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OSCE Election Commitments Reaffirmed
Enhancements May Follow
Friday, July 23, 2004

By Chadwick R. Gore
CSCE Staff Advisor

Representatives of the OSCE participating States and a variety of non-governmental organizations met in Vienna, Austria, July 15 and 16 for a Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Election Standards and Commitments.  The first of a multi-part process, the meeting was organized by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in keeping with the December 2003 Maastricht Ministerial Council Decision on elections.

That decision tasked the ODIHR “to consider ways to improve the effectiveness of its assistance to participating States in following up recommendations made in ODIHR election-observation reports and inform the Permanent Council on progress made in fulfilling th[e] task.”

The decision also tasked “the Permanent Council, drawing on expertise from the ODIHR, to consider the need for additional commitments on elections, supplementing existing ones, and report to the next Ministerial Council.” The next Ministerial Council is scheduled for Sofia, Bulgaria, December 6 and 7, 2004.

However, several days prior to the Vienna meeting, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the OSCE Permanent Council, Ambassador Alexey N. Borodavkin, delivered an intervention to the Permanent Council presenting a Declaration by some member States of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) “regarding the state of affairs within the OSCE.”  The intervention presented a wide range of sharp criticisms of the OSCE, not the least of which was a supposed inability to “adapt itself to the demands of a changing world and ensure an effective solution of the problems of security and co-operation in the Euro-Atlantic area.” The Declaration went on to accuse the organization of interfering in internal affairs and failing to respect the sovereignty of States.

The OSCE was also accused of applying double standards and failing to take into account the realities and specific features of individual countries. Then Borodavkin laid what many believed to be the groundwork for the approach of countries associated with the Declaration to the SHDM:

These attitudes manifest themselves particularly in the work of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which mainly deals with monitoring and assessment of election results in participating States. This work of the ODIHR is frequently politicized and does not take into account the specific features of individual countries. For that reason, we believe it necessary to draw up standard objective criteria for assessments by the ODIHR and OSCE missions of election processes throughout the OSCE area.

Thus, as the attendees approached Vienna, many were expecting a classic stand-off between a group of former Soviet states, led by the Russian Federation, and at least the United States, if not many members of the European Union, over the role of election observation and the various commitments, especially provisions of the Copenhagen Document.

Hints of Russian dissatisfaction with the OSCE’s democracy promotion activity can be traced back to a terse statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation on August 1, 2000, the 25th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act.  “Attempts to turn it [OSCE] exclusively into an instrument of ‘democratizing’ individual states will only land the OSCE in an impasse. They are fraught with the danger of a retreat from the Helsinki principles and, in the end, the degradation of the Organization. 

Opening remarks at the Vienna meeting were delivered by Ambassador Ivo Petrov, Chairman of the Permanent Council, and Ambassador Christian Strohal, Director of ODIHR. Strohal mentioned that there might be a need for new commitments to address future challenges regarding referenda, new technology and election standards from outside the OSCE. He thought there might be a need for additional commitments to further universal suffrage, increase transparency, enhance accountability of election and political authorities, and to maintain public confidence in the electoral process.

Alexander Veshnyakov, Chairman of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation, gave the initial keynote speech. Those waiting to see if the Russian Federation would continue the line of attack started at the July 8 meeting of the PC were not disappointed. Mr. Veshnyakov quickly pointed out that electoral standards and commitments need to be added to converge “our ideas for the democratic process and help remove possibilities of double standards. The democratic process can be used for anti-democratic means.” He then proceeded to point out that the Copenhagen Document must be fleshed out and rights need to be promoted, agreements since Copenhagen have been diverse and detailed, and despite shortcomings, the OSCE must be given its due for applying these standards.

Veshnykov cited the new “vector” in elections toward European-wide documents on standards in draft form in some twenty Central Election Commissions and that the adoption of the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the European Commission for Democracy through Law, also known as the Venice Commission, could be the source for a “Copenhagen II.”

Interestingly he lamented the lack of a “binding character” to the existing commitments and felt that making them binding with sanctions for the failure could be useful to help develop common goals.

The main complaint expressed was that each state should know precisely what has been agreed in such commitments: the current commitments are too vague, just a set of guidelines as opposed to standards, and thus have led to the development of double standards in both practice and election observation criteria.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, was the second keynote speaker. He addressed several issues of common concern, such as the role of the media, control of money, and public versus private concerns. He contrasted the fundamental tension as between egalitarians and libertarians.

Three sessions were structured to address the key areas of ODIHR’s concerns to fulfill their Maastricht tasking: The OSCE/ODIHR 2003 Progress Report “Existing Commitments for Democratic Elections in OSCE Participating States”; implementation of existing OSCE commitments for democratic elections and follow up on OSCE/ODIHR recommendations; and, identification of possible areas for supplementing the existing OSCE commitments and potential need for additional commitments.

Moderators of the sessions were Steven Wagenseil, First Deputy Director of the ODIHR and Patrick Merloe, Senior Associate and Director of Election Programs, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Introducers, who presented the core content of each session in their remarks, were: Mr. Merloe; Professor Christoph Grabenwarter, Substitute Member of the Council on Democratic Elections, Council of Europe; Pentii Väänänen, Deputy Secretary General, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Mr. Kingsley; Jessie Pilgrim, Legal Expert; and, Jeno Szep, Advisor, Association of Central and Eastern European Election Officials.

The general thrust of each session was remarkably similar. It quickly became clear that there was a near consensus that while clarification of the details of a few of the existing commitments might be desirable, if not outright necessary, reopening the Copenhagen election commitments to debate was not necessary or desirable. Many delegations restated in various ways that those commitments, and those from all the other OSCE documents that have addressed elections, have created a body of obligations and guidance so fundamental and expansive that there is little new that can or ought to be added. Most interesting was the statement of the European Union that expressed the general opinion:  “If we really need to consider if new commitments are necessary, if so, where?” The European Commission addressed the issue, “We don’t need a Copenhagen II, but maybe a Copenhagen Plus.”

However, a few speakers did mention specific areas of concern, and former Soviet states that are signatories to the aforementioned Declaration made comments of note.

Mr. Merloe saw the possibility to enrich, reinforce and amplify the existing commitments might be forthcoming, possibly at Sofia. He reminded the meeting that those areas critical to all elections are: establishing public confidence in the electorate; establishing universal equal suffrage; transparency at all stages; and, accountability of all authorities.

The opening statement from the U.S. Delegation reiterated these points, emphasizing that elections cannot be assessed solely by examining the technical aspects of voting, and transparency and accountability are absolutely essential components of democratic elections. Regarding the ODIHR election monitoring teams, the United States took the opportunity to underscore that:

[T]he U.S. does not see ODIHR’s election monitoring efforts as “politicized,” but rather as objective and based upon standards set out in the OSCE commitments stipulated in the 1990 Copenhagen Document and the 1991 Moscow Document and reaffirmed in the Charter for European Security adopted at the Istanbul Summit.  Furthermore, the U.S. emphasized that ODIHR monitoring teams should not be seen as “interference in [a country’s] internal affairs,” but rather as an international resource, like the Election Assistance Commission that works domestically in the United States, which is available to countries that seek to improve public confidence in elections and uphold their OSCE commitments.

NGOs from the Russian Federation, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine (note: all States that signed the CIS Declaration) uniformly complained that their governments fail to fulfill the existing OSCE commitments.  So why, they asked, would the OSCE need new commitments when governments fail to meet the existing ones?

By contrast, the government representatives of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Armenia (all signatories of the CIS Declaration) complained that the Copenhagen commitments were more like guidelines than standards.  Some said that the commitments should be obligatory instead of voluntary.

Mr. Väänänen pointed out that often when returning to a country a few years after observing elections and providing recommendations for electoral improvements the same problems remain. The attitude of the state leadership and the nature of the problems found are the crux of the problem (numerous comments regarding the need for political will in follow up to observation missions’ recommendations were made throughout the meeting).

Mr. Pilgrim discussed six issues of concern that need to be addressed. Public confidence is critical to the legitimacy of all elections. Electronic voting, which is becoming the norm, must produce a verifiable paper trail. Referenda or recounts must not be used to end or change a term of office as this practice is in direct conflict with the Copenhagen commitments. Observation is necessary to guarantee other criteria. Transparency includes public knowledge about the role of money, i.e. public disclosure of all funding and expenditures is necessary for public confidence. The protection of electoral rights – registration, party regulation, media access, etc. – while assumed, must be actively pursued.

An extensive discussion regarding electronic voting was held. The distinction between voting on an electronic device, such as a touch-screen device, versus E-voting over the Internet was made by Dr. Szep. The need for the electronic device to produce an auditable paper trail seemed universally accepted as a basic standard for use of such systems. However, the German Delegation described the degree of public skepticism and lack of confidence in electronic devices, and “that is why we’re going to stay on paper.” The primary problem with E-voting seems to be the lack of public trust, but there is hope that in time, with the improvement of technology and security software, this will change.

During the closing session, DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., Chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, expressed the general consensus of the meeting in the U.S. Delegation’s closing statement.  Reiterating that the United States remains as committed as ever to the OSCE commitments laid out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document and in subsequent OSCE documents, he made clear the openness of the United States to ideas on how the OSCE election commitments, and especially their implementation, can be improved. However, he said, there is no need to re-open the Copenhagen commitments as they provide the guidelines and benchmarks necessary to achieve democratic, free, and fair elections.

Mr. Soaries pointed out that the OSCE does not yet have specific commitments related to the participation of internally displaced persons in electoral processes or concerning accountable, balanced, and impartial election administration, and a more systematic mechanism that might be considered for follow up to election observation missions’ recommendations.

Interestingly, the comments from the representatives of countries associated with the Declaration were quite benign and agreeable at the end of the session, emphasizing the forward-looking nature of the meeting.

Ambassador Strohal described the further steps in the process, noting that the ODIHR would be forthcoming with recommendations to the Permanent Council on any changes to the election standards and commitments in preparation for the Ministerial Meeting in Sofia in December. 

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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