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Politicians on all sides are vying to promote "transparency", yet when it comes to the West's key military partnership NATO, we are allowed to know very little - and discuss even less. Barbara Panvel discusses a curioiusly neglected democratic deficit in this "digested version" of an original article by Dr Ian Davis of Natowatch.

Earlier in July Nato launched a year-long debate to formulate a new strategic concept to replace the one dating back to 1999.

Picture of Ian Davis

Dr Ian Davis

The director of NatoWatch, Dr Ian Davis, in an article in The Guardian, noted that the media had failed to report this event. Yet, as he points out, Nato, rightly or wrongly, is the cornerstone of UK defence policy and the reason why the lives of British soldiers are being "thrown away" in Afghanistan.

Though political classes claim to care about transparency and accountability in public life, they continue to ignore the democratic deficit at the heart of Nato. Two weeks after the launch of the Nato debate, as the death toll of soldiers and civilians rises, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, spoke in Brussels about the need for a new strategy in Afghanistan.

How will the new strategy be formulated? I think that if some had sons and daughters on active military service in Iraq and Afghanistan it would make the consequences of their decisions more real to them.

Decision-making within Nato is largely the preserve of the executive branch of government and an array of inter-governmental bureaucracies. It is the only major intergovernmental body which does not disclose even basic information and has inadequate or non-existent mechanisms for parliamentary and public accountability and oversight.

David Cameron and others want parliament to be properly involved "in all big national decisions", and there is no bigger decision than taking the country to war. Serious flaws in parliamentary scrutiny of the decision-making and authority for Nato's intervention in Afghanistan include the facts that:

  • our soldiers are being killed in Nato operations that were not subject to prior parliamentary approval.
  • there has been no requirement for parliament to keep the Afghanistan deployment under review, despite the mission becoming more complex, contentious and expensive – costing the Treasury £2.6bn in 2008 alone.

The Nato Alliance is not concerned only with high-level diplomacy, summits and military campaigns: most of its work is on projects involving over 400 specialised agencies, centres, committees, groups and panels – but, again, there is no permanent parliamentary committee to monitor these Nato efforts (akin to the European scrutiny committee).

Dr Davis advocates Nato’s adoption of an information openness policy consistent with the access to information laws already in place in the alliance's 28 member countries, including:

  • guidelines for proactive publication of core information
  • a mechanism by which the public can file requests for information
  • and an independent review body for hearing appeals against refusals or failures to make information public within a short time-frame.

National parliaments and media ought to sharpen their scrutiny of Nato affairs and - as Nato claims to be committed to a widespread political debate in framing its new strategic concept - it should adopt a consultation exercise more appropriate to 21st-century expectations, including mechanisms for public participation.

David Cameron says that the principle of transparency should be extended to "every nook and cranny of politics and public life", while the IPPR commission recently called for a commitment to more democratic and transparent national security policymaking "open to a wide array of inputs and subject to effective public scrutiny and accountability".

These urgently needed commitments could move the Alliance far beyond the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, linking Nato's new strategic concept to the Obama change agenda.



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