Commonwealth Nations, Moving Beyond Cosmetic Diplomacy

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS

NEW DELHI – Diplomacy in the fast moving world of today is no longer confined to the government-level, marked by agreements, memorandums of understanding and other accords reached between the countries. The new importance assumed by people-to-people interaction was markedly evident at the 53rd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference hosted by India last week (September 21-30) under the auspices of Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). While during the conference, the participants from 52 countries focused on the theme, “Delivering Democracy and Sustainable Development,” on the sidelines, they acknowledged the new diplomatic importance assumed by such conferences in changing rigid perceptions held by people belonging to different nations and cultures.

Presided over by 2007 President of CPA, Somnath Chatterjee, Speaker of Lok Sabha, the conference was preceded by the 27th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference of Members from Small Countries and first Conference of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians. At the end of the week-long conference, the members agreed that legislators must “strengthen the political processes” and “sensitize the public to the need for measures to reduce poverty, enhance respect for the rights of women, minimize the effects of pollution on the global environment and climate,” and “such pressing issues as human trafficking.”

The new importance given to the issue of gender inequality was marked by the women legislators’ first conference and amendment of the CPA constitution to remove the last vestiges of gender-specific. During their conference, women legislators elected Kashmala Tariq (member, National Assembly of Pakistan) as the new chairperson. Pleased about her election, Kashmala was fairly surprised at being supported by India. In her words: “It is ironical, that I have got India’s support in this important election for Pakistan.” Describing Indo-Pak friendship as vital for development of the region as a whole, she said: “SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) will get no where, till India and Pakistan come closer. We have been at the table for too long, it is time to get into action now.” Dismissing the opinion about CPA’s significance being confined to cosmetic diplomacy, she said: “No, it is effective. We do have millennium development goals.”

In the opinion of Muhammad Mushtaq (secretary, Provincial Assembly of North-West Frontier Province, Peshawar, Pakistan): “We (India and Pakistan) are not strangers and have a lot in common.” With these conferences helping people understand each other better, he said: “This contributes to changing our attitude towards each other.”

Though certain divisions still prevail across the world, a western legislator appreciated the part played by these conferences in breaking barriers resting on ethnic factors. Accepting that he was earlier apprehensive about reaching out to his colleague from Baluchistan, he said: “Initially, we were apprehensive, a little rigid. But now, we are friends.”

“The conference is not cosmetic at all. It has a great educational importance marked by exchange of ideas from one country to another,” said Kenny Lalsingh (President of the Senate, Grenada, West Indies).

Expressing Canada’s full cooperation to Kashmala, Peter M. Kowalsky (Speaker, Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan, Canada), said: “We have a movement which is trying to increase women’s participation in politics.” Sharing his stand on United States’ Iraq-policy, Kowalsky said: “I am glad we stayed out of Iraq. I wrote to my prime minister congratulating him on this. Oil was the real reason guiding US. It is a big loss to American prestige. We are now debating on how to get out of Afghanistan.”

In the opinion of Jamie Stone (legislator, Scotland): “CPA can be a vehicle repairing the damage caused by Iraq-war. The center of CPA is moving in the right direction, with India, Nigeria and Pakistan gaining importance. Nigeria as an emerging economy, India because of its population and Pakistan as an important country in the Islamic world.” Describing Kashmala’s election as an important development, he said that CPA can play a greater, global role in days to come.

However, ruling out diplomatic role of CPA, Greg Hands (legislator, United Kingdom) expressed: “We have exchanged views as parliamentarians and discussed issues in common.”

Highlighting the need to “transfer” what was discussed at CPA into action at home, S.K. Devamany (legislator, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia) said: “A lot needs to be done. The debates have to be transferred into action. This requires back home, changes in policy and their implementation. We will try our best.” With the CPA having brought together legislators representing at least a third of the world’s population, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar (legislator, Malaysia) emphasized: “The CPA implied interaction between representatives of two billion people, focusing on how should the government be democratic and functional. It should deliver what the people want.” Referring to the need of 30 percent representation of women in decision making, as desired by United Nations, he said: “The commonwealth nations have not yet achieved this.”

Interestingly, the legislators also became more acquainted with the hard reality of weak representation of women in politics being a universal problem, which is not decided by religious, economic or other ethnic parameters. On this, Shelly Hancock (legislator, New South Wales Legislative Assembly, Australia) said: “For the first time, women legislators had a day to themselves, interacting and discussing issues. I realize gender problem is universal, which is not limited to women’s representation in politics. In Australia, media is more critical of women than of men, taking note of what they wear, etc.” Observing that some divisions were apparent at the CPA meet, Hancock said: “There seems to be divide between the developing and the developed countries.”

Accepting that certain divisions still prevail, Shaun Byneveldt (Speaker of Provincial Parliament, Western Cape, South Africa) said: “Yes, there does prevail a divide, North against South, Black vs White and Muslims vs non-Muslims. Conferences of this kind can provide the momentum needed to remove such feelings.”

Reflecting on CPA being a very “lively and educative conference,” Akeredolu Alaba (Ondo assembly, Nigeria) pointed out: “The participation of women in politics in Nigeria is just beginning. With this taking place at a fast pace, changes are going to be more evident, five years from now. The speaker of our National Assembly is a woman.”

Expressing appreciation of CPA, Terseer Tsumba (Speaker, Benue State, Makurdi) said: “The member nations should meet more often at the regional level, which is likely to play a greater part in ensuring implementations of goals outlined at such conferences.” One CPA a year was enough, according to Laurence Morgan (States of Guernsey), as it entails a lot of expenditure for the host country. On his view about the CPA, he said: “It is very interesting. It is like networking with other people.”

While appreciating the significance of views exchanged at the conference, S. Budhichandra Singh (Speaker, Manipur Legislative Assembly, India) said: “Everything cannot be easily translated into action. We will try and implement what is applicable in Manipur.” Kiyanilie Peseyie (Speaker, Nagaland Assembly, India) viewed the conference as having accorded “a new importance” to legislators making them more aware of their responsibilities as representatives of the people. Uday Narain Choudhary (Speaker, Bihar Assembly, India) highlighted the potential India has as a nation rich in natural resources, which need to be rightfully used for the benefit of its population. On the political representation of women, he pointed to Bihar being ahead with there being about 50 per cent women in political bodies at rural level, called panchayats.

Without doubt, implementation of what has been agreed at CPA spells a long drive for all the members. Nevertheless, India has a reason to be diplomatically proud that highly pleased and satisfied legislators left for home. In addition to regarding the conference as highly educative in which they gained a lot, the participants seemed extremely pleased with the entire program being thoroughly well-organized, which moved on, as they said, “smoothly, like clockwork!”


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