Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Akbar Khan reflects on his first year in office
A year ago I assumed the position of the seventh Secretary-General of the 105-year-old Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). Just months earlier, I had been sitting in the FCO’s Defence and International Security Directorate as the UK Co-Chair of the Capacity Building Working Group of the Contact Group on Counter-Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. Earlier in 2012, I had dipped my toes into the fascinating world of Commonwealth multilateral diplomacy when, as Director and Principal Legal Adviser to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat, I had the privilege of heading up a Commonwealth fact-finding mission to the Maldives, which inquired into the circumstances surrounding the transfer of executive power following allegations of a coup by former President Nasheed.
From this vantage point, I saw first-hand not only the potential of the Commonwealth brand but also the enormous affection with which the Commonwealth family is held by citizens looking to it as ‘an agent of change’ to deliver a better life for them and their children. Inspired by these experiences, and fired-up by a passion for international public service and the values of the Commonwealth – namely, diversity, development and democracy – and ever mindful of my background as a Commonwealth child from Guyana, I seized the opportunity of this challenging position to lead the CPA into the twenty-first century.
One year on, I have a strong resolve to sharpen and renew the CPA’s focus to fully support our parliamentary membership to meet the myriad of domestic and global challenges they face. Established in 1911 in Westminster as the ‘Empire Parliamentary Association,’ the CPA today is an association of Commonwealth parliamentarians who – irrespective of gender, race, religion or culture, and being united by community of interest, respect for the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms, and by pursuit of the positive ideals of parliamentary democracy – work to ‘advance parliamentary democracy by enhancing knowledge and understanding of democratic governance and to build an informed parliamentary community that is able to deepen the Commonwealth democratic commitment and furthers co-operation among parliaments and legislatures’.
Today, the CPA represents a membership of approximately 180 legislatures or parliaments and 17,000 parliamentarians across the Commonwealth. The CPA is the only parliamentary organisation that reaches out to national, state, territorial and provincial legislatures equally, and extends this voice to parliamentarians from government, opposition and minority parties. The CPA focuses on developing programmes for the up skilling of parliamentarians and parliamentary staff, including knowledge transfer and standard setting for parliaments. There is also a special focus on gender equality and the promotion of more inclusive parliaments, including engagement with youth in the political process.
Today, the picture of democratic governance in the Commonwealth is a mixed one; several urgent challenges need to be addressed, and in an increasingly politically turbulent and uncertain world, there is no time to lose. These challenges include, but are not limited to, a backsliding on democracy illustrated by a growing interference by the executive in the other arms of government, namely the legislature and judiciary, resulting in a violation of the separation of powers. Respect for the separation of powers and the independent role of parliament is crucial to the healthy functioning of democracy.
There is also a troubling ‘trust deficit’ in the public’s attitude towards elected members and a growing disaffection of youth with not only parliaments, but also institutions of state that can seem remote, unresponsive and unwelcoming to change. Additional challenges include violation of human rights, especially LGBTI rights. International challenges facing parliaments include how to address climate change or how to undertake the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Other areas of concern include addressing the need for parliamentary strengthening in some of our legislatures so they can become the effective independent institutions that are required in a functioning democracy, and not used simply as a ‘rubber stamp’ by the executive arm of government.
The CPA works to strengthen and modernise parliaments so that they can be more effective in their roles as public institutions. Evidence shows that the more effective a parliament is in its oversight role of public finances, the lower the incidence of corruption in society.
Approximately 60 per cent of the Commonwealth’s two billion population are currently under the age of 30, and so contrary to what we read in the press, we are a ‘young’ Commonwealth! I have observed that young people are increasingly engaged with political issues of relevance to their lives, and are politically active across social media and other networks. The challenge is for parliaments to adapt to be more accessible, open and transparent to all citizens, including engaging young people through greater outreach and digital technology. Parliamentarians must work harder to capture the views of young people about the issues of today and tomorrow; and to channel their political interests within the political process. Young people need to witness politicians sharing their interests and concerns on issues that affect them such as employment, climate change, equality, education and affordable housing. This can be done through parliamentary outreach programmes including school visits, internships, local and Commonwealth youth parliaments, and the Universities Model Parliament. Such valuable initiatives help to bolster and promote the ideals of parliamentary democracy for future generations.
Finally, let me touch upon gender equality. Democratic parliaments gain their legitimacy from their ability to represent all citizens in their country whether they are minorities, those with disabilities, women or men, and young and old alike. Earlier this year, I heard a Clerk from one of our Canadian legislatures describe Parliament as a “microcosm of society.” This diversity is something we should encourage Commonwealth parliaments to emulate. In practice, parliaments must ensure a diverse composition and achieve equality of participation. The work of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians group has been impressive in supporting women and raising awareness about this issue, through inter-generational conferences that encourage young women to take a more active role in political life – inside or outside of Parliament – and debating issues poignant to women. This group’s work is an excellent example of the Commonwealth leveraging unity to meet common challenges and to create a more equal and inclusive environment.
In 2017 there is much still to be done within the Commonwealth to ensure stronger adherence to our core values that serve as the ‘glue’ that holds the Commonwealth family together, despite its huge diversity. There is also an opportunity for a stronger focus on the benefits of Commonwealth, which in my view is well overdue. Recent political events have led commentators to question whether democracy and globalisation have failed ordinary people. Whatever the faults of democracy, I concur with the late Sir Winston Churchill who said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried from time to time.”