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April 8, 1998

Reaffirming its preliminary assessment that Guyana's general elections of last December 15 were free and fair, the Organization of American States (OAS) has suggested that the country set up a commission on race relations. Such a commission would explore how to bring about better social cohesion among the ethnic groups to overcome existing tensions.

This recommendation was contained the 112 page report formally released on Wednesday by the Washington-based organization which had monitored the electoral exercise in the Caribbean country. The report was submitted to the Permanent Council by the Assistant Secretary General, Ambassador Christopher R. Thomas, who had headed up the OAS election monitoring mission to Guyana.

The hemispheric body had despatched a 28 member mission which began arriving in Guyana in November. The mission monitored election-day proceedings at a total of 457 polling stations throughout Guyana, representing some 25 per cent of all voting stations around the country.

Among the highlights, the OAS report observed that "votes were cast for the most part in a climate of calm and freedom." It point out that on election day concerns had arisen but that "no widespread hindrance to balloting was noted."

Another issue the report addressed what was it termed "significant weaknesses in the organization, management and administration of the collection, transmittal, verification and announcement of the results," weaknesses to which the organization attributed the situation that ensued whereby "some have questioned the electoral process and results."

In its conclusion, the OAS noted that while some political parties had alleged a pattern of fraud, its mission "wishes to note that it observed no fraudulent or intentionally improper behavior by electoral officials while it was in the country." It went on to state that despite allegations, "no substantiated claims" had been brought before the OAS.

Among other recommendations that would help Guyana improve its democratic and electoral processes, the OAS underscored the need for: the Elections Commission to be a permanent body, and with a full-time chairman; the National Registration Center to be modernized and professionalized; and a modernized computerized civil registry and database, one which could be updated through the years.

Ambassador Thomas' report was delivered by Elizabeth Spehar, executive coordinator of the OAS Unit for the Promotion of Democracy through which the mission was conducted.

Guyana's ambassador to the OAS, Dr. Odeen Ishmael, responding to the report, thanked the OAS for its work in monitoring his country's electoral process, and recalled that the main opposition party had still refused to accept the results, despite the reports issued by local and international organizations attesting to the transparency of the elections.

"Now that we have a democracy to nurture," said he, "we also have to protect it." Ambassador Ishmael also used his presentation to the OAS Council, the second ranking body, to call on the opposition in his country to adjust their tactics to "cooperation rather than confrontation." Asserting that local and international public opinion could help bring about such cooperation, the Guyana diplomat stressed that the OAS "certainly can have a part to play in this process."

The Council meeting was chaired by Trinidad and Tobago's permanent representative, Ambassador Michael Arneaud, who was in fact doing so for the first time. He succeeded Suriname's ambassador, Albert R. Ramdin, on April 1 for a three-month term.

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