Assistant Secretary General Speech


October 21, 2015 - New York

Mr. Jeffrey Feltman, United Nations Under-Secretary- General for Political Affairs and Focal Point for electoral assistance;

Mr. Craig Jenness, UN-Electoral Assistant Division Director;

Mr. Khabele Matlosa, Director of Political Affairs, African Union;

Mr. Michael Georg Link, Director, OSCE/ODIHR;

Ms. Ana Gomes, Member of European Parliament;

Mr. Patrick Merloe, Senior Associate and Director of Electoral Programs, National Democratic Institute;

Ambassador Mary Ann Peters, CEO, The Carter Center;

Special Guests;

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is my pleasure to be here today at the United Nations’ headquarters, addressing a few words to the representatives of the organizations that have endorsed the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation. This is a special occasion, because we have gathered here to commemorate the 10th year anniversary of this Declaration and express our renewed commitment towards the principles spelled out in the DOP, as we sometimes refer to it. Perhaps one of the most remarkable achievements of this last decade is that the DOP has become the mandatory reference for professional, rigorous and credible election observation. I would like to begin by commending you all for keeping this Declaration alive through your continuous efforts to translate the principles of the DOP into concrete actions for the strengthening of democracy worldwide.

We were all reminded that as we celebrate the progress made during these ten years, we must also be mindful of the challenges that lie ahead and discuss them as a “DOP Community” since; nearly all of these challenges require our collective response.

The Organization of American States has a long history conducting electoral observation, which dates back to 1962 when the Organization first deployed an Electoral Observation Mission to Costa Rica. Since then, approximately 228 Electoral Observation Missions have been deployed and more than then thousand international observers have been present in almost all of our 34 Member States to witness some of the region’s most critical elections. As the DOP stipulates, OAS Electoral Observation Missions can only de deployed by the government’s invitation. It is a source of pride for our Organization that today, most countries in the region have widely acknowledged that inviting international observers to witness their elections is an important hallmark of transparency, accountability and commitment towards democratic principles.

In the five decades the OAS has been observing elections in the Americas, the region has changed significantly. As our democracies mature, OAS Electoral Observation Missions have evolved also. Initially, our first years of election observation were characterized by a main focus on observing irregularities and preventing fraud on Election Day. Since the signing of the DOP in 2005, today we have come to understand that an adequate assessment of the electoral process must include an evaluation of all the stages of the electoral cycle: the pre-electoral period, the day of the election and the post electoral period. This new model for election observation, also referred to in the DOP, has drastically changed the way we conceptualize election observation and how we put it into practice. Essentially, we went from placing the focus on the “technicalities” of Election Day to a more integral assessment that places the focus on the “quality” of the electoral process.

The approval in 2001 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter was also pivotal to the evolution of the OAS’ approach to electoral observation methods. This Charter emphasizes the commitment of OAS member States to strive for higher levels of social, political and economic development by assigning a fundamental value to electoral democracy as the only valid political system to achieve these goals. The Charter dedicates an entire Chapter to Electoral Observation Missions, recognizing it as a tool for strengthening democratic institutions and consolidating democracy throughout the region.

It is no coincidence that one year after the signing of the Declaration of Principles, the OAS developed its first standardized methodology for election observation which for the first time defined the attributes of a democratic election establishing not only the conceptual framework that is used to observe electoral process but also the guidelines and procedures for organizing and deploying an Electoral Observation Mission.

In recent years, at the OAS, we have been making significant efforts to improve our election observation methods by developing new technical tools or “methodologies” specifically designed to gather information that allow our Electoral Observation Missions to assess the conditions for the full exercise of civil and political rights of citizens during the electoral process.

It bears noting that the development of these technical tools has been accompanied by a strong commitment to make our Missions more inclusive, diverse and representative of the social makeup of our countries. Indeed, these methodologies incorporate new institutional guidelines to diversify our Missions. We have made significant progress in involving minorities such as Afro-descendants and Indigenous people as technical experts and election observers in the Missions and, since 2014 we have had for the first time people with disabilities as electoral observers. Our quest for greater diversity and inclusion naturally includes gender parity within the observer teams. Within recent years the composition of the teams has been a ratio of about 45% of women vs. 55% of male observers.

Another paradigm-shift in the way we traditionally viewed election observation that is closely related with the coming into existence of the DOP is the concept of “electoral integrity” and the specific mention to election observation as tool to assess it and improve it. Our Missions have undertaken this responsibility by incorporating methodologies to gather key information to assess electoral integrity, such as campaign financing. This methodology allows our Missions to evaluate the degree to which the campaign financing systems promote equity and transparency among the competitors.

The DOP also reminds us of the fact that Electoral Observation Missions are not ends in themselves and they ought not to be limited to the deployment of observers to gather information about an electoral process. Rather, this exercise ought to go further as “when appropriate”—as per the stipulation of the DOP-- issue recommendations which aim at improving the electoral process. The DOP tells us that we should be pro-active in our statements using our findings to propose the changes that are required to improve the electoral process before the next election takes place.
However, we must be conscious of the fact that without proper follow-up, these recommendations are left to a declaration of intentions, rather than a blueprint for improving electoral processes. Taking this into account, our department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO) has taken important steps to improve the tools and mechanisms to follow up on the implementation of these recommendations by Member States. The first step in this direction was the recent launching of the OAS Electoral Observation Missions Database, an online tool that systematizes the information of our Missions, including the reports and recommendations issued by our Missions since 1962 to the present.
I would like to leave you with some reflections on the key challenges that from my perspective still lie ahead of us:

1. Financial challenges to electoral observation: In recent years, organizations that observe elections have been experiencing a significant cut back in their financial resources, whether due to donor exhaustion or a recalibration of priorities within the organizations.

2. The lack of a clear understanding of role of electoral observers and the scope and limitations of their work: Quite commonly, observers are faced with criticism that derives from a clash between the expectations of the general public, which may wrongly consider electoral observers as the main actors responsible for guaranteeing “free and fair” electoral process. We all know that in reality this is primarily a responsibility that must be fulfilled by States.

3. Electoral fraud: this has become a more complex phenomenon and more difficult to tackle down. For this reason, one of our most important challenges will continue to be finding ways to improve the technical tools we have to observe, not only fraudulent practices and irregularities, but also all the factors that lead to an uneven playing field for the competitors in the electoral race. This must be combined with our renewed-commitment to find appropriate mechanisms of coordination between international observers and local actors to follow up on the effective implementation of the recommendations issue by Electoral Observation Missions. This will require a permanent dialogue, but also the definition of concrete action plans that must be followed in the period between elections.

4. Not all international observers comply with the principles stated in the DOP and this needs to be understood by the larger audience. We need to continue promoting the Declaration of Principles as “THE standard” with which professional election observation must comply. This is a good opportunity to also highlight that the DOP meetings and this spontaneously founded “DOP community” should continue to act as a peer review mechanism to ensure that the Declaration continues to be the “meaningful” instrument it is today for many years to come.

Notwithstanding these challenges, the Electoral Observer Missions continue to be a flagship mechanism of the Organization of American States. In the past two years alone, our Missions have observed about 30 electoral processes. The sheer number is testament to the fact that the Electoral Observation Missions are relevant to the countries and indicates that they understand the value of our program, recognizing that our Electoral Observation Missions are key technical and political tools for democratic consolidation throughout the hemisphere.