The Irish Chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), together with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), on 12 and 13 July convened in Vienna a supplementary Human Dimensions Meeting of the organisation, to discuss democratic elections and elections observation. The OSCE Human Dimension Meetings focus primarily on issues of human rights and democratisation, and are meant to provide a space for interaction between the fifty six member states of the organisation and their civil society. NGOs are invited to participate and speak in the meetings.
The debate on election observation has been raging within the OSCE for several years. Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and sometimes other countries too, have criticised the election observation effort of ODIHR accusing it of being a western centric organisation which has two weights and two measures of dealing with election observation. In Vienna last week representatives of Kazakhstan called for ODIHR missions to be cut down to not more than fifty persons, and to be sent to observe all elections in all the member states. EU and US representatives strongly supported the work of ODIHR and its operational independence in election observation. Everybody agreed however that there was room for improvement, not least to meet the challenges that new technology has brought about.
One criticism coming from the Kazakh delegation that was received sympathetically however, was the failure of many member states to be represented either by senior officials from their home capitals or by NGOs. Indeed the number of NGOs participating in the Human Dimension meetings seems to have plummeted substantially from the early years of ODIHR’s existence. Some of this has to do with the way the meetings are organised, and increasing insularity of the OSCE and its lack of transparency. NGOs however are also to blame for not using the opportunity that the Human Dimension Meetings offer to put their points of view to the OSCE participating states.
LINKS returned to the Human Dimension Meeting after an absence of some years. The representative of LINKS in his presentation made eight practical recommendations for OSCE/ODIHR election observation and raised a number of issues.
• Accept the principle that the best election monitoring is that done by the citizens of the country where the election is being held but ONLY if pre conditions exist, such as independent judiciary, empowered NGOs, open and active media and respect for the rule of law. In other circumstances international monitoring remains crucial.
• Recognise that OSCE/ODIHR election monitoring in itself adds legitimacy to an election process. In case of countries that have consistently ignored ODIHR recommendations and violated OSCE norms on elections, invitation to monitor elections should be refused.
• In case an invitation to monitor an election is accepted, ODIHR should be free to determine the size and nature of the mission.
• Explain more clearly the role of the ODIHR EOM to the public where the election is being held in order to manage expectations and avoid misperceptions.
• In the forthcoming elections in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia focus on the big picture rather than simply on process.
• ODIHR should stop participating in the “day after” press conferences that have become superficial events in highly charged environments and where the process is now dominated by the politicians from the delegations of the parliamentary assemblies. These press conferences are diminishing the more sophisticated and comprehensive work of the ODIHR EOM.
• Do not attempt to issue a preliminary report the day after the election. Allow one week to pass in order to be able to digest the facts.
• Do not allow more than a month to pass before issuing the final report.
(read the LINKS presentation at the Vienna meeting here.)
One criticism of the Vienna meeting was that most of the eight hours were taken by set-piece presentations from expert panels leaving very little time to hear the views of either the participating states or the NGOs. Three presentations were however particularly useful. Graham Shields, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland gave a fascinating exposition of how his office dealt with the issue of the voters list, including the sensitive matter of dealing with a list which was inflated by more than 15%. Audrey Glover, a seasoned head of Election Observation Missions gave a very thorough presentation of what the work of a mission entailed, and Vladimir Churov, the Chairman of the Russian Central Elections Commission gave a detailed report of how his Commission had used new technology in recent Russian elections, a development that in itself raises new challenges for election observers.
Everybody seemed to agree that election monitoring is an important issue that needs to be discussed further, but there was a fear that it may take the OSCE another few years before it is ready to convene a follow up meeting.