The Organization of American States (OAS) today celebrated Electoral Observation Day with a roundtable organized by the Secretariat for Political Affairs in the institution's headquarters in Washington, DC, that analyzed the progress and challenges identified in the more than 50 years since the first accompaniment mission of the organization.
The event was opened by the Secretary General of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, and closed by the Assistant Secretary General, Albert Ramdin. Drawing on his experience as head of several observation missions, Ramdin said that in these visits you have to be "flexible, pragmatic and realistic, because every country is different," which makes it important to treat each situation differently. In this context, the Assistant Secretary General highlighted the importance of the person chosen as Head of Mission, a task reserved for the Secretary General, because, in his opinion, "the way it is presented to the political actors can define the success or failure of the mission." In order to enhance the impact of the reports prepared by the Chief of Mission, Ambassador Ramdin suggested that they should be presented in the countries visited, and not only to the Permanent Council, as is currently the case.
Ambassador Ramdin urged the Permanent Representatives to the OAS to "participate in an Electoral Observation Mission (EOM), because it is the best way to know the political process of a country."
The OAS Secretary for Political Affairs, Kevin Casas-Zamora, who served as host of the panel, called on Member States to review the current funding mechanics for the EOMs, which operate through special contributions from some Member Countries and Observer Countries. He said that instead of this budget design, coverage of the EOMs should be included in the "regular funds" of the OAS. Casas-Zamora stressed that, although the EOMs are recognized as "one of the central tasks of the organization, it is a pure and simple fact that the missions are funded by an extremely small group of countries, some of which are observers."
Secretary Casas-Zamora also expressed his hope that "one day all OAS Member Countries commit themselves to accept the EOMs automatically as part of their obligations and duties as members of the Organization." "This principle exists in the OSCE for example, and there is no compelling reason for this to be different in the OAS," he concluded.
The OAS Director of the Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation, Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, reviewed the evolution of the OAS Electoral Missions in their 50 year history, starting with the first missions, which had what she called a "symbolic nature;" continuing with the "second generation" that began in the 90s, and included missions of greater size and duration;, up to the current model which began in 2007, when the EOMs moved toward further professionalization and standardization, as well as an expansion in the number of countries visited and the type of elections, including presidential, legislative, municipal, primaries, constituent assemblies, vice-presidential and referendums. In this regard, she noted that while in the second generation an average of 7 EOMs per year were carried out, in the third generation that number has increased to 12 per year.
Muñoz-Pogossian stressed that the OAS currently has several essential tools for the standardization of its missions, such as the Manual of Criteria for Election Observation, "which raises our concept of democratic elections, and was built on the basis of Inter-American legal instruments which were approved by our Member States." The Manual of Procedures for Election Observation establishes the stages of observation, prior, during and post-election; the structure of the EOM, and the mechanisms of selection of members of an EOM and its functions. Also, she highlighted the importance of four protocols in order to "improve the quality of observation, including issues affecting equity in electoral competition." These are the Manual on Observing the Use of Electoral Technologies (2010), the Methodology for Media Observation during Elections (2011), the Methodology for Gender Mainstreaming (2012), and the Methodology for the Observation of Political Financing Models in Elections (2012).
Continuing with the debate, the Director of the Center for North American Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management of American University, Robert Pastor, analyzed political developments of many countries of the hemisphere and highlighted the strengths of the OAS/EOMs. Among its virtues he mentioned the "tremendous and evolving professionalism" of such missions, staff expertise, methodology and technical assistance, and the active role of the Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, in the resolution and management of crises.
As for the challenges, Pastor said that "we are still restrained by the changing composition of the Americas. Despite the fact the there are elections, we have not defined democracy in a wide enough terms to allow us to step in to a process in a legitimate way and reinforce democracy." “This is a good moment in the Americas in that all of the countries acknowledge that elections are the basis of civil legitimacy,” he added, and reiterated that elections are a necessary but not sufficient element in guaranteeing that democracy will persist and endure.
For his part, the Senior Associate and Director of Electoral Programs at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Patrick Merloe, began his presentation by highlighting the role that Secretary General Insulza has had in promoting electoral observation. "An organization is a reflection of its leadership and in this sense we are very grateful for the work done by Secretary General Insulza," he said, noting that the OAS work in this area has increased under his leadership. He also emphasized that "the elections belong to the people," and that it is necessary to do everything possible "to ensure that citizens receive the information they need to act freely and to make a choice." He further said that there are three critical principles for election observation: "inclusiveness, transparency and the accountability of the process."
Elizabeth Spehar, Director for the Americas and Europe Division of the United Nations General Secretariat and former Director of the OAS Unit for the Promotion of Democracy, alluded to how the EOMs have evolved, through professionalization and specialization in recent years. In this regard, she referred to the adoption of the concept of "integral observation," beginning with the pre-electoral process and lasting until after the election, as well as the development of tools for a qualitative assessment and a more inclusive approach in terms of the gender and origin of the observers.
Spehar pointed out three challenges the EOMs face in their future development: adapting to the evolving needs of the countries; maintaining their sustainability in terms of funding, relevance and credibility; and increasing the impact of the observation reports. Finally, she suggested that the OAS create of partnerships with other international observation organizations and to make a greater effort to link the missions with other work areas within the organization.
The Permanent Representative of Guyana to the OAS, Ambassador Bayney Karran, referred to the importance of electoral observation from the perspective of the experiences of his country, and summarized how the electoral system in Guyana has evolved with the support and cooperation of the Missions of the OAS. "In the span of 21 years, from 1985 to 2006, the elections in Guyana have traversed the entire spectrum, from the worst form of electoral fraud and malpractice to elections that were certified by participating international observers, including the OAS, as a free and fair expression of the democratic will of the people," he said.
Ambassador Karran also reiterated the importance of having relevant observation recommendations that result “in better elections next time around," and urged the OAS to analyze the factors that determine whether or not the recommendations are adopted by countries.
A gallery of photos of the event is available here.
The video of the event is available here.
The audio of the event is available here.
For more information, please visit the OAS Website at www.oas.org.