The options open to observers on the ground when they detect serious deficiencies in an electoral process are frequently limited. Observers seldom operate in a political vacuum, and may face significant pressures constraining them from expressing their true convictions about the conduct of the electoral process if they are critical of it – International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
This is the second installment of a two-part article focusing on the value of election observation missions (EOMs) in promoting democracy. So while EOMs are helpful in ensuring peace, restoring confidence in the system, and promoting change where such change is required, there are some legitimate concerns which have been raised.
International observers are supposed to operate under strict conditions and the major premise is non-intervention in the domestic affairs of the host country. One of the most important instruments to highlight global election standards is the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). With 166 state parties, the ICCPR is nearly a universal instrument. The covenant contains a number of provisions that are relevant for elections and democratic governance which are legally binding obligations and leave state parties little choice but to comply with these obligations.
In so far as election observations are concerned, over time the major international covenants on human rights and political rights, as well as political commitments, led to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and The Declaration of Global Principles for Nonpartisan Election Observation and Monitoring by Citizen Organizations, though not legally binding, outline political commitments to which states agree to adhere.
The Declaration of Principles for Election Observation now guides the practice of all major international EOMs and it is expected that EOMs observe global standards which translate to compliance with all national laws and regulations (respect for the rule of law), ethical obligations concerning impartiality, independence, accuracy, transparency, non-discrimination, maintaining neutrality (including refraining from adopting partisan symbols and colours and speaking to any issue that may be viewed as being sympathetic to any political party or candidate), and cooperation with other electoral stakeholders and international election observers.
All observers receive a briefing document prior to deployment to the host country which includes important data on political parties, symbols, colours and other relevant information. This is to avoid the use of party colours, for example, which may be viewed by the public as partisan and ultimately lead to a lack of credibility of the mission itself. So in the Commonwealth Caribbean, observers avoid the wearing of red, green, yellow and blue and orange, which for the most part are the colours typically used by political parties.
Moreover, international observers must not interfere in the election process. This means that while monitors have unprecedented access to polling stations and election offices, monitors must refrain from issuing instructions to election officials whether or not any infraction is observed or reported to the EOMs.
Observers are expected to provide an objective, transparent and accurate assessment of an election which means that while they receive information concerning malpractices, these must as far as possible be verified. Conflict of interest must be avoided at all costs which is why most missions do not include representatives from the host country.
But as I indicated, there are concerns with the reports submitted by missions. Judith G. Kelley therefore identifies five types of biases that may impact an assessment of an election by missions:
This occurs in a context where organizations from or associated with undemocratic countries are engaged in monitoring in such countries and may be more reluctant to criticize elections and the electoral environment. In other words, as Kelley asserts, “those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”.
Moreover, given that observer missions depend on funding for missions, they may be careful in crafting their statements. This is why the Commonwealth Secretariat model is one which favours the monitors themselves taking responsibility for their own reports rather than it being produced solely by Commonwealth Secretariat staff after discussions with observers and attendance at meetings, and reviewing daily newspapers.
In this way, it may protect the Commonwealth from allegations of “glasshouse bias”. Yet this is not to suggest that the Commonwealth Secretariat does not sanitize documents produced in part by observers. Remember the Commonwealth is invited by governments and, as such, must be mindful of the language of diplomacy.
In as much as most monitoring bodies seek to promote democracy, careful attention must be given to supporting progress in countries which are new transitioning democracies, such as states which have been under military rule for a substantial period, or those who have been largely authoritarian. In that regard, international observers tend to praise noteworthy and even incremental progress, rather than condemn developments which may fall far short of clean elections.
I recall, therefore, that during the 2011 presidential elections in The Gambia, observers were given a lecture by Ambassador Ayo on being too harsh on some activities that we had witnessed even though they would have been condemned in countries which were well on their way to democratization. Instead, we were asked to take note of where The Gambia was coming from and the changes that were being instituted though they fell short of the expected standards. Thus, in such conditions, reports tend to be far more lenient than in more established democracies.
The special relationship bias
Do monitoring organizations have an interest in the country in which they are monitoring? Evidence suggests that where this occurs, for instance in Europe, strong political pressure tends to be exerted on the organization to be lenient towards the country.
The subtlety bias
This is normally seen where monitors endorse elections where the irregularities are more subtle. So where polling day activities tend to be smooth, monitors are more likely to endorse the elections.
The stability bias
Will a negative report impact stability in the country? This often pervades reports of monitors who assess elections in violent prone countries.
While all of the above do have some merit, there is little doubt that election monitors for the most part are skilled, trained, professional individuals with integrity. While they are often drawn from the political class, (the expectation is that they are familiar with the processes and do possess political resources). They also include ambassadors (I make a distinction between the political class and those who represent the nation as ambassadors), academia, media, lawyers, youth (so in medium sized and large observation missions, the Commonwealth and the Organization of American States, for example, routinely include youth representatives such as Commonwealth youth ambassadors, and university students), election officers and officials from election management bodies.
Every major monitoring mission is overwhelmingly drawn from election workers and persons who have worked in international organizations committed to democracy, gender and election experts, and at least one person trained in media studies or a journalist.
Overall, it is therefore anticipated that the mission will be defined by integrity which would lead to an unbiased report on the cleanliness of the election. So why not confirm the cleanliness of the election process in this country, like all other Commonwealth Caribbean countries have done? Weird!