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Report of Liberal International Congress, Cairo, October 2009, by Robert Woodthorpe Browne

November 10, 2009 9:02 PM

LI logoSome 300 liberals from around the globe met in Cairo from 29-31 October for the latest congress and executive meeting. The event is held every 18 months.

LIBG was well-represented, formally by six reps, including outgoing chair Jonathan Fryer and his successor Julie Smith, as well as a number of leading Lib Dems, who happen also to be members of the LIBG Executive.

Cairo conference session

At the LIBG Cairo conference, from left Wolfgang Gerhardt (FDP, Germany), outgoing president Lord Alderdice (Alliance Party, UK), new president Hans van Baalen (VVD, Netherlands) and Baroness Scott, Liberal Democrats party president

These were Baroness Scott (President of the Lib Dems and an LIBG Vice-President); Robert Woodthorpe-Browne (Chair of the Liberal Democrats' International Relations Committee and LIBG Vice-Chair) and Gordon Lishman (Chair of the LI Human Rights Committee and a Vice-President of LIBG).

The Liberal Democrats have 15 delegates to LI Congresses, in addition to the LIBG delegates.

To these are added one vote each for the leader of the LibDems or his designated substitute (hitherto Charles Kennedy) and the chair of LIBG. The delegation to the unlikely venues of Alexandria - where an Executive Committee was held in the state-of-the-art Biblioteca Alexandrina - and Cairo was more than enough to allow the exercise of our full voting strength.

The Theme of the Congress was "Education in the 21st Century", and distinguished speakers from many countries spoke on different aspects of Liberal ideas in this respect. The moderator of the Theme Resolution was Senator David Coltart, the Minister of Education of Zimbabwe.

Our delegation was led by Ros Scott, who was a keynote speaker at one of the sessions. I, as International Relations Committee chairman, was the delegation co-ordinator. We had one delegation meeting to discuss the various resolutions and their amendments, but there was nothing contentious, the teams led by Jonathan Fryer and Julie Smith having conceded in the few cases where there was overwhelming opposition to our proposals (see below).

Other UK Parliamentarians who contributed much were former LI President Lord Steel and Graham Watson MEP. Sadly Richard Moore, an LI Patron and former Secretary General, missed his first Congress in decades due to a recent fall. Ros mentioned him fondly in her speech. This is not to ignore the role of John Alderdice, the outgoing President whose work in expanding LI to make it less Euro-centric and in worldwide conflict resolution was praised.

Resolutions are divided between "The World Today", in which LI's positions on situations in different regions and countries around the world are set out. (The various regional groupings (CALD for Asia, RELIAL for Latin America, ELDR for Europe, ALN for Africa, and the Network of Arab Liberals) ensure accuracy and topicality); and the diverse resolutions, of which more below. The negotiating sessions were conducted by Wilf Dirksen of D66 and myself respectively, and the plenary session for their adoption was similarly co-chaired.

A new Bureau was elected with no positions being contested. There is a constitutional provision for there to be co-options to ensure that all regional organisations are represented, as well as the youth organisation, IFLRY. Gordon Lishman joins Bureau meetings as Chairman of the Human Rights Committee.

Hans van Baalen MEP of the VVD, who had been Deputy President, moved up to the Presidency for the first of a potential three 18-month terms. He is an anglophile and we have worked well with him in the past. The Andorran Foreign Minister Juli Trinquell Minoves is his deputy. I replaced Charles Kennedy as the UK Bureau member, nominated by Nick Clegg for the post. At a Bureau meeting immediately afterwards I was asked to assist in building up a Liberal presence in India using our contacts with the Indian diaspora in the UK, as well as continuing with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to be responsible for the Africa Liberal Network, where fluency in French is essential.

The only major row at the Congress was the embarrassing one of an attack in the Washington Post written by two young Egyptian journalists who attacked the three Egyptian Liberal parties for anti-Semitic and Holocaust-deniers, basing the latter on an article allegedly penned by a female journalist who is vice-president of our hosts, the Democratic Front. The Swedes were the most frenetic about this, followed by the Germans who feared a blot on their new Foreign Ministerial copybook. An impassioned retraction by the lady concerned in addition to a written endorsement in a letter to the pro-Israeli van Baalen calmed all nerves and our hosts were duly admitted to full membership of LI, and the El Ghad party became an observer member. Interestingly, their Leader, Ayman Nour, who has just been released from three years detention following international pressure, could not address the Congress, which he attended, as he is banned from speaking in Egypt….

Turning finally to the resolutions, the Swedish parties had a good resolution on privacy and free communication, which accorded with LibDem policy. Phil Bennion worked with them on a motion supporting the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in agriculture; there was a long motion on the financial crisis, which was completely in accord with Cableism; a motion on women's rights from the Swedes was in the motherhood and apple pie class; our motion on climate change, reflecting the Lib Dem conference motion on the global environment, was deemed to UK/Euro-centric and had to be withdrawn - it should have more success at the ELDR Congress in Barcelona later this month; the Swedes also had a resolution on promoting an "eco-efficient" economy - we tried to attach our 10/10 campaign to this but received no support; another Swedish resolution on energy efficiency won unanimous support; a VVD resolution on democracy education in the Middle East was hacked to pieces by the LibDems and passed unanimously when it became inoffensive to the Arab delegates - one of our members pointed out that when it comes to civic education the Brits cannot throw stones.

Not a lot to campaign on. The main thrust was that LI is as green as we are and agrees with our views of the causes and solutions of the economic crisis, without the LibDems having to amend anything.

On a final note, having achieved Eric Avebury's award of the 2009 Prize for Freedom, our nominee, the Iranian Human Rights Lawyer Shirina Abadi, was accepted by the Bureau. However, we had not obtained her consent. If we are able to do so, she will be confirmed at the next Executive in Germany in late May.