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4. Governing the use of force under international auspices: deficits in parliamentary accountab



I. Introduction

II. Deficits in parliamentary accountability at the national level

III. Deficits in parliamentary accountability and general ‘democratic’ control at the international level

IV. Strengthening parliamentary accountability at the national and international levels

V. Conclusions


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Two-thirds of all UN-authorized peace missions took place in the past decade, and many organizations in Europe and elsewhere are now launching such operations more frequently. While debates abound on the legality and legitimacy of international intervention, less attention is paid to democratic accountability for such actions and, in particular, the role of representative assemblies.


In a democracy, the parliament is the central locus for the executive’s accountability to the people, including its answerability for decisions on the use of force. However, even among the developed nations of NATO and the EU, parliaments vary widely in their ability to exercise legislative, financial and political control over government actions in this field. In terms of formal oversight, some have the right to pre-approve the commitment of their country’s forces to international missions but others (including those of France, the UK and the USA) in practice do not. Even those assemblies with more extensive rights may be handicapped by lack of resources (e.g., for committee work, research and travel) and may have limited interest or will to contest government decisions. This uneven pattern of parliamentary involvement creates a prima facie ‘democratic deficit’ at the level of national decision making.


The international organizations most commonly mandating and engaging in peace missions do not all have a clear ‘parliamentary’ element in their own structures. In the UN, key bodies concerned with security functions are attended only by states and it can be difficult even for some troop contributing nations to get an insight into Security Council deliberations on establishing and adapting the relevant missions’ mandates. Decision making by NATO is also intergovernmental and based on confidentiality of proceedings in the Permanent Council and other key meetings. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly brings together national parliamentarians for debate but has no budgeting or consultative powers regarding NATO missions. Any element of parliamentary scrutiny over UN or NATO operations must thus be exercised through national channels from the national level.


The EU has a directly elected European Parliament, but this has only limited budgetary powers and rights to information—and no rights at all of co-decision—in the field of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), which among other matters covers EU-led peace missions. At the same time, it is hard for national parliamentarians to trace the process of ESDP decision making, which is further complicated by the interplay of powers between the Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament.


Nationally led ‘coalitions of the willing’ of the kind that undertook the military actions in Afghanistan (2002) and Iraq (2003) pose the greatest structural challenges of all for parliamentary oversight, since the interstate component of decision making is not carried out through an established, transparent multilateral institutional process.


There appears to be a double deficit in parliaments’ ability to determine, influence, track and judge international peace missions, both at the national and at the international level of executive responsibility. The basic question is, of course, what rights parliaments should have, but their near-exclusion from the sensitive judgements surrounding intervention seems incongruous in an age that generally emphasises democracy. In the short term, modest improvements could be sought by more networking among national parliaments, enhanced procedural rights and information handling methods, and—at international level—more reporting to parliamentary bodies and a greater role both for the European Parliament and national assemblies in scrutinizing the ESDP.