time, it was largely an organization operating on an international level, with two major assemblies and not much else every year.
With the 21st century looming, a noticeable shift of focus quickly took shape. IPU became more directly engaged in dealing with problems of parliamentarians in individual countries. Johnsson said many of these countries were emerging from conflict and moving toward democracy.
"We accompany the parliament. We assist the parliament in developing better procedures, learning how to deal with a multi-party setting, having an inclusive decision-making process, learning the ropes, so to speak, about how a parliament works," said Johnsson.
Gender equality and the enhanced participation of women in politics are causes Johnsson has championed throughout his career. It seems to be paying off. When he assumed his post as head of IPU in 1998, only 10 percent of the world's parliamentarians were women. Now, this has more than doubled to 23 percent.
He told VOA a parliament without women does not deserve to call itself a democracy.
"It makes little sense to have only men dealing with issues of policy, legislation, budget, etc. It is like you are trying to walk with one leg. It is awfully difficult and clumsy and not very efficient," said Johnsson.
Human rights are also high on IPU's agenda. Johnsson notes that many parliaments are not expert in this area, and need guidance on how to protect the rights of its citizens through legislation and other activities.
The organization has a Human Rights Committee that shines a light on imprisoned parliamentarians and agitates for their release.
The IPU chief acknowledges dealing with dictatorships is an activity fraught with difficulty. Nonetheless, he is convinced IPU does have an impact on these governments because it is an institution of parliaments, and legislatures play a powerful role in their societies.
Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, organizations in Western countries jumped into Eastern and Central Europe, eager to assist these newly emerging democratic parliaments. Johnsson said the IPU made a conscious decision not to enter this competition, but to give priority to developing countries.
"So, from those very early days because the same democratization movement was spreading into Africa, our work focused on Africa. And, we were very present, for example in giving support to the new parliament post-apartheid in South Africa," said Johnsson.
IPU has been similarly supporting parliaments in Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, post-genocidal Rwanda and Burundi among others. However, Johnsson notes IPU may, once again, be forced to shift its focus.
He says the turbulence in Ukraine, the devastating war in Syria, the militant Islamist insurgency in Iraq is changing the political landscape in the world. He says these events are complicating efforts to push forward a democratic agenda.