As the impact of the coronavirus crisis creates a new normal, it is crucial that parliaments resume their work as soon as possible to ensure meaningful oversight of governments, protect human rights, and contribute to major policy decisions, regional lawmakers from ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today.
"Parliaments play an essential role as guardians of democracy, and human rights. Now more than ever they are needed to ensure governments protect everyone without discrimination, and guard against potential power grabs, or the misuse of state resources. It’s in times of crisis that we need strong democratic institutions, of which parliaments are an integral part,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian Member of Parliament (MP) and chair of APHR.
When governments impose restrictions on people’s fundamental freedoms, reallocate massive budgets, and adopt emergency health measures that will have long lasting consequences on the lives of the population, it is vital that parliament can conduct effective oversight.
Parliaments also provide a space to conduct healthy debates, ensuring that major decisions take into consideration all those potentially affected by them. Parliamentary oversight can also help build public confidence by reassuring society that their representatives are meaningfully contributing to the crisis response, and that proper checks and balances are in place, APHR said.
Particularly in countries that have adopted emergency provisions, such as Thailand and the Philippines, parliaments have a fundamental role to play in ensuring they are implemented in accordance with democratic norms, are not used to impose undue restrictions on human rights, and are proportionate and temporary.
It is thus concerning that the parliament in Thailand is only set to resume its work at the end of May, undermining the role of lawmakers to provide prompt and independent reviews of the emergency powers and the rights restrictions implemented.
In Malaysia, the last parliamentary sitting was in December 2019, and it is set to resume on 18 May for only one day, with no possibilities of written questions or motions.
“Limitations put on Malaysia’s parliament beg the question as to whether the government, instead of trying to protect MPs against the virus, is trying to shield itself from scrutiny. There is no reason why parliament sittings should be delayed or suspended, and many countries have proven that it is possible for legislatures to still operate effectively during the pandemic,” said Teddy Baguilat Jr, former Philippine MP and Board Member of APHR.
Parliaments around the world have adopted innovative ways and new online working methods to ensure they continue their essential work during the pandemic. For instance, they can reduce the number of MPs sitting in plenary, proportionally to the parliament’s political composition, or use social distancing sitting arrangements. Questions to the government can be submitted in writing, or through digital means. Select committee meetings can also continue through email, as well as digital conferencing, and parliaments can also explore the possibility of allowing electronic voting, APHR said.