When one thinks of diplomacy one normally thinks of the government of a country working through its foreign ministry, its ambassadors and its embassies to promote the interests of its citizens in bilateral and multi-lateral matters. However, governments of a country may have a different perspective on an international issue, such as climate change or human rights, than the parliament or its individual MPs. That is why there is a small but important aspect to the representation function of a parliament in international relations.
Parliamentary diplomacy is the means by which two or more parliaments conduct an ongoing dialogue with regard to key international issues. This can be accomplished through two methods – institutionally or individually.
With regard to institutional diplomacy, the Speaker of a parliament will participate in bilateral and multi-lateral meetings with other Speakers to learn about key issues, to discuss the impact of such issues and try to promote solutions to these issues. There are networks of parliaments that promote such meetings. The Inter-Parliamentary Union is the largest network of national parliaments and holds regular workshops and assemblies to discuss various matters. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is the largest network in the world with both national and sub-national parliaments and is focused on countries that have some linkage to the Westminster system of parliament. There are various regional and linguistic networks of parliaments that do similar work.
One of the challenges of institutional diplomacy is that the Speaker, who may be from one parliamentary group, presents the perspective of the entire parliament. Also, the Speaker, on behalf of the institution, may not prioritize some issues that may be a priority for some MPs. Therefore in the past decade there has been a growing trend towards networks of like-minded parliamentarians. These groups are normally formed around a given issue, such as anti-corruption, climate change, renewable energy and international justice. These networks can have members from more than one parliamentary group from within the same parliament and may have national chapters that promote a multi-party dialogue in a country. However, it can be challenging to maintain such a network when MPs lose elections or change roles within a parliament and the network is only as good as the commitment of its members.
Beyond being avenue for discussion, such networks can have a long-term impact on the avoidance of conflict. Whether it is through institutional engagement or through like-minded MPs, these exchanges can allow for key political actors within a country to have a better understanding of and appreciation for the challenges faced by political leaders from neighbouring countries. This can also be an alternative conduit for discussions that can address drivers of conflict, such as border disputes, trade, and minority rights.
No matter the method by which parliamentary diplomacy is employed, it can be a valuable means of dialogue and an alternative means of advocating for a solution to an issue or a conflict. Parliaments and MPs are political actors who can influence government decisions. This venue for interaction and dialogue can and should be maintained as an alternative conduit for discussion and promotion of solutions.