Media Center



February 11, 2013 - Washington, DC

This year the OAS is commemorating half a century of electoral observation in the Americas. Since 1962, we have observed more than 200 elections the length and breadth of the region, establishing electoral observation as one of the most appreciated activities of the Organization of American States. So much so, in fact, that it forms the subject of one of the chapters in our Inter-American Democratic Charter. We have traveled to 26 of the 34 OAS member states, deploying more than 3,000 electoral observers.

It is important to point out that electoral observation missions have not been deployed solely in politically troubled times. Most of the elections we have observed took place under perfectly normal conditions. For that reason, we prefer to say that electoral observations help to cement Latin American democracy and not to address crises or problems that may arise, even though at the time they may often be accorded more importance. One of the cornerstones of the democratic system is precisely the legitimacy derived from the fact that the political process has its origins in free, transparent, and inclusive elections.

That is what we are celebrating today: the joint effort of the countries of the Hemisphere to have better elections and, hence, better democracies.

The electoral missions began in February, 1962, in Costa Rica. That one was followed that same year by a mission to the Dominican Republic. At that time, the structure of OAS electoral missions had still to be defined. In many cases, the Secretary General dispatched well known figures, such as former presidents Eduardo Plaza, Misael Pastrana Borrero, and Fernando Belaúnde Terry to observe elections. In other words, those chosen were essentially famous and important people who did what they could to observe elections. There weren't that many Electoral Observation Missions.

In 1972, a big step forward was made when the Secretary General improved regulation of the way in which the Permanent Council could dispatch an electoral observation mission. Later on, in 1985, we adopted the system in force today, under which the Secretary General dispatches missions at the request of the member states. That modus operandi was later incorporated into the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

The number of missions has also greatly increased. Between 1962 and 1989, observation missions covered 25 elections in 10 OAS member states. Those first generation missions were what today we might refer to as political, symbolic, on-the-spot monitoring by international witnesses to the electoral process. We should point out, too, that that era was characterized by a predominance of authoritarian systems in the region, so that the practice of observing elections was not yet embedded across the board.

The end of the dictatorships ushered in a renewed surge of electoral observation missions, which became a core feature of transitions to democracy in the Hemisphere. These "second generation" missions, so to speak, began to acquire a recognizable structure, size, and lead role. They ceased to be a mere presence in attendance and became more sharply focused on the quality of electoral processes.

Thus, the Electoral Observation Missions of the OAS have evolved in sync with changes in the region. Whereas, in the early years, they focused essentially on possible fraud, today they address a series of issues with respect to access, equity, gender perspectives, campaign financing, media access, and the transparency of the electoral process. In many cases, they are preceded by support for the country's electoral institutions.

The new provisions of the Inter-American Democratic Charter constitute a milestone in the sense that they also provide for longer-term missions that can verify the quality of the whole process, work together with electoral bodies, and not just focus on observation on election day. Our mission in Paraguay today is an example of such a mission. Indeed, we have had a significant number of missions of this type, which start their work one or two months prior to election day.

Thanks to all these recent developments, we now have tools and strict methodologies for more accurate observation. That opens up numerous opportunities and affords us a much better grasp of ongoing shortcomings, as well as progress made, in electoral processes.

I believe it is important, at this stage, to pause and reflect on our electoral missions, because it is undoubtedly true that today's elections in our region are a cut above those we witnessed when we began this work. When staff members in our Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO) are invited to observe elections in other parts of the world, for example, they often return baffled by the numerous shortcomings in those elections compared to ours: defects that ours probably also had 40 or 50 years back.

Nowadays few question the quality of the electoral process on election day. Discussion focuses, rather, on conditions surrounding the elections, the State's role in them, the different types of financing available to different candidates: all of which have a bearing on more than just the outcome of the elections.

Thus, what brings us together today is the need to assess what we have accomplished and see what still needs to be done to enhance the quality of elections. We have also made great strides in this field, certifying to some extent the quality of professional electoral services. We need to provide better counseling to electoral services and to see whether those provisions in the Inter-American Democratic Charter referring to electoral missions can point the way to broader and more complex contributions we may now be in a position to make to electoral processes.

For that reason, I am thrilled to welcome the panel of experts who today will assist us with these reflections. Let me briefly mention who they are:

Joining us today is Elizabeth Spehar, who, as they say in my country, "needs no introduction," because she was Director of the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy and I met her when she was facing a particularly daunting task, namely creating from scratch an electoral roll in Haiti that eventually registered 3,450,000 people. Thus, she not only has ties to our Organization. She is also linked with today's best efforts to develop electoral observation. As I said, she was the Director of the UPD, the precursor of today's OAS Secretariat for Political Affairs. Now she is Director of the Americas and Europe Division of the Department of Political Affairs at the United Nations General Secretariat.

Also joining us is Robert Pastor, Director of the Center for North American Studies and Co-Director of American University's Center for Democracy and Election Management. All of us remember him during the more difficult era of electoral observation, when undoubtedly the major electoral processes were associated with crises in the region, in which the OAS not only had to participate but also bore responsibility–as it still does today–for legitimizing to some extent the election that had taken place.

With us today, too, will be Patrick Merloe, Principal Specialist and Director of the Electoral Programs of the National Democratic Institute.

And naturally, with us also is our Ambassador, the Permanent Representative of Guyana, Bayney Karran, who knows a great deal about this subject. We have done extensive work in this area in the Permanent Council and his country has received a number of fairly decisive observation missions. So we expect him to voice the views of the users of the system, who are none other than the member states whose electoral processes are observed by this Organization as objectively as possible.

I welcome them to today's meeting. I would like to thank our Assistant Secretary General, Albert Ramdin, and the Secretary for Political Affairs, Kevin Casas Zamora (whose Secretariat includes DECO), for their presence here today, along with the many ambassadors to the OAS I see here, too. Greetings and welcome to this meeting.

Thank you very much.