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Commission Commemorates Anniversary of ODIHR with Wide-Ranging Hearing

By Chadwick R. Gore, Staff Advisor

U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback convened a hearing focused on the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and its promotion of democracy and human rights in the OSCE region over the past 15 years, work that has come under pressure, in part, from those seeking to divert attention away from their own poor records of implementation. The hearing “Advancing the Human Dimension in the OSCE: The Role of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights” was held on May 17, 2006.

In his opening statement, Chairman Brownback highlighted the international role of ODIHR and its importance in sponsoring democratic institutions and monitoring the conduct of elections and assessing their freeness and fairness. He remarked that ODIHR’s work encompasses a wide range of human rights activities aimed at closing the gap between the commitments of the participating States on paper and their reality in practice. Chairman Brownback noted, however, that the Warsaw-based ODIHR faces serious challenges, especially from the Russian Federation, Belarus, and a small minority of the OSCE participating States that neither desire democratic reform nor recognize the universality of human rights.

On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, Kurt Volker, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, voiced strong support for ODIHR. He particularly highlighted its leadership as the flagship of the OSCE’s democracy-promotion efforts. Volker emphasized ODIHR’s success in promoting democracy, defending human rights, and building civil society, and stressed the State Department’s support for the current regional and international programs undertaken by ODIHR.

Mr. Volker summed up the criticisms of ODIHR election monitoring as focused on two main aspects: alleged undue pressure on states of the former Soviet Union and alleged lack of transparency in election observation procedures. Describing ODIHR’s election monitoring as the “gold standard,” Volker rejected these assertions and affirmed that ODIHR is doing “a first-class job in election monitoring and all of the areas of democracy promotion that it takes part in.” He opined that ODIHR has been instrumental in advancing democracy in Russia.

ODIHR’s mandate to monitor elections is set forth in the 1990 Copenhagen document and subsequent documents. Accordingly ODIHR Director Ambassador Christian Strohal focused much of his testimony on elections and discussed the many challenges faced by ODIHR as various OSCE States endeavor to prevent free and fair elections by limiting competition and marginalizing voters. He stated that this is accomplished through,

“…refusal of registration or deregistration; issues of state administrative resources; pressure on groups of the electorate to vote in a specific manner; media bias; electoral administrations with insufficiently inclusive composition; no clear voter registration guidelines; no clear complaints and appeal procedures; and most importantly of all, no sufficient political will to rectify identified shortcomings.”

To confront these challenges, Ambassador Strohal emphasized the need for greater political commitment by all OSCE States, highlighting the necessity of accountability, transparency, and public confidence combined with strong leadership by example as demonstrated by the United States in its election transparency.

Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, focused his remarks on what he described as a backlash against democracy development in various OSCE nations. He identified the problem as stemming from governments attempting to further consolidate power by weakening civic participation and democratic institutions, as evidenced in Russia with the recent passage of a strict NGO law. Yet, Gershman pointed out, the people of Russia are not losing hope and are indeed gaining some international support. Gershman conveyed the hope of indigenous NGOs that the international community would offer a “long-term coherent policy of support” to civil society.

A former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as well as a former Helsinki Commissioner, affirmed at the hearing the critical role of the OSCE and ODIHR to advance democracy in the region. Lorne Craner, President of the International Republican Institute, focused on ODIHR’s unique multilateral structure and superior work on human rights and democracy, as well as its contributions to the recent global democratic movement. He noted with concern, however, that while democratic advances have occurred throughout the OSCE they are currently under attack by Russia and a few other countries. That the attacks focus on election standards, democratic development and the ODIHR make them “particularly insidious and particularly important.”

According to Patrick Merloe, Senior Associate and Director of the Programs on Election Processes at the National Democratic Institute, several OSCE States are specifically critical of the election monitoring process, in an effort to deflect attention from their own electoral shortcomings. Merloe recommended five obligations that the OSCE should address in order to increase the effectiveness of the ODIHR: universal and equal suffrage, accountability, transparency, public confidence, and follow up to election-related recommendations.

Jeff Fischer, Senior Director of the Center for Transitional and Post-Conflict Governance at IFES, stressed the historical significance of the OSCE’s election supervision practice in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo and the lessons learned from those experiences. Two lessons exemplified from these OCSE administrative practices were the necessity for a flexible election timeline and a separate organizational election monitoring mission.

Chairman Brownback voiced particular concern about Russia’s ongoing challenges to democratic institutions and civic organizations. Gershman identified Georgia’s Rose Revolution and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine as the origin of the current Russian mindset committed to preventing similar democratic movements from arising in other countries of the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Gershman suggested that the Putin administration could not transform Russia into a Soviet-like dictatorship, citing the rapid growth of Russian human rights NGOs. He cited statistics showing that the number has grown from just two dozen in the mid-1990s to over 3,000 in 2003. Gershman stressed that the function of ODIHR and similar institutions is not regime change, but to support indigenous democratic groups, to strengthen democratic processes and to strengthen the protection of human rights. Craner agreed with Gershman’s assessment that Russia was not capable of completely reversing its democratic development, stating, “You cannot turn the clock back all the way. You can try and turn it back some of the way, but people, once they get a taste of these things, as we have seen in many countries for the last 30 years, want more.”

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