OSCE Election Observation
In 1990, OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. Elections observation has since been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and has become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States (Azerbaijan, Croatia, Georgia, Iceland, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Monogolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and the United States).* History of OSCE Election Observation All OSCE participating States have committed to holding democratic elections that meet the same basic standards: universal access, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and privacy in voter submission. Because violations of these commitments can endanger stability in the OSCE region, as well as within an individual country, OSCE nations also agreed to open their elections to observers from other participating countries. To encourage compliance and confidence in the results of the observation missions, countries agreed to observe elections together under the OSCE umbrella. Since the 1990s, OSCE election observers have been present at more than 300 elections throughout the OSCE region. While some OSCE countries benefit from foreign observation more than others – especially those that formerly had one-party communist systems and little experience with democracy – the OSCE also observes elections in more established and stable democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even these countries can benefit from consideration of the objective conclusions of those with an outside, comparative perspective. Perhaps more important, observation across the OSCE region removes any sense of stigmatization associated with the repeated hosting of election observation missions as well as any argument against hosting by those political leaders in some countries who continue to resist holding even reasonably free and fair elections. As one of the original 35 members of the OSCE, the United States has participated actively in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Election Observation Methodology ODIHR's election monitoring methodology takes account of the situation before, during, and after an election. All aspects of the electoral process are considered, to include a review of the legal framework; the performance of elections officials; the conduct of campaigns; the media environment and equitable media access; the complaints and appeals process; voting, counting, and tabulation; and the announcement of results. Recently, ODIHR has further expanded its methodology to explore the participation of women and national minorities. Election Observers OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). A typical election observation mission comprises around 12 core team members, as well as several dozen long-term observers and several hundred short-term observers. The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country. No matter where they are from, observers commit to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process. Election Observation, Reporting, and Recommendations Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage. On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled. The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and legislative framework; election administration; voter and candidate registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes. Impact The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help document whether elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike. Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region. The Helsinki Commission Contribution The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies. As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. More broadly speaking, the United States support OSCE observation efforts, to include deployment of civilian, parliamentary, and diplomatic observers abroad, but also supporting OSCE’s observation of domestic elections, with a focus on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest. Learn More Elections: OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly * Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.
Justice at Home
Promoting human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption abroad can only be possible if the United States lives up to its values at home. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, even under the most challenging circumstances. However, like other OSCE participating States, the United States sometimes struggles to foster racial and religious equity, counter hate and discrimination, defend fundamental freedoms, and hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions. The Helsinki Commission works to ensure that U.S. practices align with the country’s international commitments and that the United States remains responsive to legitimate concerns raised in the OSCE context, including about the death penalty, use of force by law enforcement, racial and religious profiling, and other criminal justice practices; the conduct of elections; and the status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
Human rights within states are crucial to security among states. Prioritizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defending the principles of liberty, and encouraging tolerance within societies must be at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Peace, security, and prosperity cannot be sustained if national governments repress their citizens, stifle their media, or imprison members of the political opposition. Authoritarian regimes become increasingly unstable as citizens chafe under the bonds of persecution and violence, and pose a danger not only to their citizens, but also to neighboring nations. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and defense of democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy; that they are applied consistently in U.S. relations with other countries; that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. policymaking; and that the United States holds those who repress their citizens accountable for their actions. This includes battling corruption; protecting the fundamental freedoms of all people, especially those who historically have been persecuted and marginalized; promoting the sustainable management of resources; and balancing national security interests with respect for human rights to achieve long-term positive outcomes rather than short-term gains.
Decoding the OSCE
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization with 57 participating States representing more than a billion people. Its origins trace back to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which contains a broad range of measures focused on politico-military, economic and environmental, and human aspects designed to enhance comprehensive security and cooperation in the region, and the decades of multilateral diplomacy that followed. The OSCE operates coordinated efforts, adapted to the needs of each participating State, to protect democracy, promote peace, and manage conflict. The organization focuses on creating sustainable change through shared values, and decisions are taken by consensus. Learn more about the OSCE’s operations and institutions below. The Helsinki Process and the OSCE: On August 1, 1975, the leaders of the original 35 OSCE participating States gathered in Helsinki and signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Also known as the Helsinki Accords, the Helsinki Final Act is not a treaty, but rather a politically binding agreement consisting of three main sections informally known as "baskets," adopted on the basis of consensus. The Security Dimension The Economic Dimension The Human Dimension Four Decades of the Helsinki Process: The gatherings following the Final Act became known as the Helsinki Process. The process became a diplomatic front line in the Cold War and a cost-effective diplomatic tool to respond to the new challenges facing Europe during the post-Cold War era. Since its inception over forty years ago, the Helsinki Process and the OSCE continue to provide added value to multilateral efforts enhancing security and cooperation in Europe. OSCE Institutions, Structures, and Meetings: The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. The OSCE also undertakes a variety of preventive diplomacy initiatives designed to prevent, manage and resolve conflict within and among the participating States. The Consensus Rule: The OSCE operates using a consensus decision-making process. Consensus fosters ownership of decisions by all OSCE participating States, enables them to protect key national priorities, and creates an important incentive for countries to participate in the OSCE. It also strengthens the politically binding nature of OSCE commitments. The Moscow Mechanism: The OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. OSCE Election Observation: Election observation is one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and has become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Parliamentary Diplomacy of the OSCE: The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The OSCE PA debates current issues related to OSCE commitments; develops and promotes tools to prevent and resolve conflicts; supports democratic development in participating States; and encourages national governments to take full advantage of OSCE capabilities. Non-Governmental Participation in the OSCE: One of the advantages of the OSCE is that it is the only international organization in which NGOs are allowed to participate in human dimension meetings on an equal basis with participating States. NGOs—no matter how small—can raise their concerns directly with governments.
By Erika Schlager
On June 21, 2007, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on "Guantánamo: Implications for U.S. Human Rights Leadership."
Chairman Alcee L. Hastings presided over the hearing, joined by Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, and Commissioner Rep. Mike McIntyre. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a former Helsinki Commission Chairman, also participated. Prepared statements were also submitted by Commissioners Senator Christopher J. Dodd and Congresswoman Hilda L. Solis.
Testimony was received from John B. Bellinger III, Legal Advisor to the Department of State; Senator Anne-Marie Lizin, President of the Belgian Senate and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Special Representative on Guantánamo; Tom Malinowski, Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch; and Gabor Rona, International Legal Director, Human Rights First. In addition, written testimony was received from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. (A transcript of the hearing, along with testimonies submitted for the record, is available on the Helsinki Commission's website. The Department of Defense was invited to send a witness, but declined.
Background: Guantanamo Raised at OSCE PA Meetings
Although the Helsinki Commission largely focuses its attention on issues relating to the other 55 OSCE participating States, the Commission has periodically examined domestic compliance issues. In recent years, no other issue has been raised as vocally with the United States at OSCE PA meetings as the status and treatment of detainees captured or arrested as part of U.S. counter-terrorism operations.
The issue came into particular focus at the OSCE PA’s 2003 Annual Session, held in Rotterdam, where a resolution [link] expressing concern over detainees at Guantánamo was debated and adopted. (The first detainees were transported to the detention facility in January 2002.) The vigorous debate in Rotterdam prompted then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher H. Smith and then-Ranking Member Benjamin L. Cardin to lead a Congressional Delegation to the detention facility in late July 2003.
At the 2004 Annual Session, held in Edinburgh, convened shortly after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, the Assembly adopted a resolution [link], introduced by then-Chairman Smith, condemning torture and urging respect for provisions of the Geneva Conventions. An amendment to that resolution was also adopted, expressing particular concern regarding indefinite detention without trial at Guantánamo.
In February 2005, Senator Anne-Marie Lizin, President of the Belgian Senate, was appointed by then-OSCE PA President Alcee L. Hastings as Special Representative on Guantánamo, with a mandate to report to the Assembly on the situation of detainees from OSCE participating States in the detention facility in Guantánamo. (Sen. Lizin continues to serve in that capacity at the request of the current OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President, Göran Lennmarker.) At the 2005 Annual Session, held in Washington, the Assembly adopted a resolution [link] on “terrorism and human rights,” reiterating concern regarding the Guantánamo detainees. Separately, Senator Lizin issued her first report on Guantánamo during the Washington meeting, calling for the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to be closed. (Her report also touched on the positions of other OSCE participating States regarding the question of the detention of terror suspects.) During the Washington meeting, Department of Defense and Department of State officials also held a briefing for interested parliamentarians on Guantanamo and related issues.
In March 2006, Senator Lizin was able, under U.S. Department of Defense auspices, to make her first visit to the detention facility. She returned to the facility a second time on June 20, 2007, just prior to testifying at the Helsinki Commission's hearing. In addition, Senator Lizin presented additional reports on Guantánamo at the Assembly’s Annual Sessions in Brussels (2006) and in Kyiv (2007). She has continued to call for the closure of the detention facility. Her reports are available on the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly website [link].
In opening the hearing, Chairman Hastings drew attention to the concerns that have been repeatedly raised about Guantánamo in the context of the Parliamentary Assembly. He also observed that "for all the 56 OSCE participating States, and not just the United States, the issue of how to safeguard human rights while effectively countering terrorism may be one of the most critical issues these countries will face for the foreseeable future."
The first witness to speak was Legal Adviser Bellinger. Since taking up that position in 2005, Mr. Bellinger has been actively engaged in discussions with U.S. allies and at international fora (particularly the United Nations in Geneva, where he presented U.S. reports under the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) regarding the status and treatment of detainees held by the United States as part of its counterterrorism operations. This was the first time, however, that he had testified before Congress on these matters.
Legal Adviser Bellinger briefly discussed the legal basis, under the law of armed conflict, for detaining combatants, and noted that the 9/11 Commission had recommended that the United States should work with other countries to develop an appropriate framework for the detention and treatment of terror suspects. He also described the considerable efforts he has made to engage allies in discussions on these matters. Bellinger acknowledged that President Bush has said he would like to close Guantánamo, but Bellinger argued that "closing Guantánamo is easier said than done." In particular, he suggested more needs to be done to address the question, where will the detainees go?
In her remarks to the Commission, Senator Lizin observed that, since her 2006 visit to Guantánamo, the number of detainees there has significantly decreased. Nevertheless, "Guantánamo remains one of the bases for [an] anti-American fixation in the world and contributes to the [negative] image of the United States abroad, including [among] friendly countries.” She reiterated her recommendation that Guantánamo be closed and noted that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has also called for the camp to be closed. Senator Lizin noted that 80 detainees are no longer considered enemy combatants and that OSCE participating States could do more to facilitate the transfer of these individuals to third countries.
Both Tom Malinowski and Gabor Rona stressed that many Guantánamo detainees were not captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but were individuals turned over to the United States by bounty hunters responding to U.S. offers to pay large sums of money for turning in foreigners. Mr. Rona noted that, “[t]his government's own statistics say that 55% of the detainees were not found to have committed hostile acts. Only 8% were characterized as Al Qaida fighters, and 60% are detained merely because of alleged association with terrorists or terrorist groups."
Mr. Malinowski discussed the dangerous example that U.S. interrogation and detention practices have set for other countries around the globe. (Similar views were echoed in the written testimony submitted by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.) He also suggested that if the United States made a serious commitment to close Guantánamo, it would open the door for greater cooperation with other countries regarding the transfer of detainees.
Moreover, Malinowski observed that, since 9/11, “the Justice Department has successfully prosecuted dozens of international terror suspects in the civilian courts . . . since then, the system at Guantánamo has succeeded in prosecuting one Australian kangaroo trapper to a sentence of nine months, which is serving back home in Australia."
In his written and oral testimony, Mr. Rona took exception to the applicable legal framework advocated by the administration: "one need not choose between, on the one hand, affording terrorists the protections of prisoner-of-war status, to which only privileged belligerents are entitled, or, on the other hand, holding them in a law-free black hole. They can be targeted while directly participating in hostilities. And if captured, they can be interrogated, they can be detained, but in accordance with international and domestic law."
During the hearing, Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Cardin, and Majority Leader Hoyer all argued for closing the detention facility.
Chairman Hastings said he could not believe "that the American federal prison system cannot try 380 people." He argued that the United States "should take every prisoner out of Guantánamo, no matter his or her status, and move them to a federal prison in the United States of America [and then] either release persons who are not charged, or charge them, try them and confine them in an appropriate federal prison."
Regarding the notion that detainees were sent to Guantánamo because they were enemy combatants, Mr. Cardin remarked that there are “a lot of people who are combatants who are not at Guantánamo Bay," and that people were selected for transfer because of their perceived intelligence value. But in light of the many years that individuals have been held there, some for more than five years now, he argued that "the 380 people that are at Guantánamo Bay have no useful information that warrants a special facility for interrogation, which is what Guantánamo Bay was originally set up as . . . If Guantánamo Bay is needed today, it's needed as a penal facility. And as the Chairman pointed out, we have penal facilities. To keep a penal facility at such expense makes very little sense to the taxpayers of this country."
Finally, Majority Leader Hoyer, who had pressed for the convening of such a hearing in recent years, argued for the restoration of habeas corpus rights that had been terminated by be Military Commission Act of 2006. He argued, "when Saddam Hussein was taken out of a hole and captured, we afforded him his legal rights to hear the evidence against him, to contest that evidence and to be represented by counsel. When Slobodan Milosevic was brought to justice after murdering tens of thousands and sanctioning the ethnic cleansing of more than 2 million people, he was afforded his legal rights. And even the Butchers of Berlin who committed genocide, murdering millions of innocents, were afforded their legal rights at Nürnberg. This was not coddling those who committed atrocities. It was recognizing that if civilization is to be what we want to be, it will be because it follows the rule of law and not the rule of the jungle."