Parliaments: the missing piece?

Parliaments: the missing piece?

December 09th, 2020

This blog was first published by PSA Parliaments: The UK Political Studies Association Specialist Group on Parliaments.

Read the full report by  Professor Nina Caspersen and Dr Gyda Sindre at the University of York. 

Since 1992, Westminster Foundation for Democracy has supported democratic systems as they emerge out of conflict and into peace and stability. Currently, we have a number of programmes doing just that, from Lebanon to the Western Balkans, from Sri Lanka to Bangsamoro.

The existing academic literature on parliaments’ role in peacebuilding is scarce. Studies on conflict resolution and peacebuilding focus on peace agreements, multilateral organisations, state executives and the military, or at the other end of spectrum, on grassroots community groups and citizens.  Parliaments – the institutions with the capacity to bridge these two – have largely been overlooked.

We commissioned a research paper with the University of York to analyse the experience of some parliaments we’ve worked with, and help build an understanding of the role of legislatures in conflict-affected states. Using case studies, this research focused not on what parliaments could or should do, but what they have done.

The research is clear: parliaments matter. How they implement peace agreements, how they formally operate, and how they govern in relation to peacebuilding has an impact on the peacebuilding process. For WFD and other democracy assistance practitioners there are a few key takeaways for our work.

Facilitate parliaments’ support of peacebuilding

In some cases, parliaments have had a positive impact on peacebuilding. Parliaments have the ultimate legal responsibility for the implementation of peace agreements, including institutional reform and devolution. They have also led the implementation of transitional justice. For example, in South Africa, a parliamentary standing committee oversaw preparations for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and handled amnesty applications that came through that process.

In their formal structure, parliaments in a post-conflict state often guarantee the representation of all conflict identities or ethnicities, through a power-sharing design or when former armed groups participate in the democratic process as newly formed political parties.  Formal rules have also reserved seats for women, such as in Rwanda.

In the long-term, parliaments have great potential to act as platforms for constructive debate and collaboration between groups, govern in support of peace and stability, and help to set the state or region on a path to a more peaceful future.

Parliaments that can support peacebuilding tend to be strong and high-capacity. The challenges they face are more likely to be the result of political conditions, and so support from democracy assistance practitioners should be focused on broad notions of conflict resolution. WFD has a unique convening power which is an important tool to build connections both within parliament and between parliament and outside actors. This should be an important aspect of any peacebuilding initiatives.

Build up sidelined parliaments

Some parliaments have had a negative impact on peacebuilding processes because they are not strong enough to prevent executive dominance, or they are side-lined. For example, in Colombia, obstruction by the President who initially refused to sign Congress-approved legislation to implement the peace agreement, demonstrated the vulnerability of parliament to executive overreach. In such cases, especially where the parliament is new, capacity training and institutional support from WFD and others could be central to the long-term peacebuilding.

Parliaments cannot be ignored

What we cannot do is ignore parliaments altogether. Parliaments can be significant spoilers in peace processes. All the characteristics of a pro-peacebuilding parliament could also be used to spoil a peace process. 

Their power to implement a peace agreement means that they can, of course, also choose not to. This includes national parliaments obstructing devolution to new regional ones. And a power-sharing parliament is far from a guaranteed success. Power-sharing arrangements usually include a minority veto, and this allows parties who wish to obstruct the peace process to do so. In Northern Ireland, deadlock saw direct rule imposed from Westminster four times in the first decade of Stormont’s existence, although our report finds that “collaboration is much more dominant than we might expect”.

Of course, parliament is a heterogeneous institution. It is made up of many separate component parts: MPs, staff, political parties, committees, as well as the processes and powers associated with the different roles it performs. Each of these can function differently, and so it is very hard to be clear cut about what impact a parliament is having on peacebuilding.

But we ignore parliaments at our peril. Parliaments may not hold all the power, but they are integral for the successful implementation of peace agreements and for progress towards long-term peace and stability.  There is a valid and important role for democracy support in peacebuilding processes, and a lot at stake from our absence.

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