Articles - July August 2019

Hon. Patricia A. Torsney Permanent Observer

Permanent Observer of the Inter-Parliamentary Union to the United Nations
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

The Honorable Patricia Ann “Paddy” Torsney is a Canadian politician and former member of the Canadian Parliament who has become a multilateral diplomat as the Permanent Observer of the Inter-Parliamentary Union at the United Nations in New York City. Her parents and sister emigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1957. Hon. Torsney was born a Canadian citizen in Burlington, Ontario, Canada and educated at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Canadian citizen, parliamentarian and multilateral diplomat though she may be, inside Paddy Torsney beats the heart of a grassroots politician and a lover of Irish “craic,” the art of conversation that moves back and forth between information, humor and political discourse.

That grassroots identity served Ms. Torsney well as an MP representing all the voters in her home district – the riding of Burlington – for over twelve years, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment and later to the Minister of International Cooperation, and as President of the Canadian Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  Strikingly, her maiden (first) speech before the Canadian House of Commons on March 9, 1994 not only described her political philosophy but also foreshadowed her
multilateral career.

“There is an amazing difference," she noted, “between the communities we represent as well as within these communities.  I think our society can only be enriched by such diversity.  We are not divided by our differences but by our silences.”  Those words addressed to her Canadian counterparts at the time are equally fitting for the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which describes itself as “the global organization of national parliaments [working] to safeguard peace and drive positive democratic change through political dialogue and concrete action.”

Today, the IPU – based in Geneva, Switzerland – has 179 Member Parliaments and 12 Associate Members, representing regional parliamentary bodies like the European Union.  Its Secretary General is Martin Chungong of Cameroon.  The organization shares many of the goals of the United Nations and works closely with it.  Because it is national parliaments that are represented at the IPU, those delegations should represent the various parties and points of view of their members, including appropriate respect to gender and youth.  “By bringing parliaments together,” insists the IPU, “we bring people together.” And, in fact, more than 6.5 billion of the world’s 7 billion people live in states whose parliaments are members of the IPU.

In many ways, the story of the Inter-Parliamentary Union – celebrating its 130th anniversary in 2019 – offers a lesson in modern diplomatic history and the development of multilateral
diplomacy.  Out of the turmoil of post-Napoleonic Europe, various attempts at establishing and maintaining a stable balance of power, the appearance of several new nation-states, and the weakening of old empires emerged a German centered dynamic balancing effort shaped around the statesmanship of a single personality, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

While 19th century Europe managed to escape major warfare for an extended period of time, partly because leading states were distracted by extending their global colonial reach, it was nevertheless the case that there were frequent skirmishes on the fringes of empire that threatened to expand into more severe conflicts.  Britain, France, Prussia and Russia along with the Ottoman Empire became the leading powers of the age, coexisting and competing in a series of shifting alliances whereby each kept the others from achieving dominance.  Bismarck’s calculus of economic industrialization coupled with confrontation culminated in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which left France defeated and a consolidated German state shaping the heart of Europe.

The European stability that emerged, however, was very much Bismarck’s handiwork, dependent on his personality and diplomatic finesse.   The militarization of industrial development on land and at sea that accompanied Germany’s rise produced a continuing concern about the destructive potential of interstate conflicts that was paralleled by the search for new forms of pacific settlement of disputes before they reached the critical mass that might end in warfare.

This effort resulted in the founding of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a mechanism whereby members of various national parliaments could talk to each other directly rather than through their national governments.  Founded in 1889 by British parliamentarian Randal Cremer and French parliamentarian Frédéric Passy, the IPU is today the world’s longest standing multilateral political organization.  The organization’s earliest efforts resulted in the creation of the International Court of Arbitration in 1899, which would become a model for subsequent international courts and the development of international law.  IPU would later be instrumental in the development of the League of Nations.

Following the political trauma of World War I, the IPU refocused its efforts on creating a safe political space where parliamentarians from across the globe can meet, discuss issues and learn from each other.  Today, IPU’s goal of finding negotiated resolutions to political problems has been expanded to include broad remits in areas such as human rights, sustainable development,
gender equality, youth inclusion, and global governance with special emphasis on protecting the rights of parliamentarians.

Paddy Torsney kindly made time in her busy and peripatetic international schedule to speak with Diplomatic Connections at her New York office, just across the street from the United Nations headquarters and very much in the swirl of United Nations activity.

Diplomatic Connections:  Normally, diplomacy is thought of as occurring between governments – executive-to-executive, foreign ministry-to-foreign ministry, but the IPU employs a term of art to describe its work — “parliamentary diplomacy.”  Explain for us what is meant by that formulation.

Hon. Paddy Torsney:  The term really covers several related meanings.  First, it is the ability for parliamentarians to talk to each other in order to represent their people’s points of view and to form personal relationships that will facilitate communication.  Often there are critical cross-border issues, or more information is needed, or there is legislation in one country that might be usefully considered in another country.  It is an opportunity to build relationships and to work on shared or complementary issues.

Second, while in most diplomacy it is one part of a country’s populace speaking—generally the voice of the executive branch represents one political party or a majority coalition of parties—in the IPU’s format we make a conscious effort to have representatives from all parties in a country’s legislature in the delegations to our assemblies. That effort provides a better sense of how issues are unfolding and a more localized insight into the range of public feeling.

IPU represents an opportunity to say, “Let’s work with each other. Let’s see what the commonalities might be.” When we look at the big world issues right now, there is a need for people to work multilaterally – on climate change, on migration, on a wide variety of issues.  Parliamentarians often understand their shared experience quite differently than does the executive authority of their country.

Diplomatic Connections: Could you offer some concrete examples of how that kind of inter-parliamentary communication works in practice?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: In the Cold War years, for instance, communication between East and West was difficult and often fraught with emotion. It was nevertheless the case that parliamentarians were talking to each other across the Iron Curtain and across ideological divides. They were discovering where opportunities for cooperation and agreement might be. Most recently, the IPU has been working in Korea where the government authorities - South and North - have often been at loggerheads. Representatives from the two Koreas came together in 2017 and started a discussion well before the executive branches and heads of state had their meetings last year.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is any parliamentarian from any place in the world welcome at your meetings, or are there official memberships in the IPU as a parliamentarian?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: IPU has 179 member parliaments.  Those parliaments choose to send delegates to our meetings and assemblies, which are like conventions, and to our training programs.  Each country’s parliament has its own system for selecting members of its IPU delegation.  Often it is the Speaker of the parliament who chooses the delegation.  But, there is an obligation under IPU’s rules to make sure that different political parties are represented and to make sure that they have women and young people represented among their delegates.

Diplomatic Connections: Are there standards that a parliament must meet before it can consider membership in the IPU?  Parliaments, after all, are quite different in various places around the world.

Hon. Paddy Torsney: IPU does have a variety of parliaments represented. Some of these bodies are appointed. Some are elected and elected under many different systems. But, if the parliament and such legislative bodies go by many different names and are possessed of widely varying powers—is recognized as the national legislative body of a recognized nation-state, then it is eligible to join and participate in the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

There are conditions, however.  It is our strong recommendation that all members include women and men in their parliaments. Each year, we monitor and report on women’s participation in each parliament in the world.

Diplomatic Connections: How does the IPU function with such a varied and widely dispersed membership?   There is a cross-fertilization of ideas going on between parliamentarians involved in the IPU’s activities, but how do these parliamentarians relate back to their specific central governments?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: These parliamentarians actually are directly in the policymaking line. They are involved in recommending policy directions and in shaping policy going into their next election campaigns. They are making policy in terms of the laws they propose, the legislation they pass and the budgets they approve.

While parliaments may not have the final say in adopting laws for their country, they are nonetheless “lawmakers” by definition.  Through our process these parliamentarians from different countries and systems are discovering and understanding more deeply some of the possible legislative options available to them.  Our goal is, among other things, to offer a means for studying and learning from “best practices” around the globe.

Here in New York and in Geneva my colleagues and I work on inserting parliamentary perspectives into the United Nations processes with the goal of helping to make better policy at the multilateral level.  We also work to help parliamentarians understand what their executive and the United Nations leadership, is committing to—how they can contribute to these discussions, and also ensure commitments are honored.

Diplomatic Connections: That is the theory underlying IPU’s work at the UN.  Could you offer an example of how this works in practice?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) offered a great example of how this can work.  One goal was to get more girls to school, but how to make that happen?  Parliament may need a piece of legislation that says girls must go to school.  But, it is also necessary to appropriate a budget to hire additional teachers and to build additional schools.  That is the work that parliamentarians do.  They need to hold their government accountable for fulfilling the commitments made in international agreements.

Diplomatic Connections: That has been particularly the case with Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  Once that convention is signed by a government, then the effort has to refocus on getting the provisions of that agreement enacted into national law and enforced by that country’s legal system and law enforcement agencies.

Hon. Paddy Torsney: That is exactly right.  In the Millennial Development Goals it became clear that about five years of potential progress was lost because parliamentarians were not deeply involved.  Efforts have been made to avoid that error with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  There were two years of dialogue in advance of adopting the SDGs, and parliamentarians as well as the IPU were part of those consultations.

We participated in shaping what the goals would be.  IPU is running a series of parliamentary seminars on the SDGs implementation around the world. We are producing handbooks and toolkits for parliamentarians to help them understand their government’s obligations, to share best practices, and develop their own parliament’s plan to help implement the goals. IPU’s goal is to help parliamentarians be an effective part of the solution.

Diplomatic Connections: Might we move momentarily into a discussion of your own career and background?  How does a Canadian woman end up in her country’s parliament?  What led you from parliament to this kind of a position where you are dealing with parliaments and parliamentarians from all over the world?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: I have always believed that there need to be more women and young people in parliament.  In 1992, I was thinking about what was next in my life, and I decided to run for office out of concern that we needed a more effective parliament that included young people and women, one that would make a greater difference for Canadians.  Being an MP was an amazing opportunity, and I encourage young women particularly to run for office. To serve your community and your country as a parliamentarian is a remarkable experience.

Diplomatic Connections: How did you first encounter the IPU?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: Within four months of becoming an MP I was sent to my first IPU meeting in Paris in 1994.  There I got to speak about the environment and to start networking with parliamentarians from around the world.  Then, in 1998, Canadian MPs engaged even more energetically with the IPU because we used our presence to encourage support for the land mines treaty.

The Canadian group looked to the IPU as a vehicle to engage with parliamentarians from all over the world.  IPU represented a sort of diplomatic one-stop shopping situation for us as we sought to gain support and have ratificated what a year later (1999) would become the “Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction,” known as the “Ottawa Treaty.”  Today that convention has 164 states parties, though some of the largest states are missing from that list.

I was eventually elected president of the Canadian group of the IPU.  I was on the steering committee of the IPU, EU, World Trade Organization group within the IPU where we had yearly meetings.  When I left parliament in 2006, I was doing work in government relations when I saw an opportunity to come here to New York with the IPU.  Working for the IPU in a staff role has given me the opportunity to devote myself to building bridges between parliaments across sometimes divisive issues that I find very rewarding.

Diplomatic Connections: What is the relationship between the United Nations and the IPU?   What does it mean to be a “Permanent Observer” at the United Nations?  Ambassadors at the United Nations are formally the “Permanent Representative” of their country, but what does “Permanent Observer” status confer?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: All of the member States have to agree to grant an organization Permanent Observer status. Permanent Observers have a right to speak at all official meetings but the main difference is that, unlike Member States, they do not participate in negotiations. In practical terms, after the member States have had a chance to speak, the Permanent Observers also have a chance to speak. We have rights to listen in and participate in most UN meetings, and we can circulate IPU documents at the UN.

We have a special relationship with the United Nations bodies and all the associated UN agencies.  IPU was granted Permanent Observer status in 2002, in light of its unique inter-state character. 

The United Nations has done a great deal of work over the last several years to engage more directly with business and civil society organizations.  It took some time, but now the UN is beginning to recognize that parliamentarians are a critical link in the response of national governments to UN-sponsored initiatives.

It is also true that parliamentarians do not remain in office forever. But, when you have the institution of parliament involved then you have some continuity. Governments may change stripes, but you have a core group of people who continue working on and following through on the legislation needed to respond to multilateral initiatives and commitments.

Diplomatic Connections: IPU holds something called “parliamentary hearings” here in New York once a year in conjunction with the President of the General Assembly (PGA). How do these hearings relate to the broader work of the UN?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: What we try to do is to have input on important issues that reflect what is happening within the formal UN institutions. Our goal is always to bring parliamentarians together to share ideas and to insert them into the UN institutional framework.

We carefully link these hearings to the main processes of the UN.  This year there has been a great deal of concern about what is happening to multilateralism, so we did a special hearing on that.  We’ve also done hearings on migration, drugs, climate change and on the SDGs several times, with the aim of bringing a parliamentary contribution to the global talks on these issues. The report of the meeting is circulated by the PGA as an official document.

Diplomatic Connections: One of the primary emphases of IPU is encouraging greater numbers of women serving in parliament.  What is the process and how has IPU tried to advance that concern?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: There are several different ways.  Most basically, we started tracking the data.  For over 20 years we have produced a map together with UN Women that graphically depicts the number of women in each country’s parliament.  Every year we do an analysis of all the national parliamentary elections that have taken place in the previous year.  That allows us to see where women MPs have made gains and where they have suffered loses.  It helps us ascertain what policies or practices are working and which ones are not working.

IPU believes strongly that parliaments need to be representative of their people.  That means that when 50% of the population are women, sometimes more, women need to be part of your parliament and of your IPU delegation. From my personal perspective, when you have difficult problems to solve you need more ideas, not fewer ideas. Having people of diverse backgrounds with various experiences and different genders represented gives you a much better quality of discussion and a greater scope of ideas from which to generate solutions.

Diplomatic Connections: In recent years the world has seen a rise in virulent strains of nationalism that go far beyond national pride and national interest to something that is much more conflictual.  That nationalism seems to be competing very directly with what has always been at the heart of IPU, the commitment to multilateralism and communication across boundaries.  How has IPU tried to step into that issue?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: IPU sees its role as trying to overcome barriers and bridge divides. We try to bring people together in order that they might see each other as human beings who share many of the same goals and values, though these may be expressed in quite varied and sometimes apparently conflicting ways.

Our hope is always to find a base of commonalities upon which deeper understanding can be built. IPU does not deny the reality of disagreement that can sometimes spill over into conflict and violence. But, we try to separate fact from fiction with the goal of sharing an agreed upon set of facts. That, in itself, is no easy accomplishment. An agreed set of facts is the critical basis for understanding and any meaningful negotiation.  Then, IPU seeks to show people that there are different ways to approach problems and to share previous efforts that have been made, with varying degrees of success, to solve similar problems in other parts of the world.

Sometimes we bring in guest speakers who have grappled with similar issues.  IPU brought in an amazing young man to speak to the young parliamentarians. That was Tareq Hadhad, himself a refugee from Syria and with his family an immigrant to Canada.  He talked about his family’s experience and how they are now established in Nova Scotia and recreating their family business as chocolatiers.

Their company is called “Peace by Chocolate.” It is an amazing story. He reminded his audience that, “No one chooses where they are born.” He spoke directly to the parliamentarians saying:  “You did not choose. I did not choose. Let’s make sure that we are working to understand our basic human rights and our human needs.”

Diplomatic Connections: Imagine for a moment that you are the guest lecturer at the Canadian Foreign Service Training Institute or anywhere in the world. You have this parliamentary experience—in what IPU rightly terms “parliamentary diplomacy.” You are training young diplomats.  What would you want them to know about interacting with parliamentarians wherever their assignments might be?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: I’ve actually done that. If a diplomat wants to highlight an issue or bring greater public awareness to a specific matter, work with the parliamentarians. They are deeply involved with civil society and often offer the clearest most sensitive bridge to grassroots people and public opinion.  Parliamentarians have managed to get themselves elected, and they often have built-in networks back in their constituencies that can help unpack the human impact of particular concerns.  They can be very effective in amplifying an issue and in helping find the solutions.

Parliamentarians immerse themselves into society in ways that diplomats rarely get to do. Engage parliamentarians in conversation. Utilize the information they are willing to share as lessons that can be learned to advance your (shared) goals.

Diplomatic Connections: Now that you have been here in New York, you have seen the operation of the IPU and how it interacts with the United Nations.  You have the Permanent Observer status that allows you to track the work of UN institutions and agencies closely and sometimes offers a voice in UN discussions.  What would be the one thing you wish you could change?

Hon. Paddy Torsney: One of the things that is tough here at the United Nations is the set speeches where often people are not listening to each other.  The UN is working on different models of communication that go beyond the formalities of foreign ministry drafted statements in some of the more engaging meetings.

In a recent meeting on universal health care questions were put up on an internet site, and people were asked to vote on them using their cell phones or tablets.  The questions with the highest votes were pursued in plenary.   This is a way of being more interactive and of allowing multiple voices to be heard simultaneously.  The meeting organizers also had panelists put away their formal notes and staged moderated discussions with time limits, summaries and questions back and forth.  The net effect was much more engaging than a procession of pro forma statements.

That is exactly what IPU tries to do at our meetings.  We try to facilitate meaningful discussion and interactions that go beyond the official government line. “Tell us what you think.  Listen to each other.” That makes for good debate, better discussion, more exciting idea generation and deeper learning.

Diplomatic Connections: That makes a perfect place to bring this interview to a close.  Thank you for your political insights and your multilateral experience with the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  Your real world experience truly does provide a bridge between two worlds – national politics and international diplomacy.

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