In this section:
Setting standards and guidelines
Strengthening representative institutions
Promoting inclusive parliaments
Promoting and defending human rights
Partnership between men and women
Promoting knowledge of parliaments
International Day of Democracy
Global Parliamentary Report
Guide on parliament and democracy
Key documents
Related sections:
Cooperation with the UN
Peace and security
Sustainable development
What is the IPU?


  Setting standards and guidelines

Over the years, the Inter-Parliamentary Union has played a pioneering role in the development of a number of standards and guidelines pertaining to democracy, elections and the working methods of parliaments. Areas of work include:

red cube Common principles for support to parliament
red cubeFree and fair elections
red cubeUniversal Declaration on Democracy
red cubeRights and duties of the opposition in parliament
red cubeFramework for good practice of democracy by parliaments


IPU’s Governing bodies adopted a set of Common Principles for Support to Parliament at the 131st IPU Assembly, October 2014. The Principles pull together more than 40 years of experience, and are based on good practices that provide effective results. They underline the political nature of parliament, and the central role parliament must play in defining objectives for its development. The Common Principles provide a strong framework for more effective cooperation between parliaments and their partners, including from the UN system.

The Common Principles are intended to provide a summary of what is most important and aspirational in parliamentary development and a common language that all actors involved in parliamentary development can share.

Key Points: The suite of ‘Common Principles for Support to Parliaments’ comprising one over-arching General Principle and nine further focussed Principles, is designed to achieve two main objectives:

  • Assist partners engaged in the front line of parliamentary support and parliaments worldwide to work together with improved relevance, sensitivity and effectiveness, and,

  • Enable partners and parliaments to work towards sharing a fundamental approach for the design and implementation of parliamentary support.
Support available to parliaments has grown significantly in recent years. As a result, there is now extensive experience in this field shared between a range of organisations and individuals partnering with parliaments. This has made the present distillation of Common Principles possible. The aim has been to capture the fundamentals of parliamentary support for the benefit of all parliaments and their partners in a single, accessible document.

General Principle

Effective parliaments are essential to democracy, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality, and economic and social development. Parliaments require access to excellent technical support in order to contribute fully in these areas.

Specific Principles

  1. Parliamentary support partners are guided by the needs of parliament.

  2. Parliamentary support partners are attentive to the multiple, overlapping social, economic, and political contexts in which parliaments operate

  3. Parliamentary support aims for sustainable outcomes

  4. Parliamentary support is inclusive of all political tendencies

  5. Parliamentary support is grounded in emerging international democratic parliamentary standards

  6. Parliamentary support addresses the needs and potential of women and men equally in the structure, operation, methods and work of parliament

  7. Parliamentary support utilizes locally and regionally available expertise

  8. Parliamentary support partners and parliaments commit to excellent co-ordination and communication.

  9. Parliamentary support partners act ethically and responsibly.

The multiplicity of actors in the field of parliamentary strengthening raises a number of issues related to coordination, cooperation and coherence. Moreover, many actors are competing for resources from the same donors at a time when donor capacities are shrinking. The beneficiaries are also often faced with the burden of absorbing multiple offers of assistance that can bring with them various conditionality’s and agendas that may not always be suitable. It is important to address the attendant issues of overlap and lack of coordination and identify effective ways to overcome them.

In October 2013, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, (IPU) as the world organisation of parliaments, was called upon by parliamentary development practioners to lead the elaboration of a set of common principles for support to parliaments. The Common Principles were drafted by a small working group following a broad consultation with parliaments, regional parliamentary assemblies and parliamentary development partners. They were adopted by IPU's Governing bodies in October 2014.

Since then, IPU has invited parliaments, parliamentary assemblies and parliamentary development partners to endorse the Common Principles. As of now, there are 116 endorsements of the Common Principles, including 92 national parliaments, 5 parliamentary assemblies and 19 partner organizations.

The IPU has begun producing tools for parliaments and partners to further promote the Common Principles and their use in parliamentary support. As a first step, the IPU has produced an assessment form to track use of the Common Principles. The form will also serve to facilitate monitoring and evaluation of application of the individual Principles, and provide a mechanism to capture good practices.

red cubeFull text of the Common Principles HTML[English] [French] [German] [Spanish] [Arabic]


Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections

Free and fair elections The wave of democratization in the early 1990s was accompanied by repeated insistence that elections should be "free and fair". Yet no clear and detailed definition of the constituent elements of a free and fair election was available. In 1994, the IPU offered a landmark contribution to this effort, using international law as the basis of its analysis.

The result was a major study entitled Free and Fair Elections: International Law and Practice. This study provided a framework for an unprecedented declaration that expresses common expectations for electoral processes. Adopted unanimously by the IPU's membership later in 1994, the Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections has influenced the development of electoral standards around the globe.

Key points

  • In any State the authority of the government can only derive from the will of the people as expressed in genuine, free and fair elections held at regular intervals on the basis of universal, equal and secret suffrage.

  • Every adult citizen has the right to vote in elections, on a non-discriminatory basis

  • The right to vote in secret is absolute and shall not be restricted in any manner whatsoever

  • Everyone has the right to take part in the government of their country and shall have an equal opportunity to become a candidate for election.

  • States should take the necessary legislative steps and other measures, in accordance with their constitutional processes, to guarantee the rights and institutional framework for periodic and genuine, free and fair elections, in accordance with their obligations under international law.

red cubeFull text of the Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections HTML[English] [French]

International Round Table on Electoral Standards

An International Round Table on Electoral Standards was convened by the IPU in November 2004 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the study and Declaration. Participants reviewed developments in international law and practice, and examined alternative approaches to evaluating the quality of elections. They concluded that the Declaration had had a major impact on electoral standards, and retained all its value. The papers presented to the Round Table have been published under the title Revisiting Free and Fair Elections and can be consulted online or ordered in hard copy.

New expanded edition of the IPU study on Free and Fair Elections

Published in 2006, four entirely new chapters review developments in international law and practice since 1994 and make a general assessment of the influence of the IPU Declaration and study in the development and consolidation of legal norms. The final chapter of Part 1 sets out a number of issues that are emerging - or are likely to emerge - in the field of electoral standards. Accountability, participation and representation, including women's representation, are among the issues that were identified at the International Round Table on Electoral Standards and are developed here. In Part 2, the full text of the 1994 study is republished with only minor corrections. The 2006 edition of the study on Free and Fair Elections can be consulted online or ordered in hard copy.

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The word democracy is one of the most used terms of the political vocabulary. This vital concept, which touches the very fundamentals of the life of human beings in society, has given rise to much written comment and reflection; nevertheless, there had not been any text adopted by politicians at the worldwide level which defined its parameters or established its scope.

In 1995 the IPU began an extensive process of consultation which resulted in the Universal Declaration on Democracy, that was adopted without a vote by the Inter-Parliamentary Council on 16 September 1997.

Key points

  • Democracy is a universally recognized ideal, based on values common to people everywhere, regardless of cultural, political, social or economic differences;

  • As an ideal, democracy aims to protect and promote the dignity and fundamental rights of the individual, instil social justice and foster economic and social development. As a form of government, democracy is the best way of achieving these objectives; it is also the only political system that has the capacity for self-correction;

  • Democracy is based on two core principles: participation and accountability. Everyone has the right to participate in the management of public affairs. Likewise, everyone has the right to access information on government activities, to petition government and to seek redress through impartial administrative and judicial mechanisms;

  • It therefore requires the existence of representative institutions at all levels and, in particular, a parliament in which all components of society are represented and which has the requisite powers and means to express the will of the people by legislating and overseeing government action;

  • Democracy is always a work in progress, a state or condition that is constantly perfectible;

  • Sustaining democracy means nurturing and reinforcing a democratic culture through all the means that education has at its disposal.
red cubeFull text of the Universal Declaration on Democracy HTML[English] [French]
red cubePoster: Universal Declaration on Democracy PDF[English] [French] [Spanish]


On the initiative of Dr. Ahmed Fathy Sorour, then President of its Council, the IPU decided in 1995 to embark on the drafting of a Universal Declaration on Democracy in order to advance international standards and contribute to the process of democratization under way in the world.

This project followed naturally on the earlier work of the Union, which had published several studies on the conduct of elections and political activities - a key element of the exercise of democracy - and in 1994 had adopted a Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections. It was nevertheless fairly audacious for the Union, a worldwide political organization, to embark on this work. A serious and prudent approach was therefore taken so that this wager could be won.

As a first step, the Union wished to gather written opinions and thoughts from personalities representative of the different geopolitical currents in order to have a solid basis before starting to frame a preliminary draft. A group of leading figures and experts was established, and met at the Headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris on 6 and 7 December 1996 in order to share and coordinate their views on the principles and achievements of democracy.

In the months that followed, 10 of these experts and the Rapporteur presented their written contributions. These texts were considered in April 1997, at the IPU Conference held in Seoul, by the IPU's Executive Committee, which was then able to launch the second stage of the project - the drafting of the Declaration itself.

Drawn up in the following months by the Rapporteur and the Secretariat of the Union, a first draft was closely studied by the Executive Committee, whose members, representing all the world's geopolitical regions, devoted an entire day to this exercise, which was specially added to the programme of the Committee's 225th session, held in Cairo in September 1997.

The text resulting from their deliberations was immediately made available to all the delegations of the Union, which had gathered in Cairo for the 98th IPU Conference, and was presented some days later to the Inter-Parliamentary Council - the plenary governing body of the Union - which adopted it without a vote on 16 September 1997.

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Opposition The opposition is a useful and necessary component of democracy, especially in ensuring transparent and accountable government that serves the people's interest. The guidelines on the role and duties of the opposition in parliament were developed in the context of a series of seminars on relations between majority and minority parties in African parliaments in 1999. They are a first step towards a set of rules guaranteeing the effective contribution of the opposition to the democratic process. Though incomplete, they serve as a reference for political actors wishing to codify provisions governing the opposition.

Key points

  • The opposition in parliament is a necessary and indispensable component of democracy. In democracy, political life is enriched by free competition of political programmes; it is impoverished by rivalry based on personal ambitions which merely disqualifies it in the eyes of public opinion;

  • The primary function of the opposition is to offer a credible alternative to the majority in power. By overseeing and criticizing the action of the government, it works to ensure transparency, integrity and efficiency in the conduct of public affairs and to prevent abuses by the authorities and individuals, thereby ensuring the defence of the public interest;

  • Just like members of parliament who are part of the government majority, members of the opposition require full respect for basic rights. Parliamentary privileges and immunities, including respect for freedom of expression and information, are essential to members of parliament and particularly those who belong to the opposition to permit them to carry out their parliamentary duties;

  • Parliamentary work must be organised in a way that reflects the political composition of the assembly and guarantees fair representation of the opposition in parliamentary bodies and committees;

  • The opposition in parliament must engage in constructive and responsible opposition by making counterproposals. In its action, the opposition must not seek to hinder pointlessly the action of the government, but rather endeavour to encourage it to improve such action in the general interest.

red cubeFull text of the Guidelines on the Rights and Duties of the Opposition HTML[English] [French]
PDF[English] [French]


The Guidelines were drawn up by representatives of African parliaments meeting in Libreville from 17 to 19 May 1999 during the Parliamentary Seminar on relations between majority and minority parties in African parliaments, organized by the IPU in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme, and at the invitation of the parliament of Gabon.

The Seminar was the third in a series of regional seminars organized in Africa by the IPU. At the first two, held in Lusaka (June 1995) and Ouagadougou (March 1996), it became apparent that while African parliaments were increasingly called upon to play a prominent role in regulating national life, one of the principal hurdles to the fulfilment of this role was the often acrimonious and disruptive relationship between governing and opposition parties. In many cases, this state of affairs has led to an impasse in parliamentary business, and in the worst of cases, as was witnessed in the weeks preceding the Libreville seminar, it had led to the seizing of power by the military in a number of African countries, in a manner reminiscent of a past that had best be forgotten.

The outcome of the seminar is symbolic of the determination of African parliaments to ensure that democracy becomes part and parcel of political culture in Africa. The Declaration adopted in Libreville by the participants is evidence of the desire to banish the idea that power can be attained through the barrel of a gun and not through free and fair elections. In addition, the Guidelines on the Rights and Duties of the Opposition which accompanies the Declaration presents clear recognition by African parliaments and parliamentarians that the opposition is a useful and necessary fixture in any democratic system, especially in ensuring transparent and accountable government that serves the people's interest. It was agreed that the opposition needed a set of rules (codified and/or uncodified) to guarantee its effective contribution to the democratic process. Admittedly, these Guidelines are incomplete and will require fine-tuning. The IPU therefore intends to organize similar events in other regions of the world with a view to evolving as comprehensive and representative an instrument as possible to serve as a reference for political actors wishing to codify provisions governing the opposition.

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Parliaments' contribution to democracy

The IPU has undertaken development of a systematic framework of criteria and of good practice for addressing democracy within a country. The framework focuses specifically on representation, and hence on parliament, and addresses specifically such questions as:

  • What contribution do parliaments make to democracy?
  • What are the characteristics of a democratic parliament?
  • Where can examples of democratic practice in parliament be found?
  • What challenges are parliaments facing in the twenty-first century?
  • How are they responding to these challenges?
Answers to these questions, and more, can be found in a practical guide published in May 2006: Parliament and democracy in the twenty-first century: A guide to good practice.


Parliaments’ contribution to democracy is an ambitious project that establishes a framework for democratic practice by parliaments. The framework identifies the values and objectives of a democratic parliament, and provides concrete examples of ways in which these values and objectives can be put into practice. Drawing on a worldwide survey of parliaments, the project analyses the challenges and opportunities facing parliaments in the twenty-first century, illustrated by examples of democratic practice from parliaments around the world.

The guide has been written and edited by Professor David Beetham with guidance from a working group of experts including Speakers of parliament, parliamentarians, academics and journalists.

In the first instance, the guide is addressed to parliamentarians, who are concerned to respond to the challenges of the contemporary world, and to provide effective leadership in meeting them. It is hoped that every parliamentary reader will find at least one good idea or example of good practice within its covers which could be usefully "domesticated".

The guide is also addressed to concerned citizens and activists in any country. While earning public esteem is largely in the hands of parliamentarians themselves, what the report can do is to give concerned citizens a more rounded picture of what takes place in parliaments, and of the changes many of them have been instituting so as to work in a more effective and democratic way.

It is hoped that the guide will also be of interest to international organizations involved in helping strengthen parliaments, as well as to researchers and students of parliamentary practice.

This project has received generous funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).