Over 40 Parliamentary Monitoring Organizations (PMOs) and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Africa on Tuesday, September 15, 2020, converged on International Democracy Day to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on parliamentary monitoring, the traditional roles of Parliaments, and its attendant effects on civil liberties, fundamental human rights and democracy as a whole.
The one and a half hour zoom webinar which was coordinated through the collaboration and partnership of Mzalendo Trust of Kenya and the Parliamentary Network Africa (PNAfrica) from Ghana, and with the support of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), was held on the theme: Parliaments and Pandemics: Which Way Forward for Parliamentary Monitoring Organizations (PMOs)?
Some of the issues brought to the discussion table included: the need for African Parliaments to quickly adopt measures including technology to keep up with the times; modify or build adequate infrastructure to enhance virtual meetings; strengthen media presence among others so that in the future the lacuna experienced in the work of Parliaments at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic could be minimized, if not completely avoided.
Other issues also discussed included how effectively PMOs and Civil Society Groups interested in the work of Parliaments can collaborate among themselves with their respective Parliaments to enhance and to complement the Legislative branch in relation to the Executive branch to ensure that civil liberties are not encroached upon, fundamental human rights of the people are protected, and the principles of democracy are not eroded in the midst of unprecedented pandemics such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I always say that, if Parliament or the Legislative Assembly of every country is expected to have an oversight role of the Executive branch, then the role that PMOs play is that role of watching the watchman. Because, if Parliaments play the role of the watchman over the Executive branch, then we as PMOs have that added responsibility in answering the question, ‘who watches the watchman”, the Executive Director of the Parliamentary Network Africa, Sammy Obeng, said in his opening remarks.
He noted that it was imperative for PMOs, Civil Society Organizations that are monitoring Parliaments to make a conscious effort to engage with Parliaments in the performance of their three traditional roles of legislation, oversight and representation since these roles have featured strongly in these times of COVID-19.
“These three roles have come in strong because many laws have been passed over the months to regulate matters relating to COVID-19 emergency laws, health-related laws, laws to manage the movement of people in the difficult periods of lockdowns among others,” he said.
Executive Director of the Mzalendo Trust, Caroline Gaita, for instance, drew attention to the impact of the pandemic on the work of Parliaments and which had some effects on civil liberties and democracy on the continent.
“Democracy and Civil Liberties as we have known them have not been left unscathed by the pandemic. The responses that have been required to deal with the crises have meant that some interventions needed to be put in place,” She remarked.
Adding that, “for countries and practitioners like ourselves who are big proponents of democracy and government for the people, of the people and by the people, it is important for us to get together to discuss how that has impacted on Parliaments who are the representations of democracy by the people, for the people; and how in trying to protect the sacrosanct principle and concept that is a democracy, what we need to do to make sure that our Civil Liberties as we have known them are protected.”
Sharing some lessons from the Netherlands, the Programmes Manager of the Netherland Institute for Multi-Party Democracy, Femke Lee emphasized the need for stronger advocacy and engagement around open governance and issues of access to information and the need to build people’s trust in the political institutions as well as to protect their human rights.
“I think one of the first things we came about was around trust and human rights in this country.
Trust of course is a very complex phenomenon and trust in political institutions of course refers to, citizens’ relative confidence that governments are capable, they are reliable, they are impartial and they are efficient. And during this Coronavirus era, this trust was really tested around the world including my country,” she observed.
She also underscored the need for PMOs to constantly engage with the Parliamentary system to tease out the real issues which concern the people since in the Netherlands, it took quite a while for the opposition parties to start picking up the arguments on the critical issues that needed to be addressed.
“It was the public debates rather that asked far more critical questions than the opposition parties.
And that took a while and I think that also shows that there is a critical role to play by Civil Society Organization and also for Parliamentary Monitoring Organizations in order to keep asking and raising those questions,” she indicated.