International Day of Parliamentarism 30 June: Shura Council: Has No Legislative Powers and Can Only Recommend Changes to New Laws
The International Day of Parliamentarism is celebrated every year on 30 June, the date in 1889 on which the Inter-Parliamentary Union was founded. The Day was established in 2018 through a United Nations General Assembly Resolution that affirmed the role of parliamentarians in representing the people and ensuring greater transparency and accountability at national and global levels.
The International Day of Parliamentarism is an opportunity to review and evaluate the progress parliaments are making to become more representative, maintain democracy and move with the times, including by carrying out self-assessments, working to include more women and young MPs, and adapting to new technologies.
Strong parliaments are a cornerstone of democracy. They represent the voice of the people, pass laws and legislation appropriate to each society according to the people’s needs, impartially allocate funds to implement laws and policies, and hold governments to account. They also work to make sure that policies and the laws in force benefit all segments of society, especially the weakest and most vulnerable.
Parliaments also have the responsibility of ensuring that governments implement international treaties and agreements that they sign up to, and play a vital role towards implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
According to the United Nations, there is a pressing worldwide need to increase the representation of women and young people in national parliaments and international parliamentary organisations, since
- only 25% of the world’s members of parliament are women; and
- while individuals aged 20-39 make up nearly 39% of the world’s population, no more than 17.5% of MPs come from this age group.
According to Freedom House, a US research and advocacy organisation, Oman is a country where democracy and parliamentarism face enormous challenges, as the regime gives people no opportunity to freely choose their political representatives. It is a hereditary monarchy, and power is concentrated in the hands of the sultan, who holds several positions including that of prime minister. The regime restricts virtually all political rights and civil liberties, imposing criminal penalties for criticism and dissent.
The 1996 basic law, promulgated by royal decree, created a bicameral body – the Council of Oman (Majlis Oman) consisting of an appointed Council of State (Majlis al-Dawla) and an elected Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura). Citizens elect the Consultative Council every four years, but it has not legislative powers and can only recommend changes to new laws.
The electoral framework allows all citizens over the age of 21 to vote unless they are in the military or security forces. However, the framework applies only to the Consultative Council and municipal councils, which serve largely as advisory bodies. Elections are administered by the Ministry of Interior rather than by an independent commission, which means there are no guarantees of fair, transparent and fully representative elections.
The sultan maintains a monopoly on political power. The structure of the constitutional system excludes the possibility of a change in government through elections. The nonpartisan nature of Oman’s limited elections, the overwhelming dominance of the sultan over Omani society, and the authorities’ suppression of dissent leave voters and candidates with little autonomy in their political choices.
In addition, noncitizens, who make up about 44 percent of the population, have no political rights or electoral opportunities. Citizenship is generally transmitted from Omani fathers only, and not mothers, making Oman one of the few countries in the world that still does not apply gender equality in the matter of citizenship. Foreign residents must live legally in the country for 20 years to qualify for citizenship, or 15 and 10 years for foreign husbands and wives of Omani citizens, respectively, if they have a son. These and other conditions make naturalisations relatively rare.
Omani women can legally vote and run for election to the Consultative Council, but they have few practical opportunities to organise independently and advance their interests in the political system. Two women were elected to the Consultative Council in 2019, up from one in 2015, and seven women won seats on municipal councils in 2016, up from four in 2012. Fifteen women serve on the appointed Council of State.
Political parties are not permitted, and the authorities do not tolerate any form of organised political opposition. A 2014 law allows the revocation of citizenship for Omanis who join organisations deemed harmful to “the national interest”.
The work of government is dominated by the sultan and an inner circle of unelected advisers and senior ministers. The Council of State and the Consultative Council are merely advisory bodies, with no powers to make policy or laws that benefit all people, especially the most vulnerable, and Oman’s legal code does not provide an effective framework for the prevention, exposure, and impartial prosecution of corruption that an independent and fairly elected parliament would provide.
Transparency and accountability, for which parliaments should be responsible, are limited in practice by the concentration of power and authority in a small inner circle around the sultan. The law does not provide freedom of information guarantees, and although the State Audit Institution monitors ministerial spending, conflicts of interest and state-owned companies, its findings are not released to the public, and it does not cover the sultan’s court or the military.
On this International Day of Parliamentarism, the Omani Centre for Human Rights recalls the important role of parliaments in safeguarding democracy and upholding the rights and interests of the people. The Centre calls on the Omani government to actively involve the public in decision-making and legislation, and bring about transparency and freedom of access to information, by making the Council of State and Consultative Council fully elected bodies with greater powers to legislate and hold the government to account.