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Election Observation

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2009

The late Samuel Huntington elaborated the theory of the three waves of democratisation, the latest of which was the events of 1989, which resulted in swift democratisation in east and central Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union. The wave affected not only the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe area, but Africa, Asia and Latin America. Regrettably, some countries have regressed, but others have become more democratic.

Clearly, time forbids any discussion in any detail of democratisation, elections, human rights, and good government. The Economist’s intelligence unit report divides Governments into full democracies—we are 23rd out of 27—flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. Many countries claim to be democratic, but Andrew Wilson entitled his recent book on the former Soviet Union, “Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World”.

We want democracy to be promoted and sustained. Whatever one’s definition of consolidated or full democracy, or whatever people think are the components of democracy, elections that meet international standards are integral to the process. Without elections, there is no real democracy—although I admit that there can be authoritarianism with elections—and there cannot be proper elections unless they are properly observed. One can pay great tribute to international organisations such as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the United Nations, which does much less in election observations having subcontracted its role, the European Union, the Organisation of American States, the African Union and some great non-governmental organisations on all continents. Those organisations, be they international or regional, or NGOs, contribute enormously to the process of democratisation.

Unfortunately, democratisation and election observation have been suffering as a result of two major threats. Russia, which as the Minister well knows does not have free and fair elections—I prefer to say that it does not meet international obligations—has embarked on a concerted attack on ODIHR. It wishes either to downgrade ODIHR or for it to have standards more like those of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which means spurious standards or no standards at all. That has been debilitating for ODIHR, which is constantly fighting off Russia and its many allies. In meetings of the OSCE, in ministerial and ambassadorial meetings in Vienna, and in any forum in which the Russians can do so, they try to embarrass ODIHR and its election observations. I headed an election observation mission to Russia. It was a flawed election, but the Russians moralise about how elections should properly be conducted.

That process culminated in the events of a year or so ago, when the Russians made it impossible for ODIHR to observe their presidential elections—in essence they told ODIHR that they did not want the organisation to be present. ODIHR said:

“The Russian Federation has created limitations that are not conducive to undertaking election observation in accordance with our mandate.”

By inviting ODIHR to the elections late, the Russians unilaterally deconstructed the organisation’s methodology, which is the best in the world. Its method is to be present two and a half months before the elections—it does not simply look at elections on the day. ODIHR also leaves people behind to look at the immediate post-election environment. Those things were was not possible.

Unfortunately, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly thought that that gave it an opportunity to shine, and the Council of Europe followed suit. Their joint report shows clearly why election observations by such parliamentary assemblies are shallow and why observations should not be carried out in such a way. They need ODIHR.

Looking at the situation from outside, I can see that it is not quite as bad as it was. Although the relationship between Russia and ODIHR is less bad, there is a second villain: the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, or, more specifically, its secretary-general, Spencer Oliver, and his staff, who were loyally picked without competition, and a number of senior Members of Parliaments of a number of countries. It is more debilitating to be attacked by a fellow OSCE institution. We expect the Russians to be obstreperous, but we should not expect it from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

I obtained a document from ODIHR, which was in essence sent by Spencer Oliver, which states:

“The Parliamentary Assembly, which has played the leading role in election monitoring since”

being told by the Swedish Foreign Minister that it is in charge of election observation,

“should clearly be placed in charge of OSCE election observations. ODIHR can and should, as foreseen in the”


“Cooperation Agreement, play a subordinate and supportive role.”

Since that time, the Parliamentary Assembly has been truly obstreperous—I have compiled a list of what it has been doing. I observed the parliamentary elections in Georgia last year and saw exactly what its observers were doing from close by. It clearly wants to supplant ODIHR as the principal organisation and reduce it to a supportive role, and it is colluding with the Russians to achieve that objective.

It is difficult enough to observe the elections, because the Governments who are being observed do not want to be observed. Their acts of fraud are becoming increasingly sophisticated, so observers have to be on the ball and they need a good methodology, as ODIHR has. ODIHR needs to work closely with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, but it cannot. There is an important role for the European Parliament and its election observation work, and for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. As I said, people need to be on the ground two and a half months before the elections. It is difficult to observe elections of perhaps 200, 250 or 300 people, but it is almost impossible when people have to watch their backs and fronts for people who are trying to destroy or marginalise them. Those are two of the major difficulties facing ODIHR: the Russians and their allies, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

I hope that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly recognises that the 1997 co-operation agreement and the authorisation on how to observe elections given by the Foreign Ministers are the basis on which it has invented a role for itself. Doing so in the face of the written evidence is fanciful and reflects a delusional approach to election observation. I hope that the Government and other democratic OSCE Governments will seriously stand up to the debilitation of ODIHR, which is a wonderful organisation.

Thirdly and controversially, the Foreign and Commonwealth has cropped up as a potential villain. I listed a number of organisations and countries that are undermining election observation, so one may ask why on earth I am adding the FCO to the list when it has been at the forefront of promoting democracy and elections that meet international standards, not only in OSCE states, but almost everywhere else. The FCO’s personnel and the people whom it appoints are of very high quality. I have observed people such as Audrey Glover, the former head of ODIHR, and Julian Peel Yates, who have headed elected observation missions; Brits who have been deputies to the heads of election observation missions; and long-term and short-term observers funded by the Foreign Office. Over the years, we have provided 10 per cent. of all the observers requested by ODIHR following a needs assessment mission. They are skilled, trained, experienced personnel—policy analysts, ex-Members of Parliament, academics—who are incredibly well qualified and have attended training sessions organised by Electoral Reform International Services.

So why criticise the Foreign Office? From a number of sources abroad, I gather that plans are afoot, and that the Treasury, obviously, is leading the charge. The declining value of the pound and increased UN peacekeeping commitments are having a knock-on effect on the FCO’s commitment to democratisation, human rights, good governance, elections and election observation. It is truly astonishing that the FCO has been put in such a situation, which is not its natural role. I have heard that the 10 per cent. quota could well be abandoned and that secondees could be withdrawn. I leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) to expand on that, as he is far more knowledgeable about it than I am.

All that is being done behind closed doors. Who has been consulted? Have Members of Parliament or the OSCE assembly been consulted? I think not. It is a back-room job and the consequences could be disastrous. As I have said, the bureaucratic leadership of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly can be coped with eventually, but the Foreign Office inspired by the Treasury is a different kettle of fish. All the good work done could be dismantled, and the vacuum could well be filled by those great democracies Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and certainly Russia, because the numbers are increasing. I am sure that my hon. Friend will elaborate on that, as well.

I am informed that the cuts will bite in the next financial year, which begins three weeks from now, although I hope that the monitoring of forthcoming elections in Macedonia, Moldova and Montenegro will be secure. After that, we are out of the business. We can be certain that others with the necessary financial resources, such as the Russians, will fill in. What will happen to those going through difficult Treasury-led reassessments? I could name a number of countries in a parlous state that might well say, “Well, if the Brits have pulled out, why can’t we?” That would be desperate, and it must be avoided. Otherwise, we will move from being at the top of the premiership of contributors to democratisation around the world to the old Beazer Homes league, or to Sunday league football in Walsall. The Foreign Office and the UK are ill-fitted to drop down the league quite so quickly.

I urge the Minister to be open with us and to tell us the sources of the current crisis; perhaps I have got it wrong. What could the consequences be? What are the Foreign Office’s options? What consultation has been held with the OSCE and, especially, with ODIHR and with Members of Parliament? What is the cost of sending observers to strange parts for the FCO? The people who go are trained by Electoral Reform International Services and other organisations. Off they go, those skilled people. They do not stay in four-star hotels, they do not receive a large per diem and they do not travel in style. They are genuine people trying hard to serve their country and democratisation.

Will the FCO or the Government find the money to fill the vacuum? I do not mean just until the end of the financial year. I do not want to irritate the Department for International Development, but it is strongly into peacekeeping and democracy building; it even funds election observations, and its budget is larger than the FCO’s. Its major role is developmental and elections are an essential component of the development process. However, my concern is that we are not just dealing with a cost-cutting exercise vis-à-vis the OSCE. What will happen to EU election observation, UN democracy-building and the Commonwealth? Perhaps those will be spared. I suspect that some will not.

I conclude with three very good quotes:

“I am unapologetic about a mission to help democracy spread through the world”.

“Most democracies that fail do so during the first few electoral cycles… Democracy needs to be nursed through its early years”.

“As a world leader in aid, we can ensure that aid supports democracy and good governance”.

Those are not my words; they were uttered by the Foreign Secretary last year. His Department has now threatened to cut much more of its budget. If that happens, it will be detrimental—indeed, despicable. I have been informed by people from all over the OSCE region who cannot believe that it is happening. I know that in the current economic crisis, everyone is hurting, but the annual cost of sending observers to the OSCE is almost peanuts. In any economic downturn, it is fledgling democracies that need support, because they are the most vulnerable. We do not want a reversion to the old order in countries in eastern and central Europe.

Even consolidated democracies are not immune to pressure at the current time. I estimate that present annual budget spending by the FCO on election observation in the OSCE is not much more than £1 million. Are we risking our hard-built reputation for that? Surely not.

I shall be brief, as I know that the Minister has a lot to say. I endorse a considerable amount of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said. The British Government’s commitment to the OSCE over the years has been absolute. Britain has been one of the major contributors to the OSCE, both in its founding days and more recently, although there has been a reduction in the number of UK-financed secondees to the OSCE family in recent years. From some 113 people seconded directly to the OSCE in 2004, we are down to 14 this year, plus a few more in other areas.

That is regrettable. If this country is not at the forefront of saying that the OSCE must be made to work, we might find that others took that view. Some 67 per cent. of the OSCE’s international staff are secondees. It relies on countries such as Britain to provide high-quality people to make it work. My right hon. Friend made a point about election monitoring and the importance of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which he rightly calls the jewel in the OSCE crown. It would be a tragedy if our Government withdrew their commitment to filling 10 per cent. of placements in ODIHR.

It would be equally regrettable, however, if we were to divert other secondees. Two posts filled by UK nationals illustrate that problem. At present, Stephen Young is the head of the military monitoring operation in Georgia. After the events of last year, no Foreign Office Minister is going to stand up and say that that operation does not matter. Having a high-quality UK staffer filling that post is vital to our national interest. I could mention many other people, but one such is Henry Bolton, the senior border issues adviser at the OSCE’s conflict prevention centre. His work touches on the situation in Afghanistan, where we have vital national strategic interests. It would be crazy to lose those secondees.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about election monitoring: we need to keep the secondees there. My plea to the Minister is not to let the election monitoring secondees disappear or accommodate that by getting rid of secondees to the OSCE more generally, as that would be foolish for Britain’s national interest.

I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on securing what is a genuinely important debate. The promotion of democracy continues to be a high priority for the Government and, as is clear, a topic of utmost interest to Members on both sides of the House. That is not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is fundamentally in our interests, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) has pointed out.

Democracy allows competing interests and grievances to be channelled through politics rather than through violence, and it remains the best investment in prosperity and stability. It is also the best insurance policy that we have against famine and war. Spreading human rights and democratic accountability is integral to what we do, whether in the functioning of international organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United Nations and the European Union, in our work for peace in the middle east, or in our consular work around the world. Such work includes support for prisoners facing execution, for the victims of forced marriage and regarding children who have been taken abroad illegally by a parent.

According to global polling by Gallup, eight out of 10 people want to live in a democracy. That figure is closer to nine out of 10 in Africa. When a country such as Afghanistan, which has not had an election for 30 years, can inspire 8 million people—70 per cent. of the electorate—to vote, and when countries such as Indonesia and Turkey are finding their own way of marrying democracy and Islam, it is right and necessary to assert the universality of democratic values. That is especially necessary when we consider that, in some parts of the world, the march towards democracy has slowed, or has even gone into reverse, and that the marriage of economic and political freedom has been questioned. We have heard as much talk of democratic recession as of democratic growth.

My right hon. Friend raised a number of concerns about Russia, where there has been a shrinking of democratic space, including restrictions on civil society and the ability to protest. Certainly, the situation in the north Caucasus remains fragile and vulnerable to human rights violations. We raise our concerns with the Russians regularly, and our most recent bilateral human rights consultation was in January. We are particularly concerned about the lack of media freedom in Russia, as a strong, independent media is essential to fostering and protecting democratic freedoms there, as elsewhere. It is a reality that journalists have been subject to pressure from the authorities and that many practise self-censorship of their work, which is of genuine concern. Russia must be clear that its membership of the OSCE carries a wide range of responsibilities and obligations, and we will continue to make that point to our Russian counterparts.

We recognise that human rights and democracy are a work in progress, whoever we are and in whatever country we are, including this country. However, we have a role to play in promoting democratic values, and we devote substantial resources to that, as the annual human rights report by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office shows. For example, we have completed a project with the Department for International Development to develop the capacity of political parties in Zambia to understand their responsibilities and obligations in the electoral process. That project has helped to raise the confidence of the public and of political parties in the credibility of that important election process. We also support election monitoring across the world through the OSCE, the European Union and other international organisations. By monitoring elections, we discourage fraud and voter intimidation, and we fundamentally increase voter confidence. Election observation can be a key tool in conflict prevention and in post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The promotion of democracy is not just about elections, important though they are. It is also about the work that we do to give a voice to civil society, to secure freedom of expression and to enable people to demand change. It is about building the rule of law, about the accountability of the judiciary, the military and the police, and about the capability of political parties. That is why we strongly support the work of the OSCE and its Office for Human Rights and Democratic Institutions. Since the early 1990s, that organisation has carried out a wide range of vital work in support of human rights and democratisation in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, at the centre of which are its election observation activities. I share my right hon. Friend’s high regard for that organisation, and I certainly appreciate the key role that he and other hon. Members have played. We regard ODIHR as the foremost authority in this field, and we have taken on board its advice in the past. Following the recommendations of OSCE observers at our general election in 2005, we amended UK electoral law to allow election observers to be present in polling stations.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that ODIHR and its election observation activities have come under attack from Russia and her allies in recent years. Efforts have been made to limit the scope of ODIHR’s activities and the size of its monitoring teams, thus limiting its effectiveness, which is a cause for concern. We were very concerned that Russia effectively barred ODIHR from monitoring its last set of parliamentary and presidential elections, and we and our EU partners have made that point very clear. We are committed to working with like-minded OSCE partners to resist any further attempts to dilute ODIHR’s activities, and we are aware of the differences of opinion between ODIHR and the Secretariat of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly over the leadership of election observation missions. Clearly there is scope for both parliamentarians and ODIHR to play a role, but our view is that neither side should lead the other. That is made clear in the 1997 agreement between the Parliamentary Assembly and ODIHR, and in the 2006 ministerial decision on election observation. We have repeatedly urged both sides to work in partnership and to maintain the reputation for objective, thorough and professional election observation that they have established.

I understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the influence of the Parliamentary Assembly’s Secretariat on OSCE election observation. It is not in our interests for the effectiveness of OSCE election observation to be undermined. On the contrary, we support any measure that is geared towards strengthening its effectiveness. Ultimately, however, this is an issue for the Parliamentary Assembly to resolve internally. OSCE-participating states do not have the power to intervene in Parliamentary Assembly matters. On my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the UK’s contribution towards OSCE election monitoring, I should like to reassure him that we will send UK observers to the forthcoming elections in Macedonia, Montenegro and Moldova. It remains our intention to continue sending observers to future election observation missions, and we are exploring ways of doing so.

On our secondees to the OSCE, it has become clear that the UK’s share of the costs of international peacekeeping operations will be higher in 2009-10 than in previous years. That is caused principally by two factors, one of which is new peacekeeping activity, which reflects a positive trend. One example is the move in the UN mission in Darfur towards a full-strength operation. The second factor is exchange rate changes. We are billed by the UN and EU in US dollars and in euros, which has clearly had an impact on our costs.

At a time when demand for UN peacekeepers is increasing—the number of UN-deployed troops has increased fivefold in the past eight years—we have to meet our obligations and commitments to the UN and other international organisations. The Government are therefore reviewing the range of their conflict-prevention, peacekeeping and stabilisation activities as part of an annual exercise to make decisions about activity in the coming year. The increasing cost of international peacekeeping means that we need to prioritise carefully the money that we spend on other UK programmes, including secondments for international election observation. We are working to ensure that our conflict-related activity is rigorously prioritised in light of changing demands and the requirement that we meet our share of the common costs of international peacekeeping activity. Those decisions will have an impact on the amount of money available to support election observation beyond 31 March.

That is what my written speech says. I am not the Minister with direct responsibility for this area, but I am taken by, and conscious of, the arguments that have been put forward this afternoon. The amount spent on our election observation mission is about £600,000, and I think that we need to consider this area carefully. We are all affected by the impact of international economic affairs, fluctuations in the exchange rate and the increase in peacekeeping operations, but I take the point that our self-interest and international standing are both fundamentally affected by our contribution to international election observation. I have received a strong message from today’s debate, which I shall take to the FCO and discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who is responsible for these matters. I hope that we can find a way forward that will address the concerns that have been raised today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.